Chicago Steel owners Bruce and Donna Liimatainen have seen countless players represent the Steel well before moving on to play college hockey or pursue other opportunities on the ice.
But does the Riverside couple have a favorite player? That answer is as easy as an open net goal.
“Our son, Sam, played with the Steel for two years,” Donna Liimatainen says. “He absolutely loved it. The Steel and all the other organizations in the United States Hockey League serve as stepping stones to help players, coaches and staff move on the next level.”
Approximately 95 percent of the players on the Steel end up playing for Division I universities.
John Montalbano, director of business operations for the Steel, further clarifies the fundamental purpose of the organization.
“Our main goal is to develop players into Division I [hockey] college athletes,” he says. “The USHL is a top tier Junior A Hockey League consisting of players between 16 to 20 years old. The job of our coaching staff and front office staff is developing these young guys into better hockey players and people.
“Currently, we have 150 NHL players including Patrick Sharp of the Blackhawks and Adam Burish [former Blackhawk, plays for Dallas Stars] that played in our league. Typically, we get at least an NHL draft pick per team per year.”
While making it to the NHL is the dream of essentially all junior hockey league players, Donna recalls a favorite Steel story that happened on a less grandiose stage than an NHL arena but no less meaningful.
“When Bruce and I first owned the team, a father of one of our players thanked us for making him a rich man,” she says. “I think he was a farmer and he had saved like $80,000 so his son could go to college. His kid ended up going to St. Lawrence in the Ivy League on a full ride because of playing hockey with the Steel.”
Married for over 30 years, the Liimatainens have called Riverside their home for 26 years. Aptly described by Donna as a “busy man who’s hard to reach,” Bruce is the Chairman and CEO of A. Finkl & Sons Co.
“We love Riverside,” Donna says. “It’s a friendly town that’s very family-oriented and low key.”
The Liimatainens’ son, Sam (now 23) attended Blythe, Hauser and then Fenwick and Riverside-Brookfield high schools for two years apiece. Sam played for the Steel during his senior year at RB and first year at Triton College.
“We’re a bunch of hockey nuts,” Donna says with a chuckle. “We always used to take our son to Blackhawks games. When an opportunity arose when the USHL was developing their program we definitely wanted to be a part of it.”
A decade later, the Liimatainen’s claim the third longest ownership run in the league. With an eclectic roster of 26 players hailing from hockey-sounding hometowns like Hermantown (Minn.), Schenectady (N.Y.) and even a player from Switzerland, the Steel boasts six players from Illinois. Nineteen-year-old Nick D’Avolio, from North Riverside, made the team via a rigorous selection camp over the summer.
“Tryouts were really tough because a lot of kids came out for the [selection] camp,” recalled D’Avolio. “The level of hockey is unbelievable. It’s been quite an adjustment for me.”
The 5-foot-9, 180-pound forward tallied his first goal and assist this season a few weeks ago during the Steel’s 8-3 loss to the Indiana Ice. Playing for the Oro Medonte 77’s in Canada last season, D’Avolio registered 21 goals and 27 assists.
“Nick is a great teammate,” said Steel forward Adam Krause, the No. 1 overall draft pick in the 2010 USHL Entry Draft. “He’s an upbeat guy, works hard in practice and always challenges you on the ice.”
While winning games is job No. 1, the Steel prioritizes interaction with fans and community involvement.
“Our players visit schools to talk with kids, make public appearances and generally are very community-oriented,” Montalbano says. “People can expect great customer service and fan interaction at our games. Our players have autograph signings, our mascot is always running around, and we have t-shirt and hot dog tosses. We want to make sure our fans feel welcomed and want to come back.”
While attracting fans in a large, diverse area like Chicago is a challenge, the Steel typically draw about 1,600 spectators per game in the 2,100-seat capacity Edge Ice Arena in Bensenville.
“Competing with so many other [entertainment/sports] entities can be difficult,” Donna says. “For example, we know we get more fans in our building once the high school football season is over. Sponsorships are vital for us. We educate the community about what the Steel is about on and off the ice. Word of mouth, visiting rinks and talking with kids are the best forms of publicity.”
The Steel offer several amenities for their fans. Formerly the practice facility for the Blackhawks, The Edge Ice Arena has a clean, sleek and intimate vibe permeating the arena. The aforementioned interaction between players and fans is another positive. Most of all, the Steel offer high end hockey at very reasonable prices.
“With teams like the Blackhawks and [Chicago] Wolves around, we compete with our pricing,” Montalbano said. “We have family packs where a family of four can get four tickets, four hot dogs, four sodas and four t-shirts ranging from a total of $27 to $32. We also have very affordable suites, great sightlines throughout the arena and free parking.”
The Steel employ a small, committed front office staff.
“The Steel front office is a group of self-starters,” Donna says. “I’ve enjoyed brainstorming ideas with them. We have done fundraisers and been very active in communities.
“Anything we can do to help our players pursue their goals is very rewarding for all of us.”