Extending championship success from one season to the next is not an easy task in junior hockey, particularly in the highest level of the country in the United States Hockey League. Simply carrying championship-caliber play from the regular season into the playoffs can prove difficult.
The Chicago Steel did both this season and they did it in often-dominant fashion.
Steel coach Brock Sheahan said the continued success confirms a vision of the program shared with general manager Ryan Hardy.
“A possession and skill game, development throughout the year, some people think it doesn’t translate to success throughout the year or success in the playoffs,” Sheehan said. “I feel like we were able to show that it can happen.”
Many junior teams have built programs that allow them to remain strong from season to season, but roster turnover is among the issues making staying on top difficult.
The pandemic introduced even more obstacles in the past season, but it also served in some ways to add motivation for the Steel.
After earning the 2020 Anderson Cup as the USHL’s regular season champions, the Steel never got a chance to pursue the Clark Cup ahead of the playoffs being canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Steel came back and not only repeated as Anderson Cup champions, but also followed up the regular season dominance by winning the Clark Cup.
“I think the ending of last season was really tough for all of us,” Sean Farrell, Steel forward and 2021 USHL Player of the Year, said. “I think, coming into this season, we had a good group of returning guys who kind of knew what we needed to do to win in the league. I think, after having our season cut short last year, we wanted to go out and win not only for everyone that’s here this year, but also for everyone that was a part of it for the year before.
“It was definitely some added motivation.”
Chicago has now won the last three available titles, the first USHL team to do so since the Green Bay Gamblers won both titles in 1996 and came back with the Anderson Cup title in 1997.
Green Bay is also the last team to repeat as Anderson Cup champions, leading the league during the 2008-09 and 2009-10 regular seasons.
The Dubuque Fighting Saints, in 2013, were the last team to claim the Anderson and Clark Cups in the same season.
Chicago surrendered 10 goals to Muskegon while losing the season opener, and had an unimpressive .500 record four games into the season, a far cry from the success they would achieve over the rest of the year.
“We started off this season not as well as we’d like to,” Steel defenseman Jake Livanavage said. “But, we picked it up and wound up being the No. 1 seed in the East.”
By the time the regular season was over, the Steel were alone in first in the Eastern Conference by nine standings points and at least 17 points ahead of all but one team in the league with a 38-11-3-2 record. They followed that up by winning seven of eight Clark Cup Playoffs games.
“We were just keeping a narrow focus on what we needed to do and how we were going to come out of there with a championship,” Livanavage said, pointing out that although the team did its due diligence with scouting reports, the approach was to force opponents into playing the Steel’s style of game.
The Steel have won two of the last four Clark Cups, including in 2017 when Livanavage’s brother, Johnny Walker, was part of the championship.
Walker’s title carried a bit more suspense.
“They wound up going into overtime in Game 5 and you get nervous and can’t sit still,” said Livanavage, who remembers traveling back and forth between Chicago and Sioux City during the series. “Finally, it was in. … After that, you’re just super excited and can’t really believe it went in.”
The Steel often minimized suspense this season, scoring 24 more goals than every other USHL team in the regular season with Farrell, Matt Coronato, Josh Doan and Erik Middendorf occupying the top four spots in league scoring. Chicago more than doubled the goal production of their opponents, 30-14, in the playoffs.
Sheehan said the coaches, staff and players were grateful for how the season turned out.
“Just like in every walk of life, there was a lot of uncertainty,” he said. “There were a lot of procedures and protocols, but in the end, it was just being grateful for being able to do the things we love.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.