Minnesota Wilderness comes to CloquetThe Minnesota Wilderness will host their first home game at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, at Northwoods Credit Union Arena in Cloquet. Admission ranges from $5 to $8. Visit www.wildernesshockey.com for the complete schedule and roster.
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
The Minnesota Wilderness hockey team has arrived.
On Sunday, the new Cloquet Junior A Tier II team played an exhibition game at Northwoods Credit Union Arena, its new home. Two days later, the last of the 22 hockey players was placed with a host family in Cloquet.
Wilderness managing partner Scott Thielen said he’s thrilled to have the team in Cloquet.
“We were looking for a new home,” Thielen said, explaining that the team had to leave the Spooner arena when the owners decided to sell. “Once we knew Cloquet was interested, it was an easy decision for us, knowing the hockey heritage in this area.”
It was a fairly easy decision for the Cloquet Area Hockey Association (CAHA), which ¬– unlike most hockey associations – actually operates both the Northwoods and Pine Valley arenas rather than just being the tenant of a city-owned arena. The money that the Wilderness will contribute has already helped CAHA keep its player fees down, and it will help with upcoming expenses like a new electric Zamboni, increasing insurance costs and an 8 percent rise in utilities at the two hockey arenas.
“To cover costs we had two choices: either increase the costs for our current tenants significantly or find another source of revenue,” said new CAHA President Mick Maslowski. “The Wilderness allowed us to do the latter.”
But it’s not just about the money, he hastened to add.
“This is an opportunity to bring some higher level hockey to Cloquet,” Maslowski said, observing that there’s a “buzz” around town about the new team. “It’s good hockey. It’s not a ‘goon’ league.”
Wilderness Coach Rod Aldoff, a former UMD defenseman from 1991-95, takes pride in what he’s helped to build. He noted that all of his team’s 20-year-old players from last season are moving on to play college hockey this winter.
“We do recruit good players,” he said. “We hope the people of Cloquet come out and see some good hockey.”
So far, so good. The Wilderness won their game Sunday 6-1 after only two practices together.
“If that’s the starting point, we’re going to have a really good year,” Thielen said.
The team will play 27 regular season home games this winter. As part of the Superior International Junior Hockey League (SIJHL), their regular opponents include the Duluth Clydesdales, the Minnesota Iron (an Iron Range team), Thunder Bay North, Dryden Ice Dogs, Fort Frances Lakers and the Sioux Lookout Flyers.
Surprisingly, CAHA Executive Director Brianna Ostoff said fitting the junior hockey team into an already busy rink schedule wasn’t terribly difficult.
“They’re using the ice during the day [to practice] when the arena would otherwise be empty. And most of their games are on Wednesday, Friday or Saturday nights when we don’t normally have high school games [which are usually scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays],” she said.
Because the Wilderness season starts before and ends after the high school season, Maslowski added, CAHA actually only had to find night ice for 16 games.
“There’s really minimal disturbance to our normal operations,” Maslowski said, noting that the final agreement between CAHA and the Wilderness owners is still being hammered out. “We will have to shift some practices to Carlton, but [the Wilderness owners] have agreed they will incorporate those costs into our final numbers.”
It’s all part of a brighter future for Cloquet hockey, explained Ostoff.
“Things are going in the right direction,” she said, revealing that CAHA’s annual debt service is $90,000. “There are still a lot of big projects in our future that we can’t get around. But this – having a junior team make its home here, the Northwoods Credit Union deal – is giving us that capital expenditures budget so when things go wrong, we aren’t running to the city for another loan.”
The Wilderness officially opens its season on the road Friday with a game against the Sioux Lookout Flyers in Canada. Their first home game starts at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 29, at Northwoods with Cloquet Mayor Bruce Ahlgren dropping the ceremonial first puck. Northwoods Credit Union is sponsoring the game. Admission ranges from $5 to $8, “depending on age” said Thielen, adding that each home game will feature a $5,000 fan shot between the second and third period of the game.
“Just put your name in the bucket or text WILDERNESS to 57711 and we’ll draw one name to take one shot between the periods,” he said. “If they make it, they walk away with $5,000. The last game we’ll have a $1 million shot.”
Hockey fans will notice at least one other notable difference at the Wilderness games: adults can purchase beer during the games courtesy of an arrangement between The Jack and the Wilderness.
“It’s a good night out,” Ostoff said. “It’s an affordable evening for a family, and you can get beer here, unlike the Bulldogs games or the Clydesdales. Plus, if you’re a boy from Cloquet, you now have a junior team here who can see you play hockey without having to travel to do that.”
Pine Journal reporter Jeff Papas contributed to this story.