Offseason brings change for retooled Wilderness
At first glance, the Minnesota Wilderness' midsummer meet-and-greet Wednesday night appeared ill-conceived.
The Wilderness, after all, became a well-known hockey commodity after last spring's surprising sprint to Canada's Royal Bank Cup.
But the rebranded and retooled Wilderness share little in common with last year's outfit.
An offseason of change has yielded new owners, a new coach, a new Minnesota Wild-inspired logo and, perhaps most important, a prestigious new league.
Chris Trapp and Joe Dusek bought the team from previous owner Scott Thielen. Cloquet native Corey Millen was hired to replace Rod Aldoff as coach. And the Wilderness made a quantum leap from the Superior International Junior Hockey League to the more prestigious North American Hockey League.
"We're young enough and maybe naïve enough to want to do this," Dusek said Wednesday night at Applebee's in Cloquet. "We'll put all the pieces together. We may not have all the pieces together before the puck drops, but we'll get there."
Dusek and Trapp long have talked about bringing the NAHL to the Northland. The league -- similar in stature to the United States Hockey League -- is comprised of 24 teams and features a 60-game schedule that commences in mid-September.
And while the Wilderness thrived in the SIJHL, their new circuit offers a different brand of hockey, replete with more top-tier college prospects, Millen said.
"I don't want to take away from (last year's team) -- tons of success, they had a great year -- and no one here wants to take away from that," Millen said. "But I think you'll see that the level is a little higher."
Millen returns to Cloquet from Alaska, where he coached the past three years. The 1982 Cloquet High School graduate parlayed his prep success and a brilliant collegiate stint at Minnesota into a 14-year professional career. He appeared in the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals with the Los Angeles Kings.
Not bad for a player who, at 5-foot-7, initially was deemed undersized.
Now, the 49-year-old Millen is embarking on another daunting task: competing for fans in a hockey-saturated market that boasts Division I Minnesota Duluth, strong D3 programs at St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Superior, and a plethora of strong high school teams.
"I'd love to see at least a thousand people a night," Millen said. "If it's more than that, even better, but it's gonna be a challenge. We're gonna need support."
Dusek hopes to sell the Wilderness' up-and-comers, all of whom will be between 16 and 20 years old and playing for an opportunity to climb the sport's ladder.
"The North American Hockey League product that we're bringing to Cloquet and, quite frankly, the entire Northland, is going to be something very different from the high school hockey product and very different than a Division I product like the UMD Bulldogs," he said.
Dusek's co-owner, Trapp, said that while the Wilderness will play in Cloquet, they will be branded as a regional team in hopes of drawing fans from throughout Northeastern Minnesota.
"We view this as the Northland's team, all the way from Grand Rapids to Two Harbors," Trapp said.
At Wednesday's meet-and-greet, Millen got a big laugh when, while highlighting the owners' commitment to the community, said: "These guys, their vision is not to make a dime. In fact, they're gonna lose a lot of money."
And so it is with an ambitious new team making the jump to a prolific new league.