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Chicago Steel

Chicago Steel president Lehv eager to reimagine club

GENEVA – Dan Lehv learned at the altar of a marketing guru who hatched “Disco Demolition Night” and long has subscribed to the mantra “Fun is good.”

Grass-roots and other obstacles surfaced as soon as Lehv took office as the first-year president of the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel, but he still internalized Mike Veeck’s tutelage.

Lehv spearheads a junior hockey club, which relocated from The Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville to Fox Valley Ice Arena during the summer and whose staff wasn’t fully in place until 18 days before opening night Sept. 26. For many, that sounds like bedlam. To Lehv, it’s bliss. He relishes minor league sports, and clearing hurdles is part of the love affair.

“It was a new challenge, and I’m a person who absolutely loves challenges,” Lehv said. “And this was a big one, and it got me very excited about the prospects of being able to build a team.”

The Steel played their inaugural USHL season in 2000-01, joining a burgeoning operation that began as the Midwest Junior Hockey League in the 1970s and now is headquartered in Chicago, featuring 17 teams.

When the Steel’s growth pattern did not mirror the rest of the league’s and previous ownership remained reticent to leave Bensenville, Fox Valley Ice Arena emerged as an option. The venue was on other USHL owners’ relocation radars in previous years, said Lehv, who spent four seasons running the USHL’s Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints before joining the Steel.

The USHL is the United States’ lone tier-I junior hockey league, grooming potential future professional prospects. Fifteen college recruits dressed for the Steel’s most recent game, Sunday’s 3-1 win at Youngstown (Ohio), and a handful of 2015 NHL Draft picks also represent the club. Czech goaltender Daniel Vladar, 18, a third-round pick of the Boston Bruins, is among the most notable.

As Lehv notes, the level of play is far crisper than the kind Tri-Cities fans saw in 2011-12, when the Chicago Hitmen of the lower-tier North American Hockey League called Fox Valley Ice Arena home.

While pockets of hockey enthusiasts swoon over seeing would-be stars before they rise, Lehv strives to make the product sustainably marketable to families who might not differentiate icing from ice cream, following the lead of the Steel’s baseball neighbor, the Kane County Cougars.

Lehv, 36, hopes to get a push from jumping to one of the USHL’s smallest markets in Dubuque to the Chicago suburbs. He reiterates, however, that it won’t be easy.

“So that means that we need to build a fan base here, and that means we have to build an infrastructure of season ticket holders, of companies, youth groups, church groups, Scouts, students, schools that will purchase group tickets,” Lehv said. “That’s a huge way. And then we’re going to have to get the Chicago Steel name out there. We’re going to have to advertise, we’re going to have to actively market, we’re going to have to give people a compelling reason to come to the rink. But we can’t just open our doors and expect that people will know who the Chicago Steel are at the Fox Valley Ice Arena. We have to actively do all of those things. So that’s what we’re doing, and that takes a long time.

“It takes awhile to build that infrastructure. It takes awhile to train a staff. It takes awhile to go and tell the story. It’s not like we’re a National Hockey League franchise that’s all of a sudden coming to Geneva. We’re a tier-I junior team in the best junior league in the country. But even that takes 15 seconds to explain. Who are the Chicago Steel? Where do our players come from? Where do they go? It’s not an easy thing. It’s not as easy to say as we’re the (Class)-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Midwest League [as the Cougars are]. That’s easier to explain. But with all that being said, now we’re telling our story.”

In September, the Steel defeated the USHL’s Team USA development program, 5-1, before an opening-night crowd of 904 fans at Fox Valley Ice Arena. Lehv called that figure an “incredible accomplishment” considering the timing of the team’s move and the whirlwind of installing a ticketing system and pricing structure just months after New York businessman Larry Robbins, a hockey-crazed Glenview native, took over majority ownership of the club.

A season-high crowd of 923 attended a Dec. 12 home loss to Green Bay, the Steel’s final game at Fox Valley Ice Arena until Jan. 17. Through 13 home dates, the Steel have averaged 646 fans.

While noting his staff’s exemplary efforts to date, Lehv said “I refuse to put numbers” to attendance expectations during the initial seasons of the relocation. A 5,500-pound, team-funded, high-definition scoreboard unveiled Wednesday figures to augment a game-night atmosphere that already has impressed Steel athletes who played in Bensenville last season.

“You know, coming to a new rink, you’re not sure at first, but the community and stuff has been really welcoming,” said standout forward Tanner Lacyznski, an Ohio State commit from Shorewood. “I think we’re definitely starting to use the home rink to our advantage.”

