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Millen's team laces its skates

It's not just a hockey team Corey Millen is building in his return home.

For now, in the throes of an August heat wave, it's the Northwoods Credit Union Arena ice, too.

"It's soft. It's crack-y. It's thin," said the 49-year-old first-year coach of the Minnesota Wilderness. "Skating on it improves the ice, makes it stronger, but right now it's a challenge."

Monday's two-a-days marked the opening practices of the Wilderness' seven-month odyssey of a season.

After a scrimmage to end the day, Millen told his players to essentially deal with the substandard ice. Thin ice won't be the coach or team's only challenge. Right now, there are 30 players for what will ultimately be 23 roster spots. With seven cuts to come, there's that immediate hurdle.

Already, the team "is evolving," said Millen, whose roster does not appear to include a player to match his own 5-foot-7 stature. Rather, it's a group that features some real trees. But in assembling the roster through a draft followed by tryouts in Blaine, Millen says size wasn't a stated priority.

"We're just trying to put the best players on the ice," Millen said.

How does the coach relate to the 16- to-20-year-old junior players who are taking on a brand of hockey Millen himself never played (going straight to the University of Minnesota from Cloquet High School in 1982-83)?

"Times have changed," Millen said. "Really, now, I think all players with scholarship aspirations should play. It gives them the opportunity to learn how to handle playing against men. The learning curve is much higher than high school. It's a great time to grow."

Alex Fredberg couldn't agree more. Faced with the prospect of a senior season playing for a soft Irondale High School club in New Brighton, Fredberg chose junior hockey. As one of three current prep players on the roster, he is immune from the next round of cuts and is a cinch to make the team.

"Our team wasn't really that good," he said of the Knights. "I wanted to get to the next stage and felt like I could play here."

Monday morning the speed of his first practice session hit him like the humidity coming out of the cool arena. By the afternoon's session, "I was used to it; I felt like I belonged," said the 17-year-old Fredberg, who will graduate by taking online courses through the University of Northwestern-St. Paul.

Certainly, that's music to Millen's ears. Now, if the ice would just stop making that cracking sound.