-PART 1 (The Beginning)--
Matt Carey and Doug Coleman were at the Pettit Center in Milwaukee in the late 1990s watching a AAA hockey game between Team Illinois and the Pettit National Selects, which was the name of the Milwaukee AAA program at that time. Carey and Coleman both concluded that a team with only Milwaukee players could not beat Team Illinois. Carey said, “What if we get Madison area players, too? Then we could compete.
“Originally, I was focused on a fall team with Milwaukee area high school players. When I learned that a team from Massachusetts with high school players won a Tier 1 USA Hockey national championship a year prior a light bulb went on.” Optimistic thoughts popped into Carey’s head and seeds of inspiration for Team Wisconsin were planted.
Carey was a 1988 Sun Prairie high school graduate, and team MVP as goalie for the varsity hockey team. He knew many of the coaches in the Madison area, which would come in handy if a team was looking for players in and around the capitol city.
Carey had connections with legendary coaches like his high school coach Steve Hanrahan (Sun Prairie), Lee Skille (Madison West), and Vic Levine (Madison Memorial), all of whom could help persuade key players to try out for an elite state-wide team.
While attending Marquette law school, Carey wore a lot of hockey helmets: coaching goalies for the AAA program in Milwaukee; evaluating players for WAHA; and coaching as an assistant at University School of Milwaukee.
But the thought of having a state-wide ‘all-star’ team stuck in his head and in May 1999, Carey presented a proposal at the WAHA annual meeting in Stevens Point for creation of a ‘pre/post’ team that would be sponsored by WAHA.
A pre/post team would be comprised of WIAA players that would play between 25-30 games before the WIAA season started in early November, and re-group after the WIAA season ended in early March, playing in state and district play-downs in an effort to gain a spot in the USA Hockey National tournament.
The Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association was led by several long-serving board members, many of whom were already retired or near retirement from their full-time careers and set in their ways, and a team like this would be a hard sell, especially coming from a young, fast-talking, enthusiastic ‘kid’ like Matt Carey.
But the ‘kid’ would quickly gain the trust of several board members.
Bud Sheldon was an early advocate, as he and Carey had known each other for many years. But more people on the WAHA leadership group would need to get on board for this dream to become a reality. Mike Connor was interested in the idea of the team, and soon put his heart into helping Carey make it all happen.
Carey, truth be told, was a ‘high school hockey’ guy, meaning that he thought it was best for players to ‘stay at home’ and play for their respective high schools rather than jump ship and play for AAA teams. In the 90s, Milwaukee had the Pettit team, Madison had the Capitols, and Green Bay area had the Northeast Wisconsin Roadrunners.
“I believe [that] strong high school hockey is imperative for Wisconsin,” opined Carey at that time.
And that is why creating and founding a team--which would in time become Team Wisconsin--became a four-year crusade for the newly-married law student.
At the May 1999 meeting, Carey wore a WAHA shirt that Sheldon had given him. Apparently Don Kohlman did not approve. “Where did you get that shirt from?” he barked.
Carey pointed at Sheldon and said, “Bud gave it to me.” Kohlman thawed and Carey thought, saved by Bud!
When it came time to discuss a team name, Jerry Edwards said, “the team will be called Team Wisconsin.”
Carey had his law school graduation the day after the WAHA meeting and met with a financial donor for TW, and that generous donor’s contribution, along with WAHA’s commitment, would keep player costs down, which was a main goal of Carey’s. “I wanted our team to be affordable. The team fee for the first year was $375 and didn’t increase much over my four-year tenure.”
The Pettit National Selects, led by Ralph Anzivino, had wanted to change its name to ‘Team Wisconsin,’ but WAHA had already used that name for its Chicago Showcase entrants. There was a battle between WAHA and Pettit National Selects for several months, but Edwards’ proclamation that this new pre/post team would be called ‘Team Wisconsin’ settled that argument.
Anzivino and Carey had history in the mid-90s, as Matt studied law under the Marquette professor and they became friendly, so much that Carey started coaching goalies for the entire youth organization that Anzivino had started.
In Carey’s third year at Marquette, he joined the University School coaching staff under Cal Roadhouse and that was the beginning of the end of Carey’s friendly relationship with Anzivino.
WAHA would approve Carey’s proposal, and board member Mike Connor would become one of Carey’s biggest advocates. Connor was a driving force for hockey in the northwestern part of Wisconsin, primarily in the Somerset area. He had retired from his career as a national service manager with AT&T, and was looking for a challenge.
He found it with Carey and his campaign to create Team Wisconsin.
Connor and Carey spoke several times a week following the WAHA approval of the pre/post team. Connor was in charge of the high school level teams with WAHA but was excited for the Team Wisconsin project. He mentioned that there were too many discipline problems with his high school duties for WAHA.
“Team Wisconsin was a breath of fresh air for Mike Connor,” stated Carey.
The next step was putting together a coaching staff. Carey had worked with Dave Witting for a half-dozen years and had a good rapport with the Beloit coach. Witting was a big shot in WAHA coaching circles for many years and was a natural choice as head coach of Team Wisconsin. Mark Edwards and MJ Laggis signed on as volunteer assistant coaches.
Once the staff was complete, the next mission was to find a centrally-located ice rink in the Badger State. Up stepped Mike Connor to the plate. He contacted facilities manager Terry Brand at Greenheck Fieldhouse in Schofield and discussed hosting Team Wisconsin for tryouts and games.