Lehv began his sports career under Veeck in the early 2000s, serving as media relations contact and pre- and postgame radio host for the Class-A Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs baseball team. In 2002, the RiverDogs notoriously held “Nobody Night” – barring fans from the ballpark through five innings so the game could officially have an attendance of zero – but that certainly is an outlier to the personal approach Veeck and Lehv follow.

Since the fall, Steel executives and players have visited city council meetings in Geneva, Batavia and St. Charles while working at LivingWell Cancer Resource Center in Geneva and spending time with veterans groups.

Upon moving to Geneva with his wife, Jess, and 20-month-old daughter, Miriam, Lehv quickly became reacclimated with his baseball roots, which included an extended run with the independent St. Paul (Minnesota) Saints, another club under heavy Veeck influence.

Lehv attended a late-season Cougars game in 2015 and is brimming about the marketing possibilities that occur when the Cougars and Steel both play home games on April 8. First pitch at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark is set for 6:30 p.m., one hour before puck drop at Fox Valley.

“What we’re trying to do here is complement what the Cougars have done so well for the last 25 years,” Lehv said. “And one of the reasons why this particular spot is so attractive to us as an organization is because of their success. Fans are used to coming to this area for affordable family fun. What a great opportunity for us to complement what they do.”

The Cougars, in conjunction with the parent D’backs, announced their 2016 field staff this week. General manager Curtis Haug quickly called new manager Mike Benjamin, who lives in Arizona, to touch base.

Communication is commonplace among teams on the Kirk Road corridor. Steel coach Dan Muse, for one, always knows where things stand with Lehv.

“He’s done an unbelievable job. He’s a great guy to be working with,” Muse said. “I think he’s extremely organized. He’s just great with people in general. We’re talking throughout the day every day.”

To be sure, Muse makes the rounds as part of his routine, and even is a luminary of sorts at Chelios Pub and Grill, adjacent to the arena.

Although socialization drives Lehv’s role, the above still is in stark contrast to his beginnings in the building, when Lehv said he “was like Tom Hanks in ‘Cast Away,’ drawing faces on pucks and sitting in the office downstairs.”

Recalling a recent conversation, Lehv conjured an equally vivid image. A client compared reimagining the Steel to changing the tires on a car still in motion.

Fine by Lehv.

“For us, it’s been a whirlwind, but in a good way,” he said. “There’s no question we face our fair share of challenges both on and off the ice, but we really feel like we’ve been welcomed with open arms.”

GENEVA – Dan Lehv learned at the altar of a marketing guru who hatched “Disco Demolition Night” and long has subscribed to the mantra “Fun is good.”

Grass-roots and other obstacles surfaced as soon as Lehv took office as the first-year president of the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel, but he still internalized Mike Veeck’s tutelage.

Lehv spearheads a junior hockey club, which relocated from The Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville to Fox Valley Ice Arena during the summer and whose staff wasn’t fully in place until 18 days before opening night Sept. 26. For many, that sounds like bedlam. To Lehv, it’s bliss. He relishes minor league sports, and clearing hurdles is part of the love affair.

“It was a new challenge, and I’m a person who absolutely loves challenges,” Lehv said. “And this was a big one, and it got me very excited about the prospects of being able to build a team.”

The Steel played their inaugural USHL season in 2000-01, joining a burgeoning operation that began as the Midwest Junior Hockey League in the 1970s and now is headquartered in Chicago, featuring 17 teams.

When the Steel’s growth pattern did not mirror the rest of the league’s and previous ownership remained reticent to leave Bensenville, Fox Valley Ice Arena emerged as an option. The venue was on other USHL owners’ relocation radars in previous years, said Lehv, who spent four seasons running the USHL’s Dubuque (Iowa) Fighting Saints before joining the Steel.

The USHL is the United States’ lone tier-I junior hockey league, grooming potential future professional prospects. Fifteen college recruits dressed for the Steel’s most recent game, Sunday’s 3-1 win at Youngstown (Ohio), and a handful of 2015 NHL Draft picks also represent the club. Czech goaltender Daniel Vladar, 18, a third-round pick of the Boston Bruins, is among the most notable.

As Lehv notes, the level of play is far crisper than the kind Tri-Cities fans saw in 2011-12, when the Chicago Hitmen of the lower-tier North American Hockey League called Fox Valley Ice Arena home.

While pockets of hockey enthusiasts swoon over seeing would-be stars before they rise, Lehv strives to make the product sustainably marketable to families who might not differentiate icing from ice cream, following the lead of the Steel’s baseball neighbor, the Kane County Cougars.

Lehv, 36, hopes to get a push from jumping to one of the USHL’s smallest markets in Dubuque to the Chicago suburbs. He reiterates, however, that it won’t be easy.

