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Back in the SACC Again

By Dan Bauer, Contributor, 02/14/24, 7:00PM CST


Disclaimer: All opinions expressed in Lockroom Logic are solely those of Dan Bauer and do not reflect the opinions of Wisconsin Prep Hockey or its partners. Dan presents his opinions based upon his lifetime of teaching and coaching experience and we present them unedited.

On December 21 st, 1996, the SWS (Spooner-Webster-Siren) Rails hockey team ended a 49-game road trip and played their first home game in over three years. The Spooner Area Civic Center (SACC) had been renamed the Badgerland Civic Center, but the venue remained the same. Keith Halvorson scored the game-winning shorthanded goal with 69 seconds remaining to defeat Ashland 5-4.

I know, I was behind the bench for every mile of that long and winding road trip.

Last season, twenty-seven years later, eight coaches and a stint as the Northwest Icemen, the Rails returned full time to the abbreviated Spooner Civic Center. Former Rails captain Nick Freeman, who was a sophomore on that team, took over the reigns as head coach a year ago. One of his assistants is former teammate Aaron Graber. Together with assistants Mark Giuliani and Tom Kissack they began the task of rebuilding the Rails program last year.

Freeman, born in nearby Shell Lake and raised in Spooner, was a three-sport athlete for the Rails. After coaching in the youth ranks for sixteen years, he followed previous alumni Tom Romportl and Nate Haskins into the head coaching position. The coaching learning curve can be steep and unfortunately young coaches are often shown the door too early. Hopefully the third time is the charm and patience will allow the current staff time to build their own program.

We are an instant gratification society, but creating a successful team culture doesn’t happen overnight. As a freshman, Freeman’s Rails lost 12-0 to eventual state champion Superior. Three years later they came within a win of going to the state tournament.

Recently I watched the young Rails team, with only four seniors and eight freshmen, battle and out-play Antigo for most of the game. They out-shot the Red Robins 43-19, but fell victim to the Owen Dickman/Eli Kassler dynamic duo who scored their 81st and 82nd goals of the season, in a 3-1 win over Spooner. Hockey can be cruel like that sometimes. Chicago Blackhawks forward Jason Dickenson recently said about the Hawks struggle to rebuild their franchise, “You can be proud of the product, and not happy with the result.” The product the Rails demonstrated to me was some of the same passion and grit that their head coach played with many years ago. It is easy for me to see Coach Freeman’s influence on this team. He has a red-hot passion for the game and a relentless competitive drive. His vision for the program is clear, “I am very privileged, and it is an honor to be in this position,” he explained, “My goal is for our players to play the game the right way. Play hard, fast, clean hockey.”

Freeman was a senior in 1999 when the Rails beat Superior on their home ice and shocked Hayward to reach the sectional finals and come up short. New Richmond ended their dream season 3-1. He experienced the pain of coming up short and is focused on bringing the program back to that level. “Eventually,” said Freeman, “Our goal is to be able to compete to go to a state tournament.”  

The blue collar, volunteer firefighter and father of three future Rails, ages 10, 8 and 6 is a role model deep-rooted in character, that cares deeply for his athletes. Graber sees his head coach’s commitment to the program every day. “Fid is a natural leader,” Graber proclaimed. “He is as passionate or more about this program as he was as a player. He puts in the hard work that it takes to be successful at anything in life. He’s absolutely the right man for the job.”

Coach Graber, who looks a bit like a Lumberjack, brings a first-hand knowledge of the perseverance high school athletics often requires. Graber, a goaltender, waited patiently behind Rails all-time wins leader Josh Shervey (33) for two years. Then as a senior posted a sparkling 2.07 GAA and .922 save percentage. His head coach was quick to praise his contributions, “He is our Swiss-army knife,” said Freeman, “Whatever needs to be done Aaron’s that guy.”

Also, a Spooner native, Graber helps operate a third-generation farm with his dad and grandfather. Married in 2012 to his wife Sarah, they have one son, Mahlon, age six. The 2001 Spooner graduate has a sincere passion for the task at hand. “I’m very proud of this town and where I grew up,” said Graber. “Proud of the team and program I was a part of in my youth, and that is the main reason I started coaching. I wanted to help kids and have an impact on their hockey career and their personal lives like the coaches that worked with me.” He concluded, “And to restore the success and winning tradition that the program once had and will have again.” 

A stick salute to all of those who were involved with the Spooner program cutting ties with their previous co-op program, the Northwest Icemen. That took courage, because going back on your own will always require some growing pains. Freeman praised another former teammate and Rails coach, Nate Haskins, for laying the groundwork for the separation and moving to a division two program. Those who opposed the split were simply afraid of losing games. These young Rails will be better off going through the process ahead of them. And now the road to Madison no longer goes through Superior.

I believe Spooner did the right thing for their players, their community and the greater good of boys’ hockey in Wisconsin. Creating two divisions for boys’ hockey is the best thing the WIAA has done for the sport since going to seventeen-minute periods and seeding the playoffs. Now if we could just get a mathematician like Carl Gauss to explain to the WIAA nobles at Vern Holmes Drive that 4+4+4 and 8+4, both equal 12. Perhaps then we could get a proper boy’s state tournament.

We don’t need three divisions, but we need twelve boy’s teams in Madison.

While the Spooner faithful may not see the results on the scoreboard they had hoped for, that will change if they allow these young coaches to do their job. Freeman is committed to this journey, “I gotta do more, I want to do more,” he exclaimed, “I need to be better.”

The Rails program will always have a special place in my heart. It was a big part of my life for eleven years and where I really cut my teeth as a coach. I cannot tell you how happy and proud it makes me to see a Spooner Rails team, led by former players, back in the SACC again. 

And maybe, just maybe, we will see the return of the flying fish. The wooden one of course.

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Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at

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