Wilderness build toward second season in Cloquet
The Minnesota Wilderness junior hockey team is gearing up for its second NAHL season in Cloquet and has brought home another familiar face for its coaching staff.
Local legend Corey Millen returns for his second season behind the Wilderness bench, but former Cloquet standout Brian Meisner has been brought aboard as associate head coach/director of scouting for the team.
Meisner spent the last five years as a Division I college assistant at Alaska-Fairbanks and Connecticut and has been an NAHL head coach with Wichita Falls. He has also coached in the American West Hockey League and United States Hockey League.
“Brian brings a lot to the table,” Millen said. “He brings a lot of experience, first off, and he has a lot of contacts at the junior and college levels to bring in players. He knows the level of play in this league and that’s big.”
Bringing in players will be a key for the Wilderness, who finished 37-14-2-7 in Millen’s first season, good for second place in the league’s Midwest Division. The team lost in the first round of the league playoffs to the Wenatchee Wild.
“We were in a situation where we could have had 16 or 17 guys back from last year,” Millen said. “But the thing about this league is that players want to go for the USHL or college hockey and you really don’t know who you will have on your team until you start to play.”
Millen said the Wilderness have eight players signed up for this coming season and notes that this isn’t unusual for the NAHL.
“Every team goes through that,” Millen said. “It’s an uphill battle and every team is trying to reload for the coming season.”
That includes the team’s draft, which hauled in seven forwards, three defensemen and a goaltender — but not all of those players are expected to come to Cloquet.
“We’ve lost a few of our draft picks already to other leagues,” Millen said. “That’s frustrating, but you have to deal with that too. The problem we had last year was that to build the team we put out there, we had to give up some of our higher picks. But in the end we were happy with what we had, and now we need to get as many of them here as we can.”
Millen noted that Wilderness players who are trying out for other teams in other leagues who don’t make those teams might still wind up back in Cloquet.
“We have reversionary rights to all those players; they are protected in our league,” Millen said, “so we may see some of them back here. We just need to take the ice.”
That will happen for the first time on Aug. 25, when the team begins training camp. The Wilderness will play Brookings in two exhibition games on Sept. 5 and 12 before playing in the NAHL Showcase in Blaine Sept. 17-20.
The first game of the season will be a tall order for Millen’s men — the defending Robertson Cup champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs visit Northwoods Credit Union Arena Sept. 26.
“We are hoping to keep growing the crowds we get and we’re hoping to grow here,” Millen said. “We introduced ourselves to the community last year and we think we fit in. We played well and that attracted people, but now we’re hoping that success carries over to this season on the ice and in the stands.”