The legend tells that the footprints made by Paul Bunyan and Babe The Blue Ox were so large, they filled with water and became Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes.
By Joshua Boyd
Similarly, the first-year USPHL team, the Minnesota Blue Ox, have gargantuan plans in mind to serve the youth of Minnesota and beyond. Helping guide this vision as a Co-Owner is none other than the man in charge of the Minnesota Wild’s on-ice product, Wild Head Coach Bruce Boudreau.
“I’ve always thought of wanting to continue to help hockey grow,” said Boudreau, in an exclusive interview with USA Jr. Hockey Magazine. “This is my calling. Hockey is my whole life, that’s all I’ve ever done. This opportunity came up after coaching in Minnesota for a year, and understanding how important hockey is to the ‘State of Hockey.’”
Witta was coach of Bruce and Crystal’s son Brady’s team in 2016-17, and approached the couple with the opportunity to purchase an expansion franchise in the USPHL.
“It gives a spot for kids who finished high school and who still believe they can play, and who want a coach to look at them,” Bruce Boudreau added. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to help the game grow. I took a leap of faith.”
“Bruce and I had lunch at the end of April, and we talked about buying a team. By the end of May, it was a done deal,” said Witta, who will serve as General Manager/Head Coach of the Blue Ox in the USPHL. “I had reached out to the USPHL and they had a 16th franchise available for the Midwest Division. We figured out the budget, ownership percentages, roles, and we were off and running with the Minnesota Blue Ox.”
Boudreau, the winner of the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award in his first year as a NHL head coach with Washington, will start his 11th season as a NHL head coach at September’s Wild training camp.
“Jay is doing a great job, and my wife is doing a great job. I’m sort of the face of the team,” said Bruce. “When people talk about the Blue Ox, they talk to me, but we’ve all gotten along. We [were] all looking forward to our first tryout camp at the end of July.”
“It doesn’t hurt having Bruce involved,” said Witta, with a laugh. “Seriously, he brings a lot of credibility to the Blue Ox and the USPHL. When he and I set out on this adventure, we both agreed we were going to do this right. The players come first. Period. Working with Crystal every day has been awesome, too. They both add a great balance of hockey and business knowledge to our team.”
Making the USPHL Choice
Boudreau has been very impressed with the USPHL and its multi-tiered development system.
“My son played in Virginia in this league two years ago. We went to the league meetings, they had all their ducks in a row, and we said let’s jump,” Boudreau added. “The set-up is good. It has given more opportunity for young men to play hockey, and for me, the more young men playing hockey in the U.S., the better. You might get these late bloomers who don’t get a chance to go on to Division 1 team. They want to stay close to home. You never want to spoil a kid’s dream.”
One of Boudreau’s top foot soldiers with the Wild, Charlie Coyle, played for the USPHL league member the South Shore Kings on his way up the hockey ladder.
“He’s done very well for himself,” said Boudreau.
“The USPHL is a great, young league,” Witta added. “I like to think our Midwest division of 16 teams is very well-run. The tuition-free National Collegiate Development League of 11 teams is new to the USPHL this season. For expansion and advancement for our players, they are in a great spot with the Minnesota Blue Ox.”
Setting Up Camp
The Blue Ox will play in the Coon Rapids Ice Center, a gorgeous indoor-and-outdoor ice facility located in Coon Rapids, Minn., only 30 minutes from St. Paul, home of the Wild.
The Ice Center is owned and operated by the City of Coon Rapids itself. The facility features seating for 1,400 inside and a fully operational rink outside, as well.
“At first, we didn’t know which was the best area to host our team,” said Boudreau.
“When we started talking to Coon Rapids, and the [Ice Center management], they were so excited about the project, they jumped right in,” he added. “Coon Rapids even had our team in their Fourth of July parade. The people that acknowledged us looked excited to see that our team was here. It might be something that starts slow and we really have to grow, but we’re all jumping in with two feet.”
The Blue Ox held their first Mini Camp to identify potential players on July 29-30. Players certainly loved the low price for the camp, at just $50 a bargain in junior hockey.
“We [were] hoping to get close to 50 people at this tryout camp,” said Boudreau, a week before the camp. “We have the cheapest prices that I know of, for tryouts, tuition, everything. We’re not about the money. We just want to put the best team on the ice.”
The team’s camp at the end of July was extremely successful. The Blue Ox entered August with 21 players already signed – nine signings came directly from the July camp.
The Minnesota Blue Ox are looking forward to a fantastic 2017-18 season, one in which they hope to make a huge impression on the State of Hockey – just like Paul Bunyan and his own Blue Ox did so many eons ago.
Top photo: Bruce Boudreau, seen here running a Minnesota Wild practice, is looking forward to providing developmental opportunities in the USPHL with the new Minnesota Blue Ox. Photo by Minnesota Wild / Bruce Kluckhohn
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