ONALASKA — Coulee Region Chill players filed into the OmniCenter on Tuesday afternoon to clean out lockers, meet with coaches and say goodbyes.
Jerseys and uniform socks were neatly piled up and ready for storage. Equipment bags and sticks lined the hallway outside the dressing room.
The ice on Rink 1 — where the franchise’s first season in Onalaska had come to an end the previous night — was already taken down, replaced by bare concrete.
Coulee Region fell one game short of a South Division playoff title and opportunity to advance to the NAHL Robertson Cup Championship with a 3-1 loss to Bismarck.
Disappointed as they were, coach Garrett Strot, co-owner Mark Motz and returning players could look back on a successful season.
The team moved from Mason City, Iowa, where it had been the North Iowa Outlaws, in the spring of 2010.
The relocation to Onalaska was a business decision for Motz and his partners, but it was also a leap of faith. There had never been a junior hockey team in the area, after all.
Would the Chill capture fans’ imagination like the La Crosse Loggers Northwoods League baseball team? Or would hockey slip under the radar?
The Chill averaged 776 fans per game, 17th out of 26 teams in the league.
Motz said he was encouraged by Monday’s energetic playoff crowd of 928 — considering the team had less than 48 hours to promote it — and would like to see that continue next fall.
“Attendance numbers were average,” Motz said. “You look at last night’s crowd and would like it to be that way every game. It took a while for people to see what junior hockey was all about.”
Building a team
Strot ran his finger down a roster sheet Tuesday, listing off players who are eligible to return in 2011-12. Then he stopped, noting that the roster was dated Aug. 30, 2010, and 22 of the 25 players were on the team until the end.
“That’s the biggest thing; we were one game from the Robertson Cup with the same group from day one,” Strot said. “I don’t want it to be a revolving door here. A lot of it is scouting and getting guys you like. It is a developmental league, and we don’t want to trade just to trade. You go through a slump and sometimes the best thing to do is to fight through as a team.”
Coulee Region finished second in the Central Division (33-20-5), one point short of a regular-season title.
The Chill beat Owatonna 3-1 in the first round of the playoffs, then lost a back-and-forth series to Bismarck in five games.
Strot said he was optimistic about his team when it headed to Blaine, Minn., in mid-September for the season-opening NAHL Showcase.
Even though the North Iowa team won just 15 games in 2009-10 under Strot, he saw a solid core and knew the team had added legitimate talent.
“After we came back from the showcase, I believed we were going to compete all year,” Strot said. “And we did. We started off well and were pretty consistent, which is important in a long season. I really liked the group we had, and we believed in them.”
Forward Zac Frischmon led the team in scoring with 65 points (31 goals-34 assists). He committed to NCAA Division I Mercyhurst in March. Goaltender Paul Moberg and defenseman Mike McDonald signed with Division I Air Force in November.
Forwards Lucas Dillon, Micky Knox, Berkley Scott, defenseman David Mylrea and forward/ defenseman Scott Bell have run out of junior eligibility.
The Chill have 15 players who are eligible to return next season. Some still could sign with college programs or move to another junior league like the USHL.
Roster losses notwithstanding, Strot can build around the likes of goaltender Aaron Davis (11-4-1, 3.13 GAA), forwards Connor Gaarder (61 points), David Ripple (42 points), Chris Hughes (30 points) and Jake Useldinger (27 points) and defensemen Matt Blomquist (34 points), Eric Drapluk (27 points), Ben Gislason (plus-14) and Andrew Pitts (five points).
“We have big shoes to fill,” Gislason said. “I said it last night to the vets on behalf of the rookies that they were awesome, every last one of them. Next year when it’s our turn to lead, we need to take a page from what they did.”
Pitts said the team’s first-year players learned what it takes to win in junior hockey and will carry it over when they return in August.
“You’ve got to play all 60 (minutes),” Pitts said. “Anything less and you’re going to be in a dogfight all the time. You’ve got to sell out, do whatever it takes.”
Building a franchise
Motz said while attendance numbers could have been better, he isn’t discouraged by the community’s response to the team.
“I don’t blame anybody but myself,” Motz said. “We needed to get out into the community more, but we just didn’t have time. It was May, June, July and August (2010) from the time we moved here to the start of the season.”
Motz plans on reviewing everything from facility improvements to between-periods promotions to group sales before next year. He pointed to the Bismarck franchise, which led the Central Division with an average attendance of 1,210.
“They’ve got it figured out, but they’ve been doing it for more than 10 years,” Motz said.
Motz said he expects the Chill, who signed a five-year lease with the OmniCenter, are off to a good start financially. The franchise operates on a calendar-year budget, meaning the 2010 ledger sheet was tied to accounts from the North Iowa operation.
“We showed a small profit,” Motz said. “Fiscally, we were half Mason City and half OmniCenter. Once we see the entire 2011 year, based on what I have seen I think we’ll be fine.”