Even though he stepped down in April as coach of the New Ulm Steel, Jay Witta felt he owed it to Bruce Boudreau to provide an analysis of his son Brady’s first season as a goaltender in the North American Tier III Hockey League.
One lunch with Witta later, the Wild coach was suddenly on the accelerated path toward becoming the majority owner of the Minnesota Blue Ox in the 61-team United States Premier Hockey League (USPHL).
“Bruce and I hit it off. We have the same philosophies on how to develop the game and kids,” said Witta, a former Minnetonka High School captain who owns a marketing company in Bloomington. “He asked what I planned to do next, and I said, ‘What I’d really like to do is own my own team.’ He looked at me and goes, ‘Find us a team, and I’m in.’ ”
A week later, Witta called Boudreau and said, “I found a team.’ ”
“He goes, ‘What?’ ” Witta said, laughing. “I said, ‘I found us a team, and we have to move really fast or we’ll miss this season.’ He goes, ‘Slow down, slow down. I haven’t even talked to my wife yet.’ Long story short, we closed at the end of May.”
The Tier III expansion team — which is owned by Boudreau and his wife, Crystal, and three minority owners including coach and GM Witta — is in Coon Rapids and will debut its 44-game schedule at home Sept. 22. The Blue Ox will be in the league’s nine-team Midwest West Division, which includes four other teams (in Forest Lake, Blaine, Owatonna and Hudson) within a fairly short drive.
The Blue Ox will hold open tryouts for 17- through 20-year-olds Saturday and Sunday from noon-2 p.m. at the Coon Rapids Ice Center. Boudreau will be in attendance evaluating talent from the stands, signing autographs and “being Bruce,” Witta quipped.
“This may sound corny, but I feel I was put on this Earth to promote hockey,” Boudreau said. “So the idea of being involved in a junior team that is the middle void between high school hockey and college was very exciting to me. I talked to Crystal, and we jumped in with both feet. My role is just to support, and we’re hoping to get 36-40 kids to try out because we’d like to add some real local flavor.”
The Blue Ox, which will have 25 players, has signed 13 players, including two from Switzerland, one from Finland and a goalie from North Carolina who will compete with 19-year-old Brady Boudreau for the No. 1 spot.
Bruce Boudreau’s hope is to one day add a youth program, an Under-16 and Under-18 team and a Tier II team like other programs across the USPHL. Hockey’s landscape has changed, so even Division III college programs want incoming freshmen to play junior hockey.
“So our 20-year-olds are looking to play Division III, our [teenagers] are usually looking to move up to Tier II to hopefully open them up to one day playing Division I,” Witta, 49, said. “These are guys out to prove something or maybe who were bypassed.”
There are success stories.
The Wild’s Charlie Coyle played in the league as a 17-year-old for the South Shore Kings in Foxboro, Mass. He finished fifth in league scoring and called it a “great experience.” In fact, Coyle says he still uses the Kings’ strength and conditioning coach, Brian McDonough, as his personal trainer.
A few years ago, Witta had a Swiss player named Yannick Zehnder play Tier III hockey in White Bear Lake. This past winter, Zehnder lit it up with eventual No. 1 overall NHL pick Nico Hischier for Switzerland in the world junior championships.
Adam Carlson never played varsity hockey at Edina, but after tending goal for the Steele County Blades ultimately got a full ride to Mercyhurst and signed with the Washington Capitals.
“Scouts go everywhere to find players,” Boudreau said. “Somebody that might not be ready at 17 may all of a sudden flourish in a league like this at 18 or 19. You can at some point catch that diamond in the rough or can go on to Division I or bigger and better things.
“So I’m excited. I’m just going to be the biggest fan. This is the State of Hockey, and my family wants to be Minnesotans. So if we can get involved in the minor and junior hockey level, I think that’ll be great for long after I’m done coaching.”