The 2016-17 Chicago Steel hockey season was a memorable one.
The club not only made the playoffs, but won a semifinal series and a Western Division title. Then the team won its first-ever Clark Cup title in a dramatic five-games series.
“This year is a much younger team,” defender Derek Daschke said. “I know we are one of the youngest teams in the league this year. So we are keeping things very simple out on the ice this year.”
That is what the United States Hockey League is all about.
There will be turnover of not only players but coaches. Not only do the Steel have new players this year, they have a new coach. Mark Abalan replaced Dan Muse, who left for an assistant coaching position with the Nashville Predators of the NHL.
“As a returning player this year, myself and Graham Lillibridge, our roles will not change much,” Daschke said. “We’ll maybe take on more of a leadership role and showing the younger players the ropes of the league.”
Daschke, who will play college hockey in the fall of 2018 at Western Michigan, and Lillibridge are holdovers from last season along with forwards Tyler Gratton and Baker Shore. They will lead a core of players that will look to lead the Steel back to the postseason.
“I think with us this year it will be a lot of hard work and our work ethic, which will get us wins early on more so than our skill,” Daschke said. “But I know that will come in time for us.”
Abalan is no stranger to the USHL having been an assistant in the league. He comes to the Steel after serving as head coach for Shattuck St. Mary’s U16 team in Minnesota last season.
“It is going to be a lot of the kids getting to know each other early on,” Abalan said. “For a lot of these kids, they do not know much about the USHL and how things work and how things are supposed to be done and what really is expected of them.”
Abalan said there will be a bit of a learning curve for his team this season. His plan is to have the Steel play a fast game and make sure details are stressed.
Other players to watch this year include defender Robbie Stucker (a draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning) and forward Tyler Gratton.
“For us, it will come down to such things as where to be at during a man-advantage or where do you catch in stride while on a rush up ice,” Abalan said. “We want to get these kids in good habits early on. It will be important for us to compete each day, have the best work attitude possible each day and be coachable. When they can buy in to what we are doing, we’ll be in good shape.”
The Steel begin the regular season Oct. 6 in Dubuque.
The home opener and championship banner-raising ceremony are at 7:05 p.m. Oct. 7 against the U.S. National Development team at the Fox Valley Ice Arena.