Cloquet's Millen returns home to coach Minnesota Wilderness
When Corey Millen heard rumblings that the Cloquet-based Minnesota Wilderness might move to the North American Hockey League, he asked his league contacts if it was true.
Once he received confirmation, Millen didn't take long to apply for the head coaching position of the team based in the town where he grew up and where he once dominated the Northland high school hockey scene.
The Wilderness, with Millen on the bench and as general manager, make their NAHL debut tonight against Odessa in the four-night NAHL Showcase at Blaine, Minn. The 1982 Cloquet graduate, Minnesota Gophers star, two-time Olympian and eight-year NHL veteran is happy to return to his roots after being away nearly 25 years.
"I'm familiar with the league and I've been sticking around to get back into the game on a more serious level for years," said Millen, who lived in Alaska the past 11 years and spent two stints coaching the NAHL's Avalanche. "Alaska doesn't have a serious hockey situation, so I inquired about (the Wilderness job) when I heard they were probably moving into the NAHL."
Millen and his son, Luke, a freshman at Cloquet High School, are living with his parents, while his two daughters finish high school in Anchorage, Alaska.
Though the Wilderness won the past three Superior International Junior Hockey League titles, this team has little to no connection to that squad. It's a new league, with new owners, coaching staff and players.
"Everything is different except for the name," Millen said.
Included on the 25-player roster are two Superior High School graduates: defenseman Brett Bukowski and forward Dan Litchke. Like most of the league's players, the 6-foot-0, 180-pound Bukowski is hoping to land a spot at a Division I or Division III college.
"This is my last shot in the league to get some opportunities for college," he said. "The Showcase is a big thing for everybody to get looks from different colleges, whether they are DI or DIII. So that's definitely my goal."
Millen is hopeful many of his players will receive college interest.
"These kids are pretty highly motivated -- they all have dreams and aspirations to play Division I hockey," he said. "It's a high-quality league. Whether it's Division I or Division III, most of these kids will probably play somewhere."
The Wilderness players come from all corners of the continent -- and globe. Kasimir Kaskisuo is from Finland, Tyler Lazarek and Jakob Romo come from California, Michael Covach and Frank Oplinger hail from Pennsylvania and Dominik Tiffels is from Cologne, Germany -- one of Millen's stops following an NHL career with the New York Rangers, Los Angeles Kings, New Jersey Devils, Dallas Stars and Calgary Flames.
"It's an international league, they come from all over," Millen said.
Bukowski's roommate, Ryan McNeely, is from Scottsdale, Ariz., and played in Fairbanks, Alaska, last year. Bukowski says despite the different backgrounds, the team is bonding together and improving. The Wilderness recently swept the Minnesota Magicians in a pair of exhibition games.
"We have a good group of guys from all over," Bukowski said. "We had a good training camp and played well in our last exhibition game. If we come out and execute our game plan, we should do pretty well."
The Wilderness' home opener is Friday, Sept. 27 vs. the Fairbanks Ice Dogs at Northwoods Arena.