Hietala excited for Eagle River coaching opportunity

Michigan Tech’s Blake Hietala, left, in action against Michigan State during the Great Lakes Invitational tournament at Comerica Park on Dec. 27, 2013, in Detroit. Hietala, a Houghton native, was named head coach of the NAHL team playing in Eagle River, Wisconsin, beginning next season. (Courtesy Photo/Michigan Tech University)

EAGLE RIVER, Wis. — Houghton native Blake Hietala has been named head coach of the new North American Hockey League team in Eagle River.

Hietala was looking to move on after the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League announced that former head coach Pat Mikesch was moving on from the organization. He spent four seasons with the Gamblers after working for a season as an assistant coach and Director of Scouting for the Madison Capitols in 2017-18.

With the Copper Island Hockey Club, LLC, announcing that they were purchasing the Magicians, who play in the North American Hockey League, and moving them to Wisconsin, Hietala jumped at the chance to take on a team of his own. When asked about it, he felt he was ready.

“I think so. I’m excited for it,” Hietala said. “I’ve been an assistant for five years in this league. I felt like I was ready for a new challenge and didn’t know exactly where that challenge was going to be, whether it was going to be a college assistant job somewhere, or a head coach somewhere else in junior hockey. 

“I think the timing of this opportunity was right and the location’s good for my family. It all kind of came together. We’re I think we’re just excited about the big challenge.”

The former Huskies forward is thrilled to be able to start fresh with his new team.

“I’m obviously honored,” he said. “First, that the ownership group was willing to put their trust in me to lead this team. I’m excited to be able to put my own stamp on a program. It’s not a new organization, but it’s a new team. So we’re going to be able to put my own spin on how we do things. I think it has the opportunity to be a really good spot to play.”

The Eagle River team, formerly the Minnesota Magicians, will adopt a yet to be determined nickname and play out of the Eagle River Stadium, an old school wood dome complex just outside of town.

Hietala, who was born in Houghton and played 18U AAA hockey for the Ojibwa Eagles, played two seasons with the Melfort Mustangs of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League before returning home to Michigan Tech, where he played five seasons with the Huskies before bouncing around the ECHL and SPHL through the 2016-17 season before hanging up his skates and joining the Capitols, which was not originally in his long-term plans.

Hietala bounced between the ECHL and SPHL after leaving Michigan Tech in 2015. His last season was 2016-17, split between the Kalamazoo Wings in the ECHL and Huntsville Havoc in the SPHL. He scored a combined 4 goals and 13 assists in 35 games.

“I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do,” Hietala said after his final season. “I didn’t know if I was going to try to play again, didn’t know if I was gonna get a 9 to 5 in an office somewhere. Then, kind of as I was staring retirement in the eye, it got a little bit scary, the fact that I wasn’t going to be able to go to a rink every day.”

A friend reached out to Hietala, an assistant job for the Madison Capitols in the USHL.

“I was a little hesitant, but ended up having an interview and thought I was gonna enjoy it,” he said. “Kind of fell in love with coaching.”

Hietala said he’s been lucky his coaching career has kept him relatively close to the Copper Country.

“Honestly that was never really the plan, it’s just kind of how it worked out” he said. “Obviously, we’re grateful for that. It makes everything easier on the family. With coaching, where we’re on the road a lot, it makes it tough on my wife, so I think it’s helped in that sense.

“She’s close to the family, and we’ve got a two year old now, so grandparents are closer and all that. I don’t think it was ever the plan, but we’ve been fortunate how my career path has worked.”

Hietala said working with junior-aged kids (16-18 years) has been rewarding. He enjoys the chance to help guide young men as they transition to being away from home for the first time, and being responsible for themselves.

“I think about a 16- or 17-year-old kid, his first time away from home and going through some sort of a hard situation for the first time in his life – It’s probably a little intimidating to watch him walk into a head coach’s office,” Hietala said. “So I kind of relish in that role. I’m going to be the guy that this guy can talk to. I think I can explain things in a way that’ll resonate and, and make them understand, and also not make them go into a shell. So, yeah, I’ve kind of taken pride in that part of the job, for sure.”

Spending four seasons with Mikesch, a Hancock native, helped Hietala understand his role as a leader of young men.

“It’s been amazing,” said Hietala. “Pat is, I think, in my mind, one of the brightest hockey minds we have. He’s an elite developer of talent. I think if you look at the players that we’ve moved on to college hockey the last couple of years, you won’t be able to deny that he’s a really good boss. Obviously, he gave me an opportunity, let me grow with it, and gave me a ton of responsibility. (He) kind of let me learn on my own, while also just being there to help out. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity that he gave me here.”


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