Four years ago, Rhinelander got a taste of junior hockey.
A lot has happened since the fledgling Wisconsin Junior Hockey League (WJHL) - and its Rhinelander franchise, the Daggers - folded, but according to the Daggers' former coach, junior hockey will be back in town this fall.
Igor Myaskovskiy is part of a group that has established two franchises in the newly-formed Midwest Junior Hockey League (MWJHL) for players ages 15-21 that is scheduled to begin play in mid-September.
The Rhinelander Street Cats and Ironwood Bears are slated to be part of the league, which is based out of Ohio and has teams in five different states. The league will have 16 teams for the 2012-2013 season, the MWJHL said in a press release Tuesday.
"I think it's a very good opportunity for us," Myaskovskiy told the River News. "We've had a deal with that league for a couple months. It looks nice and solid. As of right now, six or seven teams out of 16 have a full house of players who want to play this season."
The Rhinelander Ice Association is "cautiously optimistic" about the new development, according to multiple sources. The association is taking a wait-and-see approach to the new team and league, the sources said.
"We definitely have measures in place to make sure that they are going to come up with the funds," RIA manager Brett Aylesworth said, alluding to the 2008 fiasco with the WJHL that left coaches, players and ice associations across the state high and dry. "It will help the RIA on a financial level, if it does come to fruition, which will have an additional (positive) impact on our community and our members ... If it all comes together, like it should, it will be exciting. It will help the community. It will help us and these junior kids will have a place to play."
It has been a long journey for Myaskovskiy, who coached the Daggers before the WJHL shut its doors just weeks into its inaugural season.
"I felt something was going wrong after a couple of weeks with that league," he said. "I did not receive any compensation for my coaching. A lot of kids were screwed up because they paid and did not see the (full) season be played - maybe four or five games. Everybody had a feeling that something would go wrong."
Once the league dissolved, Myaskovskiy vowed to bring junior hockey back to Rhinelander. That led him to from a new franchise, the Rhinelander Polar Bears, which sought entry into the Superior International Junior Hockey League (SIJHL), contingent on approval from USA Hockey. Myaskovskiy collected over 1,000 signatures from people in Rhinelander and surrounding communities in support of the franchise in the fall of 2010. In January 2011, the SIJHL withdrew its support of the Rhinelander franchise and USA Hockey rejected the Polar Bears proposal.
Myaskovskiy tried an alternate route, and hoped to establish an independent junior hockey league for the 2011-12 season, but that plan never gained traction.
The Great Lakes Junior Hockey League, changed its focus after four seasons of ice hockey, leaving USA Hockey for the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) and switching from ice hockey to roller hockey.
Several of the GLJHL's former teams stuck with USA Hockey and moved to the Minnesota Junior Hockey League. Others, including the Michigan Ice Dogs of Dearborn, Mich. and the Soo Firehawks of St. Ignace, Mich. joined the newly formed MWJHL, an ice hockey league sanctioned by the AAU.
The league announced Tuesday that it will hold a 50-game regular season schedule with the 16 teams grouped into conferences and divisions based on geographic location. Rhinelander, Ironwood and Soo will be part of the American Conference North Division with the Traverse City (Mich.) Cohos.
Myaskovskiy said his dealings with the MWJHL have gone well, so far.
"This league, we have an absolute different feeling. Everything is going nice, smooth and solid without any bumps," he said.
Players looking to take their talents to the collegiate or professional level typically use junior hockey as a stepping stone.
Aylesworth said a junior hockey team in Rhinelander would have its benefits.
"It would definitely bring more interest to hockey in the community," he said. "The more people you can get in the ice arena, be it watching the game or playing the game, the more people are exposed to it, like it and enjoy it. It could have an impact on our youth program, bringing more kids into it with more excitement for hockey in Rhinelander."
Aylesworth noted that attendance for Daggers' home games in 2008 was "similar to a high school game, maybe slightly less," but added that fans, like everyone else, had the rug pulled out from under them before they had a chance to establish a connection with the Rhinelander team.
"In the long-term, it would be nice to see them have a lot of fans, but it's going to take some work to get to that point I think," he said.
Myaskovskiy noted that the feedback he has received indicates an interest among area hockey fans.
"I have already received some interest from the town," he said. "Almost every day, I receive a good amount of phone calls. I meet people on the streets they ask me, 'Igor, what's going on? Is it real that we have a junior hockey team back to Rhinelander?' I'm glad to tell them, 'Yes, we are on the way. It's 99.9, almost 100 percent, guaranteed that we'll have a team this year.'"
The MWJHL will hold a free agent tryout July 27-29 in the greater Chicago area. The Rhinelander franchise will hold its own set of tryouts in Blaine, Minn. (July 21), Cloquet, Minn. (July 22), Rhinelander (July 28) and Milwaukee (Aug. 4). The best players from these tryouts will be invited to the team's final two-day tryout in Madison (Aug. 18-19).
Myaskovskiy, who will coach the Street Cats, said the tryouts are open, but the team would not select players that currently play for Rhinelander High School.
"We have an agreement with Rhinelander (High School), we cannot use local players who play for high school (teams)," he said. "We don't want to make any conflicts with the high school teams. Our players must be 15-21 years old. We accept any players (born) from 1992-1997. Right now we have a line of players overseas and from Canada, but if we have some local players (that have graduated from high school), they are more than welcome. I want to give them a chance to be a part of our team."
The Street Cats Rhinelander tryout falls on the final day of summer ice at the Rhinelander Ice Arena. Aylesworth said the RIA does not typically flood the rink for winter use until mid-October, but that the RIA could have the rink ready for hockey by Sept. 17 to accommodate the team.
If you are interested in playing for the Rhinelander Street Cats contact Brian Adams @ Bradams25@yahoo.com thank you