Last season was one unlike any other. For the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel, it was one of redemption.
After having a promising 2019-20 season cut short, winning the regular season championship Anderson Cup, and looking like probable Clark Cup champs, the Steel claimed the final win of the revamped 2020-21 season and grabbed the organization’s second Clark Cup.
We chatted with former Steel general manager, now with the Toronto Maple Leafs organization as the director of minor league operations, Ryan Hardy to recap what last year was like.
USA Hockey: Take us back to this past season.
Ryan Hardy: It was really just embracing the unknown. I think it was a great experience in a lot of ways for the kids in just having to be resilient. Learning how, when things are out of your control, just how to navigate. It was challenging at times with all the restrictions and not knowing in the beginning whether we were going to play. By the end of it, it was obviously very fulfilling and we’re very grateful that the kids got to play and had a great experience. Anytime you win, it’s certainly special and, given all the added challenges this year, it made it even that much more special.
USA Hockey: You talk about challenges -- what were some in particular you felt with your team?
Hardy: It was challenging in the way of, there were things you do as a group or social things they do together in a normal season that they just couldn’t do. Because of the restrictions, the only real time they got to spend with each other was really getting ready for games or on the bus. We had to socially distance, we had masks and everything--it was challenging. I give our team a lot of credit, they were pretty creative in their ability to kind of handle it. It was nice when the spring came along and it got warmer and the restrictions and communication was such where we could do things together outside. We played a lot of miniature golf together. We were able to do some things to build our culture and do things together as a group, and that’s a testament to the resilience of the kids. I was really impressed with how they dealt with all the curveballs thrown their way at any given time. We’d have days where we were riding the bus to an away game and a billet would test positive and one of the guys was caught in that way so he had to get off the bus and go quarantine, it was crazy, but it was good and the kids really did a nice job.
USA Hockey: Aside from resiliency, what helped your team get the final victory?
Hardy: For the last few years here we’ve been fortunate to, quite frankly, have the best team in the USHL. Last year’s team, we were 15 points ahead, setting all kinds of records. That was obviously a tough pill to swallow to not be able to see that through. We had a lot of returning players, probably half our team from last year was back. We had a lot of skilled players, we had a lot of players that felt that they had something they wanted to complete from the year before, and our new players did a great job just embracing the style that we play.
I think we get a lot of credit for being an offensive hockey team and scoring a lot of goals, but I think the kids did an amazing job defensively. A lot of the stuff that they had to go through with the virus did make them more mentally tough and more resilient. We felt down the stretch that we could handle any situation, so whatever happened in the game, whatever would transpire, we could make adjustments and we had the character in our locker room.
USA Hockey: Extra sweet to win given you guys were having a rock-solid year in 2019-20 before it was cut short?
Hardy: I would say, to be honest, it was really a relief for me personally to think about how good the hockey that the kids played over the two years was, to not come out of that with a championship would have been a tough pill to swallow. When the final horn went off, you’re excited but definitely a great sense of relief and maybe a little bit of sadness too that the kids from last year’s team who moved on to college or whatever didn’t get to experience that winning because they were so much a part of that.
But when you think about the perspective of the larger view of society, people have missed out on far worse things than this, but it’s definitely rewarding, definitely exciting but certainly also a relief.
USA Hockey: How wonderful is it to see the USHL grow and have become such a prominent development league in the U.S.?
Hardy: I think it’s incredible. I came back to the league three years ago and it was in a good place and really was making a lot of progress, and I feel like really across the league, especially this year with the pandemic and so many guys coming back from college and guys coming from different leagues where they didn’t play, the quality of hockey is so good.
Each year, more and more players are getting drafted or having a lot of success in international hockey that have come through the USHL. It’s really a league that draws players from around the globe and does a good job of creating a platform for those players. It’s been fun to be a part of, and certainly it’s a testament to the people across the league that do a lot of great work.