SUCCESS IS IN THE CARDS: Chi-Hi Hockey Showed Strength for the Future in State Tourney Bid
This past academic year, in many instances, winter sports were cut off from their championship rounds by the COVID-19 pandemic. Boys’ hockey barely finished its state tournament, which happened the weekend before society halted, allowing one team to establish itself among the titans of Chippewa Valley prep hockey.
The Chippewa Falls Cardinals have gone to Madison in the past, but the bulk of Big River Conference success for the past decade and a half has belonged to Eau Claire Memorial, North, and Hudson. As the 2010s progressed, the city of Chippewa Falls, and the players in youth programs, began developing the structure that would lead to Chi-Hi’s first state berth in 21 years.
Recently, Steve Gibbs from the Chippewa Youth Hockey Association showed me the newly renovated Chippewa Area Ice Arena; I was wowed by the home for boys’ and girls’ hockey in the city. That high quality has instilled pride in the players.
There is clearly another prep hockey power in western Wisconsin. Chi-Hi Coach Scott Parker says next season’s team will be “very competitive” with 16 of 20 starters returning.
“They take turns cleaning it, washing their uniforms, and volunteering with the youth program,” Gibbs says. “The unity this has created for our team is incredible.”
A bond has been created among athletes in the age range from the CYHA to the high school level; that was crystallized in the 2019-20 state campaign. Chi-Hi Activities Director Michael Thompson said the elements to the boys’ team success were “hard work, persistence, great support from their families, coaches that push them to succeed, and talent.”
Tyler Bohland was a senior defenseman on the Cardinals’ state-bound squad. He saw the players’ buying into the team’s system as a key characteristic for their achievement. “Additionally, this worked so well because for so many of us we have played with each other for years,” he said, “which gave us an advantage even if the opposing team had more talent.”
Bohland felt the state tournament was in reach once Chippewa Falls defeated Hudson in their first meeting. A moment usually comes in every season that proves a turning point for a team; for Bohland, it was a three-game stretch in January when Chi-Hi scored a single goal. Facing such on-ice adversity helped the Cardinals bounce back to win out the regular season while scoring at least four goals per game. “This showed me that the team would be prepared for any situation we might be put in the future,” he said.
Key performances were put in by goalie Bridger Fixmer; forwards Ezra Lindstrom and Isaac Frenette; and defensemen like Bohland. Despite not winning the BRC, Chi-Hi had more hockey to play. For longtime coach Scott Parker, “beating Wausau West on the road in the playoffs was a confidence booster.”
Now came the sectional final, against Hudson. The Raiders took an early lead; Chippewa Falls then scored twice. Bohland said he was in disbelief when the Cole Bowe’s go-ahead goal went in the net. “I remember looking at teammates to my left and right,” he recalled, “and we all had the same thought that this might be the goal to send us to state in 20 years.” The third period expired – “just seeing everyone throw their gloves and helmets in the air might be the most memorable thing in my life” – and the Cards were finally back to Madison.
Thompson noted strong support of fellow students and the community at large during the season: “We sent two full fan buses, and our pep band maxed out another bus for the trip to Madison.” Awaiting the Cardinals were state tourney regulars Verona. Their Division 1 semifinal went to double-overtime, but the road ended there for Chi-Hi. Says Parker: “Verona was a good team, it was a great hockey game.”
There is clearly another prep hockey power in western Wisconsin. Parker says next season’s team will be “very competitive” with 16 of 20 starters returning. Thompson believes younger boys and girls will take lessons from this season’s accomplishment: “They will understand that something like a berth in the state tournament is not earned in a couple of weeks. It takes time and commitment.” Gibbs highlights the CYHA’s passionate volunteering and low cost of rink access. If one of Bohland’s takeaways from last year – “(Seniors and juniors) taking underclassmen under their wing and helping them throughout the season” – holds true in future campaigns, you may see Chippewa Valley hockey success colored black and red.