Hockey star comes home
CLOQUET - There's a guy, a hockey guy, who hadn't seen Corey Millen since his Big Lake Golf Club wedding reception something like 20 years ago. It was exciting news to this person that Millen was coming home.
So it is with our favorite sons. We love to know they come home.
Millen, 49, joined the junior hockey Minnesota Wilderness as their head coach earlier this offseason. For the Wilderness, it's been an offseason of change, featuring a new logo (think Minnesota Wild, only there is no affiliation between the teams) and a new league (joining the North American Hockey League).
But in hockey terms, there's no doubt that Millen's return to the local bench is the most noteworthy of the changes.
"It was a no-brainer for me," said Millen, a veteran NAHL coach who has spent the past several years in Alaska, with his wife, Kelly, their two daughters and a son. "My wheels have been turning to get back into the hockey mix and if I was going to do it, now was the time."
Following his graduation in 1982 after a storied career at Cloquet High School, the small (5-foot-7) but skilled center embarked on a decorated career at the University of Minnesota, followed by a 14-year professional career that included 90 goals in the National Hockey League and a Stanley Cup Finals appearance with the LA Kings in 1993.
Millen's homecoming began when he heard the Wilderness were considering a move from Canada's Superior International Junior Hockey League to the 24-team NAHL.
"I got a tip the team was going to move to the NAHL and I made some calls to see if it was true," Millen said. "It's something I'd been thinking about for a few years. We've been up in Alaska for 10 years, since I retired, and I'd been thinking about trying to get back to the Midwest."
The decision to follow his hockey heart was simple -- "there's not a lot of [available] hockey jobs," he said -- but it was not without complexities. His children are all high school age and his wife is from Alaska. His family is going to remain in Alaska.
"I have some things going on here [in Alaska] since I retired, some business; we're also immersed in the hockey association here," he said, "but I'm going to be making the move. It's not ideal, but it's something we're going to work through."
Millen, familiar with the NAHL for a stint coaching the Alaska Avalanche in Wasilla, Alaska, is already on the job for the Wilderness, having worked the player draft earlier this spring. Next week, he'll be with his assistant coaches in the Twin Cities for a 30-player invite-only tryout camp July 18-21 in Bloomington that will precede the team's training camp in Cloquet in August.
Millen hasn't ruled out former Wilderness players returning, but it's expected the lineup will be largely turned over from last season's wildly successful campaign. The NAHL, for players age 20 and under looking to establish themselves both collegiately and professionally, won't be dissimilar from the SIJHL the Wilderness played in a year ago.
"My feeling is it's a step into a higher level of play," Millen said. "It's a level of hockey where the kids aspire to get to college scenarios -- whether it's Division I, Division III. They're dedicated players. It's a high level of hockey, very exciting to watch. The fans will see quality hockey."
Millen says he'll lean on his assistants, Dan Daikawa and Josh Petrich, as he works to find a new foothold in his hometown.
"We put together what I consider two fantastic assistants -- hockey guys with a deep knowledge of the league who are familiar with the players," Millen said.
Of course, he'll also count on familiar surroundings to help his transition back home.
"I would hope I can have family and friends come support us," he said. "The bottom line is I've talked to a lot of people and you really need to have solid support to succeed."
Millen won't have to go far to find it.
"One of the things I noticed three weeks in is I was bumping into old teammates, coaches from Wisconsin, Minnesota, Duluth, Bemidji, St. Cloud," he said. "It's nice to bump into those guys."
It seems bumping into Millen, which for years was like a comet sighting, won't be so hard anymore.