As the Coulee Region Chill continue to experience growth spurts on the ice — some good, some challenging — the big picture remains intact.
And in clear focus.
The six-year foundation built by the Bryants — Michelle and Kevin — remains strong. Michelle deals more with the day-to-day operations of the North American Hockey League Tier 2 team, but the husband-wife ownership has never changed its mission: developing hockey players.
“Every year you learn new things and every year it gets a little easier as what you need to focus on,” Bryant said. “It certainly helps to have longevity here, as far as being eight years in the Coulee Region and six years as an owner.
“We kind of have it down, I guess you could say, as far as operationally on the business side, the players side, the whole thing.”
That is one reason why second-year Chill coach Ryan Egan and Bryant are on the same page with this year’s team, which is off to a 1-7-1-1 start. The team is young, needs to adjust and embrace the pace of the NAHL game, and build its own identity.
That, both know, will take some time.
“We have a lot of new kids, and even if they have played juniors before, they were very young,” Bryant said. “I think there is a lot of skill (on the team); they just need some time under their belt to get used to this level of hockey.
“There is a learning curve, and usually that hits around November. If I look back at every team we have had, it takes some time for these kids to get used to the pace of the game.”
Egan, who took the Chill to the playoffs last year in his first season as head coach, sees plenty of potential in this year’s team. Now it is up to him and his staff, and the players, to reach the highest level possible.
“There is an old saying that in all sports, speed kills, right? So what we emphasize is pace,” Egan said. “We picked a team based on good, quality-skating individuals.
“It is not necessarily the pace of the game, it is the mental pace, too. It is making decisions at a faster rate than in the past. That is the biggest adjustment for the younger players.”
While society’s win-now mentality dictates how some franchises are built and operated, that’s not what the Chill are about, Bryant said. Sure she would love to see the 800-seat Green Island Ice Arena jammed for every home game, but that is one piece of a many-piece puzzle.
“We have made the playoffs the last few years and it is important to make the playoffs,” Bryant said. “We certainly want to put together a team that gets us there, and farther than that.
“We want to hit the second round of the playoffs. Last year we had a record number of (Division I) commits (13) and that is super exciting. Yes we want to go as far as we can. Yes we want to go to the Robertson Cup, but when you are working on getting kids into college — which is the mission of our league — we are successful at that.”
The Chill are in many ways similar to the Northwoods League’s La Crosse Loggers, as the mission is to help players further develop their skills, then reach the next level. For the Loggers, players are already — for the most part — scholarship players who have an eye on professional baseball.
For the Chill — and in the NAHL — players are trying to catch the eye of college scouts and earn a Division I college scholarship. Often times that means teams field younger players — and when the opportunity presents itself, local players — which is the case of the Chill this season. The Chill have six local players — Kevin Bryant (La Crosse), Sam Dabrowski (Onalaska), Tyler Ebner (La Crosse), Jacob Dirks (Onalaska), Bailey Martin (West Salem/Bangor) and Marshal Plunkett (West Salem/Bangor)
That’s just fine with Egan.
“I knew when I came into this organization there was going to be a commitment to developing local players. When I was with the Freeze (La Crosse Freeze, NAHL Tier 3), that was the same philosophy,” Egan said.
“It is great for the young kids in this area to see kids playing at this level and having success. There are so many positives to it, for sure.”
Having junior hockey in La Crosse, Bryant said, is positive for the players, but for the community as well.
“For me, bringing value to the community is important. A lot of people don’t know, but we bring close to a million dollars to the community as far as economic impact,” Bryant said. “We measure hotel nights that we drive to the community, the kids that come into the community and live here.
“We have 55 kids (between the Chill and Freeze) that live in the community, that spend money here. They live with host families, so our economic impact is quite larger versus what I think people would really understand.”
Bryant, who along with her husband, also owns a facility management company. Green Island falls under their management, which has certainly been a benefit to their teams (Chill and Freeze), but to the community as well, Michelle Bryant said.
“We take that (Green Island management, utility costs) off the books of the city. We fully run the building, pay the utility bills, pay rent,” Bryant said. “As you can imagine, the utilities are really expensive. The building probably cost the city about $180,000 to run (for the six months it had ice). We are making sure the facility is filled (for nearly 12 months) with user groups, has ice time (for public uses). We sell the ice (time), so that is a revenue generator.
“We have concession (and beverage) sales, and in the spring and summer we have eight Junior Chill Triple A hockey teams that kids from the area play on. We have close to 200 kids in our program that we teach hockey to in the offseason. There are a lot of things we do outside of just the Chill.”
Which, in turns, leads full circle to what the Bryants are about: developing hockey players of all ages.
“Our family loves hockey,” said Michelle Bryant, whose son, Kevin, is a member of the Chill. “We have enjoyed what we have brought to the region as far as improving hockey and the excitement about hockey.”