When Larry Robbins took over ownership of the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel in 2015, he sent an organization-wide email making his intentions clear.
“We’re going to relentlessly pursue championships,” Robbins wrote.
Two years later, Robbins got his wish. The 17-year-old franchise won its first championship last week with a 2-1 overtime victory against the Sioux City Musketeers in the fifth and deciding game of the Clark Cup Final.
Forward Tyler Gratton scored 11:30 into overtime to cap a season in which the Steel established franchise records with 38 victories and 81 points.
“Being part of that first group to win a championship for a franchise is really special,” said alternate captain Jack Badini, who will play for Harvard this fall. “We’re like a family, and it will be like that the rest of our lives.”
Steel coach Dan Muse has difficulty putting the championship moment into words. But after the team finished last season with five consecutive victories and won its first 10 games this season, Muse knew he had a special group.
Muse saw his team play through the rigors of the regular season before the Steel advanced through their first postseason in nine years. And when they reached Game 5, Muse understood the moment Robbins wrote about might finally be a reality.
“It’s a process,” Muse said. “What makes a good team great is they don’t need a big moment, they don’t need a changing moment. They’re consistently getting better and growing as the year goes on.”
From the bench, Muse watched as Gratton fired a shot that snuck under the crossbar for the game-winning goal. It set off an on-ice celebration that reached the seats where Robbins, general manager Ryan Bennett and president Dan Lehv sat. After two years of changing the franchise’s culture, everything came together in one moment.
“It was a special moment to win it as we did,” Lehv said. “You can’t write a better script. It was on the road, in overtime in a deciding Game 5. It’s a night we’re all going to remember for a very long time.”
Badini, a native of Old Greenwich, Connecticut, will remember this season as the one in which the Steel played deeper into the spring than either of Chicago’s other hockey franchises.
Though the Steel aren’t on the same level as the Blackhawks — or even the Wolves of the American Hockey League — Lehv believes the city’s hockey landscape is big enough to support all three organizations. The Steel drew more than 2,000 fans at both of the Clark Cup Final games at the Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, and Lehv hopes the championship season will add to the momentum that grew throughout the season.
But for Muse, nothing changes.
“If you have guys that are getting better consistently and if we do a really good job of that, winning is going to be a product of having that right environment and having those right people in place,” Muse said. “But for us, the expectation is the same.”
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