Brand and Connor came to an agreement, and Greenheck would be Team Wisconsin’s home for the first three years.
Team Wisconsin now had a home, but didn’t yet have any players.
“In 1999, we didn’t have text, not all people used email, and there wasn’t any social media,” said Carey.
So Carey went about his business of finding players by mailing letters to every WIAA coach, which he found on Doug Coleman’s WIAA coaches mailing list.
“I remember that Cal Roadhouse came over to my house and helped me fold letters and lick envelopes,” Carey said with a laugh.
“Matt went to the WAHA meeting and somehow was granted some money,” recalled Roadhouse. “Next thing I knew, I was licking stamps and sending out invites to Greenheck for tryouts.”
Secondly, Carey worked with his wife Lisa--who worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel--to create a press release, which was then sent to newspapers in the Wisconsin towns that had WIAA teams. “She had a good press release format and contact info for the newspapers,” Carey said.
In the late summer, Carey ordered the team’s first jerseys from Don Kohlman. Witting wanted them to look like the Detroit Red Wings jerseys. When Carey got the jerseys delivered to him, he found the sweaters had a WAHA logo on the front, but ‘Team Wisconsin’ was nowhere to be found on them!
Carey drove to Fond du Lac to return the jerseys to Kohlman, but found Don wasn’t around so Matt talked to Kohlman’s son PJ. “We got the jerseys fixed, but they weren’t very stylish,” remembered Carey.
The tryouts took place at Greenheck in late August and about 100 players showed up. “We actually had more players than WAHA had expected, so I had to get more practice jerseys,” Carey said.
Dave Witting, Mark Edwards, MJ Laggis, plus Roadhouse, Coleman, Tommy Geilfuss, and Andy Bradford were player evaluators at the first tryout, which took place on Saturday and Sunday. The final cut-down happened on Sunday, but it took a few days to contact all the players, due to the lack of text messaging and few people with email.
“It was a different technology back then,” said Carey in an understatement.
Regarding the tryouts, not all the evaluators had the same opinion about certain players. Some liked players that had previously made Central Districts and had been good players in the past. While people were writing names of players on a white board, Cal Roadhouse made a statement that made everyone stop in their tracks.
“Are we going to pick the best players now or that were good two years ago,” asked Roadhouse. “Or players we think have an upside and haven’t peaked yet and may be able to make it to the next level?”
That comment and the thoughts provoked by it defined what Team Wisconsin was going to become in the future. Roadhouse knew a lot of quality players in southeastern Wisconsin that not everybody had heard about. Players like Joe Searl, Landon Holsen, and Jason Lettau from Fond du Lac, and Nick Sirota from Beaver Dam. All four of those players would become big contributors for TW.
Carey scheduled all the games that first year, and not surprisingly, ran into some roadblocks. Since TW was a pre/post team, they could only play games in September, October, and the first week in November, prior to the first WIAA practices. “Some teams were perplexed when I told them we could only schedule games in that small window,” remembered Carey. “And some people confused us with the Milwaukee AAA operation and thought we were a weak team and didn’t want to play us.”
And like many other things with the creation of Team Wisconsin, things didn’t go well for the beginning of the fall 1999 season. The opening weekend in September had the Chicago Express slated for a three-game weekend series at Greenheck. The day before, the Express coach called Carey, wanting to cancel the first game. Carey called Dave Witting and relayed this bad news, saying it would be embarrassing to have a cancellation the first weekend.
“Witting used his ‘Upper Peninsula charm’ and put a little pressure on the Express coach,” recalled Carey. “(They) were short players, so some local players--from Wausau and Wisconsin Rapids, if memory serves--helped fill the Chicago roster.”
The near crisis was averted and the teams completed their series.
TW played a weak fall schedule, but did have six games against perennial powerhouse St. Louis Jr. Blues, and also played in a tournament in Windsor, Ontario. They handled the Jr. Blues, going 4-1-1 in the contests with the St. Louis squad, and even fared well in Windsor.
“We rode a bus to Windsor and played so well that we were the talk of the tourney,” said Carey. “Some of the Canadian dads were buying us beer and were saying that they were ‘blown away’ by how good we were.
“That made me start to think that we weren’t that far away from being a really good hockey team.”
When at home, they played two games on Saturday, usually at 1pm and 7pm, and one game Sunday morning (9am or 10am). “We had a lot of multi-sport athletes, so our schedule was convenient for them,” stated Carey. “We wanted kids to be able to play their fall high school sports in addition to playing for us.”
In addition to the difficulties scheduling established AAA teams, some coaches ‘ridiculed’ Team Wisconsin. Little Caesars coach Chris Coury laughed and said, “your kids won’t be able to compete at the AAA level if they haven’t been in the ‘fire.’” His opinion was shared by many in the AAA ‘world.’
“Those negative comments added fuel to my personal fire to make our team win,” said Carey.
After winning more than half their games in the fall, TW players dispersed to their WIAA teams for the 1999-2000 season. And after Madison Memorial skated off the ice at the Dane County Coliseum with their eighth WIAA title, Team Wisconsin resumed their quest for a state title at Capitol Ice, where both the state and regionals would be held.
(Part 1 of a multi-part series about the creation and early success of Team Wisconsin.)
(Photo courtesy of Lisa Carey)