EAGLE RIVER, Wis. – Houghton native Blake Hietala has been named head coach of the new North American Hockey League team at Eagle River.
Hietala was looking to move on after the United States Hockey League’s Green Bay Gamblers announced that former head coach Pat Mikesch was leaving the organization. He spent four seasons with the Gamblers after working one season as an assistant coach and scouting director for the Madison Capitols in 2017-18.
With the Copper Island Hockey Club, LLC announcing that they were buying the Magicians, who play in the North American Hockey League, and moving them to Wisconsin, Hietala jumped at the chance to face his own team. Asked about it, he felt ready.
“I think so. I’m excited for it,” said Hietala. “I was an assistant for five years in this league. I felt like I was ready for a new challenge and I wasn’t sure where that challenge was going to be, whether it would be a college assistant position somewhere or a head coach somewhere. in junior hockey.
“I think the time was right for this opportunity and the location is good for my family. It all kind of came together. I think we’re just excited for the big challenge.
The former Huskies forward is thrilled to be able to start fresh with his new team.
“I am obviously honored” he said. “First, that the ownership group was willing to trust me to lead this team. I am delighted to be able to put my own stamp on a program. It’s not a new organization, but it’s a new team. So we’re going to be able to put my own spin on the way we do things. I think it has the opportunity to be a very good place to play.
The Eagle River team, formerly the Minnesota Magicians, will adopt a yet-to-be-determined nickname and play at Eagle River Stadium, an old-school wooden domed complex just outside of town.
Hietala, who was born in Houghton and played 18U AAA hockey for the Ojibwa Eagles, played two seasons with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Melfort Mustangs before returning home to Michigan Tech, where he played five seasons with the Huskies before bouncing around the ECHL. and SPHL throughout the 2016-17 season before hanging up his skates and joining the Capitols, which was not originally in his long-term plans.
Hietala bounced between ECHL and SPHL after leaving Michigan Tech in 2015. His final season was 2016-17, split between ECHL’s Kalamazoo Wings and SPHL’s Huntsville Havoc. He scored a total of 4 goals and 13 assists in 35 matches.
“I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do” Hietala said after his final season. “I didn’t know if I was going to try to play again, I didn’t know if I was going to get a 9-5 in an office somewhere. Then, as I looked retirement straight in the eye, it got a little scary, the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to go to the rink every day.
A friend contacted Hietala, an assistant position for the Madison Capitols in the USHL.
“I was a little hesitant, but I ended up getting an interview and thought I was going to enjoy it,” he said. “I fell in love with coaching.”
Hietala said he was lucky his coaching career kept him relatively close to the Copper Country.
“Honestly, that was never really the plan, that’s just how it worked” he said. “Obviously we are grateful. It makes everything easier for the family. With coaching, where we’re on the road a lot, it makes it difficult for my wife, so I think that’s helped in that regard.
“She is close to the family, and we now have a two-year-old, so the grandparents are closer and all that. I don’t think it was ever planned, but we were lucky to see how my career path worked out.
Hietala said working with junior age children (16-18) has been rewarding. He relishes the chance to help guide the young men as they make the transition to being away from home for the first time and being responsible for themselves.
“I think of a 16 or 17 year old kid, his first time away from home and going through some kind of difficult situation for the first time in his life – It’s probably a bit intimidating to see him walk into a head office of the coach “, said Hietala. “So, I kinda relish that role. I’m gonna be the guy this guy can talk to. I think I can explain things in a way that will resonate and, and make them understand, and also not make them go into a shell. So, yeah, I’m sort of proud of that part of the job, that’s for sure.
Spending four seasons with Hancock native Mikesch helped Hietala understand his role as a young men’s leader.
“It was amazing,” said Hietala. “Pat is, I think, in my mind, one of the brightest hockey minds we have. He is an elite talent developer. I think if you look at the players we’ve brought into college hockey for the past two years, you can’t deny that he’s a very good boss. Obviously he gave me an opportunity, let me grow with it, and gave me a ton of responsibility. (He) kind of let me learn on my own, while just being there to help. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity he gave me here.