By Shereen Siewert
WAUSAU — Midway through the Wausau RiverWolves’ inaugural season, Head Coach Tim Brownell says it’s “playoffs or bust.”
And with the team currently sitting in the fourth playoff spot, that goal is entirely realistic, said Brownell, who also acts as chief of hockey operations for the organization.
“If we can do that, make the playoffs, it’s a big deal for us,” Brownell said.
Making the playoffs won’t just be good for morale, Brownell said. Reaching that benchmark in the team’s first season will make recruiting future players much easier.
The RiverWolves team is one of 48 in the junior hockey league’s NA3HL, one of six Tier III leagues nationwide. Junior hockey programs are for players age 16-20 who seek to hone their skills before going on to college hockey or a higher tier league. The teams play a 47-game regular season.
The experience is a rich one for players who come from all over the world, from Canada to Texas and even the Czech Republic. Most are out of high school, but three RiverWolves attend classes online and will graduate at their home schools this spring.
Co-Captain Owen Routheut, a 19-year-old standout from Feversham, Ontario, said junior hockey is preparing him for possible college play, where the typical freshman player is 21 years old.
“Junior hockey is a bridge between high school and college,” Routheut said. “It helps us develop our skills, be better players. And we see so many places, meet new people from all over the world.”
Routheut has been with the team since its debut in November. Others, like Ryan Hempel, are newcomers to the team, as Brownell continues to make changes and assemble the group he thinks is most likely to come out winning at the end of the season.
Hempel, 18, arrived in Wausau just last week and is eager to contribute to the team. But moving has been an adjustment for Hempel, who is from the Houston, Tex. area.
“The hardest part? Driving in the snow,” Hempel said. “I got stuck. This is nothing like where I’m from, but that’s okay. I feel good about the team, where we’re going.”
The routine is often grueling. The athletes, who live with host families, have long workouts and practices nearly every day, with games held mostly on the weekends. Each host family is paid a monthly stipend of $300 to help defray costs for food and lodging for their guests.
And you can imagine, Brownell said, just how much hockey players can eat.
“We wouldn’t be able to do any of this without our host families,” Brownell said. “They’ve been great.”
In addition to support from host families, Brownell said the team is enjoying massive community support, with crowds of 500-600 people regularly attending each game.
“It’s clear that this community sees the value in this,” Brownell said. “It’s great entertainment in a family friendly environment.”
The next home game for the RiverWolves is Friday, Feb. 2, when the team takes on the Wisconsin Whalers. Doors open at 6 p.m. and the puck drops at 7 p.m. at Marathon Park Ice Arena. The first 500 fans through the door will receive a free mascot bobblehead.
For more information and a complete schedule, visit www.riverwolveshockey.com.
Top photo: Owen Routheut (left) and Ryan Hempel, members of the Wausau RiverWolves hockey team