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By Michael Trzinski, Editor Emeritus, 05/15/23, 1:15PM CDT


The creation of Team Wisconsin and its rapid ascent to the 2002 National Championship

--PART 3 (Creating the Championship Team)

Team Wisconsin held tryouts the third summer (2001) at Greenheck and even had a guest coach for the weekend. Former NHL player Gino Cavallini was the new guy in charge of Wisconsin AAA, formerly called Pettit National Selects, but today they are called the Jr. Admirals. During a group introduction to a tryout team of players, Carey forgot to mention that Gino had played in the NHL. Cavallini, a physically large man, glared and said “NHL.” Carey, a fraction the size of Cavallini, quickly recovered and mentioned Cavallini’s NHL career.

Following Team Wisconsin tryouts that fall, Cavallini, in a negative connotation towards TW, told many people that his program would beat Team Wisconsin. He would continue to voice his opinion all through the fall/winter of 2001-2002.

The following spring (2002), TW beat Wisconsin AAA handily in the play-downs. “Gino sought me out after his team’s lopsided loss to provide a congratulations and say he was wrong.” remembered Carey. “That was a gesture I will always remember--most people don’t have the inner strength and character to admit they were wrong.”

After collecting the player registrations for three years, Carey probably knew the high school players in Wisconsin better than anyone. And everything was done by snail mail or in person. Forms and checks arrived daily in Carey’s mailbox that summer.

“Like the character in the movie Rain Man, I had that information implanted in my brain,” recalled Carey. “I woke up with it on my mind and went to bed with it (on my mind). I was consumed with improving the team.”

He wasn’t the only one. After the first year, Team Wisconsin used coaches in different geographic areas as a resource. Veteran coaches like Steve Kirley (Hayward) and Bill Thoreson (Antigo) joined Lee Skille (Madison) and Cal Roadhouse (Milwaukee area) to cover all four corners of the state. If there was a quality player in any rink in the state, those four, plus Carey, probably knew who he was.

“Those four made a significant impact and three of the four never received credit,” said Carey. “Cal Roadhouse attended every tryout to evaluate players in my tenure. Skille got credit because he was the visible one, on the bench during the games. But Kirley, Thoreson, and Roadhouse were also important to the team’s success.”

The coaching staff saw some changes; Skille remained as head coach, but Dave Witting and MJ Laggis departed after two seasons. (Mark Edwards had coached during the first season only.) John Brymer coached for a few weeks in the fall and was later replaced by John Sturges.

Evaluators from St. Olaf College joined the handful of evaluators from previous seasons to rank the players. Carey was excited to see the quality of the players that performed at the tryout. “I felt great,” said Carey. “We made it to nationals the prior season and I thought we were good, likely improved, with this group of players.” The team had an excellent defensive corps, with speed, skill, size, and depth at all positions.

Through prior year’s conversations with other teams, Carey was able to strengthen the 2001 fall schedule. After beating Detroit Compuware at the Des Moines Buc Bowl in fall 2000, Carey and the Compuware coaches talked and as a result, TW played in the Compuware tournament in fall 2001. The team won four of five games in Detroit, losing only to nemesis Chicago Chill in the title game, 6-5.

Also, in the fall of 2000, Team Wisconsin beat Shattuck’s Midget AAA team (their second team) and talks between TW and Shattuck helped to fashion a home/away weekend series with top team Shattuck Prep in the fall 2001 season.

At one game at Shattuck, a Waterloo Blackhawks (USHL) scout was in the stands and was watching as Joe Pavelski (SPASH) won face-offs, won battles for 50/50 pucks, and made passes and possessed the puck as only elite players could against Shattuck players who were, or were going to be, D-1 commits.

The next season, an 18-year-old Pavelski led the Blackhawks with 36 goals, 33 assists, and 69 points. Not bad for a guy that scouts thought couldn’t skate well enough to play at the next level.

TW didn’t fare as well as a team against Shattuck, winning only one of four games in the ‘pre’ part of the schedule. “The games were relatively competitive, but they were the better team,” remembered Carey. “Shattuck was loaded with talent.”

