Junior Hockey team New Ulm Steel wraps up first season in new home

NEW ULM — The initial season for the New Ulm Steel came to an end Sunday night when the Granite City Lumberjacks downed the Steel 4-2 in Sauk Rapids to win the best-of-three NA3HL Western Division playoff championship two games to one and advance to the Silver Cup in Chicago.

“It was a weird game,” Steel coach Jay Witta said. “They scored right off of the opening face-off — that was bizarre — and then we seemed to weather that first period. I do not know if it was jitters or what. We scored on a power play goal late in the first period to cut their lead to 2-1. We battled 0-0 in the second and came out in the third, got down 3-1 and cut the lead to 3-2 in the third period with around eight minutes left. We thought that here we go — we were rolling — but we could not get that equalizer and then they got their fourth goal with a couple of minutes left.

“It was the two best teams in the division battling to go to the national tournament,” Witta said. “Last year [as the Twin Cities Steel] we were the ones going to the national tournament.”

And when the Steel lost, it was final. It ended a season that began six months ago.

“That is the hardest part,” Witta said. “Last year when we lost in the semifinals in Chicago it is the most sudden and abrupt way to end — it is hard to put it in words. We spent an hour in the locker room (Sunday) and had some fun I didn’t plan on doing it but I went around and I talked about every kid on the team and how much they meant to me and to Andrew [Kolb] and to [owner and General Manager] Steve and Bryant Black. We told them of how proud we were of how well they represented New Ulm all season as Steel players and as New Ulm residents and being part of the community. After that hour it was all good. Everyone was at peace at what happened and we found a lot of positives.These are great kids.”

And Witta knows that next year some of the players will not be back because of age.

“Last year we only lost two who were too old but this year we will lose seven or eight. But we replace them with new recruits. Recruiting in New Ulm for me this year has been very nice,” said Witta, who lives in Minnetonka and drove back and forth four days a week for practice here and then weekend games. “It has been easy and that is off to the facilities at the New Ulm Civic Center and Bob Haala and the community of New Ulm and what the Blacks did by moving the team there.”

“We have new players coming in — new Steel players coming in for next year,” Witta said about the newcomers. Two of the players that have signed Steel tenders for next season are from New Ulm in Brach Kraus — who played for the Steel last year before high school hockey started — and Brandon Mehlhop who just finished his high school hockey career at NUHS.

Witta has also sent off emails to select players from Woodbury High School.

“And we also have some Europeans that are ready to be drafted by the Steel in June. And we have players from Finland and Switzerland that may play next year for the Steel.”

Witta said that this season “has been fun. I knew that the facility in New Ulm was great as was Lola’s and the town and the kids energized me. I am thankful for every day I got to drive down to New Ulm this year.”