“So that means that we need to build a fan base here, and that means we have to build an infrastructure of season ticket holders, of companies, youth groups, church groups, Scouts, students, schools that will purchase group tickets,” Lehv said. “That’s a huge way. And then we’re going to have to get the Chicago Steel name out there. We’re going to have to advertise, we’re going to have to actively market, we’re going to have to give people a compelling reason to come to the rink. But we can’t just open our doors and expect that people will know who the Chicago Steel are at the Fox Valley Ice Arena. We have to actively do all of those things. So that’s what we’re doing, and that takes a long time.

“It takes awhile to build that infrastructure. It takes awhile to train a staff. It takes awhile to go and tell the story. It’s not like we’re a National Hockey League franchise that’s all of a sudden coming to Geneva. We’re a tier-I junior team in the best junior league in the country. But even that takes 15 seconds to explain. Who are the Chicago Steel? Where do our players come from? Where do they go? It’s not an easy thing. It’s not as easy to say as we’re the (Class)-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Midwest League [as the Cougars are]. That’s easier to explain. But with all that being said, now we’re telling our story.”

In September, the Steel defeated the USHL’s Team USA development program, 5-1, before an opening-night crowd of 904 fans at Fox Valley Ice Arena. Lehv called that figure an “incredible accomplishment” considering the timing of the team’s move and the whirlwind of installing a ticketing system and pricing structure just months after New York businessman Larry Robbins, a hockey-crazed Glenview native, took over majority ownership of the club.

A season-high crowd of 923 attended a Dec. 12 home loss to Green Bay, the Steel’s final game at Fox Valley Ice Arena until Jan. 17. Through 13 home dates, the Steel have averaged 646 fans.

While noting his staff’s exemplary efforts to date, Lehv said “I refuse to put numbers” to attendance expectations during the initial seasons of the relocation. A 5,500-pound, team-funded, high-definition scoreboard unveiled Wednesday figures to augment a game-night atmosphere that already has impressed Steel athletes who played in Bensenville last season.

“You know, coming to a new rink, you’re not sure at first, but the community and stuff has been really welcoming,” said standout forward Tanner Lacyznski, an Ohio State commit from Shorewood. “I think we’re definitely starting to use the home rink to our advantage.”

Lehv began his sports career under Veeck in the early 2000s, serving as media relations contact and pre- and postgame radio host for the Class-A Charleston (S.C.) RiverDogs baseball team. In 2002, the RiverDogs notoriously held “Nobody Night” – barring fans from the ballpark through five innings so the game could officially have an attendance of zero – but that certainly is an outlier to the personal approach Veeck and Lehv follow.

Since the fall, Steel executives and players have visited city council meetings in Geneva, Batavia and St. Charles while working at LivingWell Cancer Resource Center in Geneva and spending time with veterans groups.

Upon moving to Geneva with his wife, Jess, and 20-month-old daughter, Miriam, Lehv quickly became reacclimated with his baseball roots, which included an extended run with the independent St. Paul (Minnesota) Saints, another club under heavy Veeck influence.

Lehv attended a late-season Cougars game in 2015 and is brimming about the marketing possibilities that occur when the Cougars and Steel both play home games on April 8. First pitch at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark is set for 6:30 p.m., one hour before puck drop at Fox Valley.

“What we’re trying to do here is complement what the Cougars have done so well for the last 25 years,” Lehv said. “And one of the reasons why this particular spot is so attractive to us as an organization is because of their success. Fans are used to coming to this area for affordable family fun. What a great opportunity for us to complement what they do.”

The Cougars, in conjunction with the parent D’backs, announced their 2016 field staff this week. General manager Curtis Haug quickly called new manager Mike Benjamin, who lives in Arizona, to touch base.

Communication is commonplace among teams on the Kirk Road corridor. Steel coach Dan Muse, for one, always knows where things stand with Lehv.

“He’s done an unbelievable job. He’s a great guy to be working with,” Muse said. “I think he’s extremely organized. He’s just great with people in general. We’re talking throughout the day every day.”

To be sure, Muse makes the rounds as part of his routine, and even is a luminary of sorts at Chelios Pub and Grill, adjacent to the arena.

Although socialization drives Lehv’s role, the above still is in stark contrast to his beginnings in the building, when Lehv said he “was like Tom Hanks in ‘Cast Away,’ drawing faces on pucks and sitting in the office downstairs.”

Recalling a recent conversation, Lehv conjured an equally vivid image. A client compared reimagining the Steel to changing the tires on a car still in motion.

Fine by Lehv.

“For us, it’s been a whirlwind, but in a good way,” he said. “There’s no question we face our fair share of challenges both on and off the ice, but we really feel like we’ve been welcomed with open arms.”

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