-David Griswold, La Crosse Tribune
Michelle Bryant didn’t give Coulee Region Chill coach AJ Degenhardt a second option when they sat down before the season to discuss the hockey team’s goals.
Entering her third season as the team’s owner, Bryant was clamoring for just a taste of the postseason after coming up short the previous two years.
“A year ago, when I sat down with AJ and (assistant coach) Lincoln (Nguyen), I told them that missing the playoffs isn’t an option,” said Bryant, whose Chill missed the postseason by just one point in 2014.
Coulee Region wasted little time ensuring that wouldn’t happen again this year.
The Chill locked up a spot in the NAHL playoffs in February — their first postseason berth since 2011-12 — but proceeded to drop eight of their last 14 games, including three straight in the playoffs, to end their postseason run in the opening round.
Though it was a disappointing finish for the Chill, who had a 2-0 lead over the Minnesota Wilderness in the best-of-five opening-round series, it was still another step in the right direction.
“We still have a couple of goals for this next year,” Bryant said. “We’re focusing on the second half of the season. We had such a great record in the first half of the season, but in the second half they kind of took the foot off the gas pedal. You have to keep that foot on the gas pedal and keep that momentum going.”
The Chill opened the season 20-7-5 before ending it 30-26-9.
“They had a very good season,” Bryant said. “Going to the playoffs and having a few Division I commits … it’s a great year and we’re really excited about it.”
There’s very little offseason in the NAHL — the Chill host tryouts in late May — but by Bryant’s standards, her offseason schedule will be somewhat drab.
Last year, Bryant spent time negotiating contracts to find the Chill a home. She also brought in an entirely new team she acquired from Flint, Mich.
Bryant introduced the La Crosse Freeze — a Tier 3 junior hockey team — to compete in the NA3HL.
And it came a year after her primary offseason focus was on hiring Degenhardt as the Chill’s next coach.
“This year will be kind of nice because we won’t have a ton of change,” Bryant said. “We can focus on our core business and driving additional fans to our games.”
The Chill averaged 608 people at 30 home games throughout the season, which is up from the first season Bryant took over (564). In their first home playoff game, they had one of their largest crowds of the season (817).
“That first night we had a great crowd,” Bryant said. “That second night, we didn’t promote it a ton because we were hoping to (have won the series on Friday night), but it was still a good turnout.”
The Freeze, in their inaugural year, averaged between 150 and 175 people, which Bryant said is middle of the pack when compared to other Tier 3 teams.
“For us, it was a fun year,” Bryant said.
So much fun that she didn’t want to see the season end, especially after the Chill took the first two games of their opening-round series with the Wilderness.
HOME SWEET HOME: It was rather abrupt but the Chill began a new era with Green Island Ice Arena as their new home. After spending their first four seasons at the OmniCenter in Onalaska, the Chill found a new home in La Crosse less than two weeks before the regular season kicked off.
“It was kind of a last-minute move, and we were able to make it work,”Bryant said. “There were some renovations we had to make within the facility to house the Chill, but it was great. It’s nice to manage the facility that your team is in and the people came out and supported us.
“I think the players like it a lot better because the seating is a lot closer to the ice … We’ve enjoyed it and the city of La Crosse has been great to us.”
Bryant said it’s a one-year contract with an option for four additional one-year renewals.
“We are in process right now,” Bryant said. “It’s gone really well. It’s been a good experience.”
PLACING PLAYERS: Four Chill players committed to NCAA Division I programs this season. Adam Carlson (Mercyhurst College), Adam Lovick (Bemidji State), Brogan Rafferty (Quinnipiac University) and Richard Zehnal (Western Michigan) have all found homes at the Division I level. Bryant added that they've also placed a few players into Division III programs.
“I think we’ve put a really good product on the ice and I think the kids really developed this year,” Bryant said. “We had some D-I and D-III commits, so that’s a really good year for us.”
FREEZE ARE HERE TO STAY: Bryant was happy with the reception the Freeze received from the community in its inaugural season.
The Tier 3 junior hockey team finished third in its division and qualified for the postseason, so it wasn’t much of a discussion as to whether or not the team would return
“Oh yeah. Absolutely,” Bryant said when asked if the team will be back in La Crosse. “I think it went really well this year. … A good portion of our team will be back next year because we had a really young team. All of them had a really good experience, so they want to come back, which is great to see.”