ONALASKA — Coulee Region Chill coach A.J. Degenhardt wears a t-shirt and shorts instead of practice gear or a gameday suit and tie to the rink these days, but that doesn’t mean he’s taking it easy.
Summer means hard work for Degenhardt, who was the Chill’s interim coach for the second half of the 2012-13 season and was named full-time coach on April 17.
The Chill finished 16-39-5, last in the NAHL Central Division and out of a playoff spot for the first time in their three seasons in Onalaska.
That was not acceptable to Degenhardt, a former La Crosse co-op standout who played at Wisconsin and was on the Badgers’ 2006 national championship team.
This is Degenhardt’s first off-season making personnel decisions for the Chill. Interim coach Jake Fleming ran the draft and tender signings in the spring of 2012 before John Hamre was hired in July.
“I want kids who want to play Division I hockey and are willing to do what it takes to get there,” Degenhardt said in late March. “I want 20 guys who are willing to do that and pay a price, to stay after practice if we finish early, to go to the weight room on your day off.
“I've made it clear we're going to win next year. I'm not going to settle for this.”
Degenhardt repeated that theme this week as he reviewed the team’s entry draft and tender contract signings. The Chill will hold an invitation camp June 20-23 and the final camp will be July 18-21, both at the OmniCenter.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Degenhardt said. “We’ve been here for three months looking at the draft board and the roster and trying to piece it together, and it’s taking shape. On paper, we’ve improved over last year’s team.”
The Chill selected eight players in the NAHL Entry Draft on June 4. Degenhardt also traded two picks for players and signed 10 players to tender contracts.
“I think the draft went awesome for us,” Degenhardt said. “We got seven of eight picks that we 100 percent wanted.”
Coulee Region took high school defenseman Jake Zeleznikar (Hermantown, Minn.) with the fourth pick of the first round. Zeleznikar, 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, is attending some USHL camps this summer also. He played in five games for Sioux Falls (USHL) last year.
“He’s a big, solid defenseman and we were excited to get him with our first pick,” Degenhardt said.
Degenhardt took two more defensemen in the top four rounds: Travis Brown of Rogers High School (Minn.) and Carter Horwitz of the North Bay Trappers (North Ontario Junior League).
The Chill are losing top defensemen Derek Smith (Quinnipiac) and Brady Riesgraf (Bemidji State) to Division I commitments, and Sean Lang to the USHL.
Brown, who is attending USHL camps, would be a top 1-2 defenseman, Degenhardt said, and Horwitz could turn out to be the best picks of the draft.
Horwitz, who grew up in California, has only played hockey for five years but was good enough to make the nationally-renowned Shattuck-St. Mary’s prep team in Minnesota. He scored 23 points in 52 games for North Bay last season.
“We watched some video of that team and right away I noticed him,” Degenhardt said. “He’s a great-skating defenseman and was impressive in our pre-draft camp. He’s fairly raw but he’s already really good.”
Coulee Region completed its draft by taking goaltender Christian Frey of Dubuque (USHL), forward Charley Grasskamp of Eau Claire, Wis. (Team Wisconsin), forward Roma Uchyn of Des Moines (USHL) and brothers Richard Zehnal and Ondrej Zehnal, both forwards from the Czech Republic.
The Chill’s forwards will be led by Mac Jansen, a third-year player who was third in the league with 32 goals last year. Hunter Anderson appears headed to a USHL team. Garrett Hendrickson (St. Cloud State), Cory Lushanko (UW-River Falls) and Kevin Becker (St. John’s, Minn.) have committed to college programs.
Degenhardt said Frey is another draft pick who could go to the USHL. If he joins the Chill, he would complement returner Blake Cates. Tim Shaughnessy, who played most of the second half of the season, is not returning.
Gabe Flood of Onalaska High School is one of the 10 tender contract signings. Flood played two games with the Chill last season.
“I expect all these guys to come to the final camp ready to go,” Degenhardt said.
NEW DIVISION: The Chill have been moved to the Midwest Division with two teams from Alaska, the Fairbanks Ice Dogs and the Kenai River Brown Bears, and one from Washington state, the Wenatchee Wild, plus the Minnesota Magicians, based in the Twin Cities, and the Minnesota Wilderness, based in Cloquet, Minn.
Degenhardt said the travel won’t be as bad as it looks. The Chill will make one 10-day trip to Alaska to play the Ice Dogs and the Bears, and will only face Wenatchee at the season-opening Showcase Tournament in the Twin Cities.
“We’ll have lot of mixed-division play and it looks like the playoffs will be arranged by pools, with us and the Minnesota teams,” Degenhardt said.