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Wilderness win NAHL championship

Minnesota Wilderness team captain Tyler Hart carries the Robertson Cup high over his head in celebration as he leads the team around the ice after their record setting playoff win in Austin, Minnesota last weekend. Jamie Lund/jlund@pinejournal.com1 / 2
Robb Stautz and Ian Mansfield talk to Coach Corey Millen during the celebration on the ice after the Minnesota Wilderness team won the Robertson Cup in Austin, Minn., Saturday night. Jamie Lund/ 2 / 2

It’s here.

The Minnesota Wilderness claimed their first-ever Robertson Cup championship, emblematic of North American Hockey League supremacy, by virtue of a two-game sweep of the Austin Bruins last weekend.

The victory, which brings “The Robby” to Minnesota for the first time since the Cup’s inception in 1976, shows that Cloquet’s second-year junior team has earned its place among the league’s elite.

“We want to be a premier program in the NAHL in terms of on the ice and have the impact in the community that makes us a solid community member,” Wilderness General Manager Dave Boitz said this week. “Really, that’s the way we make this [team] be here long-term.”

The on-ice success helps, but the Wilderness have exactly one week to celebrate before beginning planning for next season.

“Actually, I just had a day and a half (to celebrate),” Boitz laughed. “We have a tryout camp already this weekend with 80-100 players coming in, and I’ve got sponsorship calls to make for next season.”

Boitz said the team’s playoff triumph makes it instantly more marketable to prospective players.

“As far as bringing in players, it’s really significant,” he said. “Kids want to be part of a good program. You look at Richfield (the Minnesota Magicians), and they have a good program without the success we’ve had. Kids are going to want to look to stay in the area and hopefully to play for us first. From that standpoint, it’s big.”

Boitz also said the community caught “playoff fever” and that will help next season’s Wilderness succeed.

“In terms of the impact in the community and regionally, I just can’t believe all the people here in the last month that have become engaged in our team,” Boitz said. “Everywhere I go, people were asking about the team. When I came here, people didn’t even know we were playing in Cloquet.”

Building a franchise is a tough business, and Boitz knows the Wilderness can now strike while the iron is hot for potential sponsors.

“We want to take advantage of people being engaged,” he said. “The big thing is that we want to keep putting a really good product on the ice. Six months from now if we have a bad team and don’t get into the schools and community, people will forget about us pretty quickly. But we’ve got to do better because any business in its first couple of years has big up front costs and it takes time to catch up.”

That catch-up will come through sponsorships and season tickets, both of which are easier sells with a championship team.

“I hope it helps,” Coach Corey Millen said. “You’ll never know for sure, but it has to give us some credibility. I think we’ve done a great job of gaining credibility in a short time but winning puts you on the map and with this quality ownership and management group, it should.”

Boitz sees a very bright future ahead.

“We need more, and there’s nothing to hide there, but are we on the right track for a second-year program? Yes. I’ve been doing this for a long time, and we are way ahead of the curve. We had over 200 (Wilderness fans) at our game in Austin, and we were barely getting that for home games when we got this thing started.”

Despite (and perhaps, due to) the team not having any home games at all in the last two rounds of the playoffs, Boitz wanted to thank the fans.

“If you look at our Facebook page we had great support, lots of people at the rink on short notice to greet us at Carmen’s when we got back from Austin and we are thankful to the people that have really supported the team.”

Editor's Note: Find more stories and photos of the Wilderness and their national championship in sports and on the photo page in this week's Pine Journal. Other stories will be posted online tomorrow and Saturday.