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Wilderness look to the future

Minnesota Wilderness players celebrate a win over the Brookings Blizzard in April. Pine Journal File Photo

With five successful seasons in Cloquet behind them, the Minnesota Wilderness are looking to their future in more than one way.

Open tryout camps concluded two weeks ago, but as importantly, the team's agreement to play at Northwoods Credit Union Arena expires after the 2017-18 season.

That means ownership is negotiating for a new deal to stay in Cloquet.

"We want to stay and things are going well (in terms of negotiating)," Wilderness general manager Dave Boitz said. "As long as the Association (Cloquet Amateur Hockey Association) and the city (of Cloquet) want us to stay, we'd like to be here."

No deal is signed yet, but Boitz is hopeful an arrangement will be worked out sometime this summer.

"We've had other places express interest in hosting us, but right now it isn't anything we're really pursuing," he said. "We're happy in Cloquet."

One of those municipalities is believed to be Proctor, which passed a bond referendum in February and will replace its aging rink, legendary for its freezing temperatures, at the South St. Louis County Fairgrounds.

"The issue with Proctor is that they don't know what they want to build," Boitz said. "For us, they'd need an arena with at least 1,200 seats and the ability to host. But we already have those things right where we are."

And frankly, given the effort the Wilderness have made at becoming solid community citizens, leaving isn't high on Boitz's list of priorities.

"I live in Cloquet. I just bought a washer and dryer here," he said. "My daughter goes to school in Esko and we've made the effort to be a good community member. There has always been a good feel to our being here."

That is expressed in the results of an informal economic impact survey the team commissioned two seasons ago, which showed an estimated footprint of $3 million per year as a result of the team being in Cloquet.

"There is business which takes place because the team is here," Boitz said. "That's right, and that's for the best for everyone."

As an example, Boitz points to the recent open tryouts.

"We had 120 players here from all over the world," he said. "The hotels were full on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays when they otherwise might not have been. That's one way we help by being here."

Boitz said the team's relationships with its local sponsors have never been better. "Everyone knows the drill now," he said. "Our major sponsors like B&B, Carmen's, Lumberjack Lounge — they see the big picture."

The big picture is, of course, financial success and fitting into the community.

"I know the ownership isn't philanthropic, they need to be viable, and it's tough financially," Boitz said. "But we are happy with our sponsors and happy with how things are going."

Boitz is also happy with the first season for head coach Tim Madsen.

"This isn't Tim's first rodeo," he said. "He's got great experience and in his first season we were one overtime goal away from going back to the Robertson Cup semifinals. I think he did a remarkable job. We had a good group of kids, well-mannered, they approached their jobs professionally and we won games. You can't ask for more than that."

So to Boitz, the foundation is being laid for a successful future.

"We want a partnership," he said. "I've been in situations where the team and city are like square pegs and round holes, and that's no fun. One thing we'd like to do is increase the regional pull for attendance because there's such strong competition in Cloquet as our fan base has hockey of their own in their families too. We see people from Duluth, Moose Lake, and other spots. We want to be the area's team."