In one of the games at Greenheck, Coach Skille was looking for a way to slow down the speedy Shattuck team on the Olympic-sized ice sheet. So he put out five defensemen to see if that would be effective. It was a short-lived experiment. “One of the reasons Lee was a great coach was his willingness to try new things,” noted Carey. “People probably thought we were crazy (to do that).”

Carey set up an ‘Opportunities in Hockey’ seminar in Schofield that fall. The late Andy Noel (Choate Prep) and Joe Baldarotta (UW-Stevens Point) were two of the speakers. Terry Brand arranged a meeting room for the event, which was open to anyone. “The attendance was not great, but it was still a success,” said Carey.

TW had a practice and two games in early September before the 9/11 attacks happened. The team was scheduled to play the following weekend in the Detroit Compuware tournament but Coach Skille wanted to cancel TW’s appearance. Carey called the tournament director and found out that no one was canceling. After a brief discussion, Carey told Skille that he felt strongly that they should honor the fallen by continuing to be strong and by living their lives. In the end, the team went to Detroit and took second place.

The team had a great fall, going 15-7-2, including opening the season with six straight victories. And just like fall turns to winter, the TW players parted ways and joined their respective WIAA teams. On March 2, the SPASH Panthers beat Superior 2-0 to win its first state title under Coach Jack Stoskopf, Jr. Starring for that team were a pair of TW players: Mark Lutz and Joe Pavelski.

One week later, TW defeated both the Milwaukee AAA team and the Madison Capitols to win the state Tier I title and would move on to the following weekend to the Central Districts, which would be played at Cap Ice.

Prior to the state playoffs, Carey was shopping at Kohl’s with his wife, Lisa. He saw some red fleece jackets that were on sale, and after a little dickering with the store manager, walked out of the store with 30 fleece jackets. Plus a new credit card!

Rob Kieckhefer, a Milwaukee-area businessman, made a donation to help defray the cost of the jackets. And after John Sturges embroidered a TW logo on the chest, the team not only played good, but they looked good. “At Nationals during team events, we received a lot of compliments on those red fleece jackets,” remembered Carey. “We were a sharp-looking team.”

In mid-March, TW opened the Districts against the Chill, and the Chicago team put a hurting on TW, blanking them 5-0. “The game was actually closer than the score indicated,” said Carey. “The greatest thing is that the kids took the experience and really learned from it.” The quick learning would come in handy in early April.

The next day, Team Wisconsin returned the favor, shutting out the St. Louis Jr. Blues 7-0, with Jason Lettau (Fond du Lac) scoring a pair of goals to lead the way, along with David Susens (Wausau West) and Nick Sirota (Beaver Dam) chipping in with playmakers.

Evan Graboyes (University School) had 13 saves, as TW out-shot the Blues 42-13.

That set up the rematch with the Chicago Chill.

”We told the players in the locker room before the game that they were playing for every high school hockey player in Wisconsin,” said Coach Lee Skille. “Make them proud and keep us on the map.”

Sirota scored the game-winner in the third period and TW pulled off an exciting 3-2 win. Graboyes stopped fifteen shots as the TW defense was very stingy in the win.

After the game, as Carey walked out to the handshake line, tears started flowing down his face.

“I just broke down,” recalled Carey. “I didn’t want anyone to notice, particularly the players. Lee Skille saw me and gave me a hug. I actually cried more after that.” The year-long struggle took its toll on Carey. “It was a challenging time, with lots of ‘arrows’ thrown at us. I took everything personally.”

After creating, running, and ‘being’ Team Wisconsin, Carey had told his wife that this was his final year. “I put my heart and soul into it,” stated Carey. “I loved doing it, but the time, 10 consecutive weekends in a hotel, and emotional commitment was taking its toll on my family and work life--the work that pays the bills.”

Next up was the USA Hockey Nationals in Colorado Springs, which would be Carey’s last involvement with the team.

Or would it?

(Part 3 of a multi-part series on the creation and early success of Team Wisconsin)