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Boudreau Tries Hand at Hockey Ownership

Wild coach is one of handful of partners for new Tier 3 Junior A team in Coon Rapids

by Dan Myers @1DanMyers / Wild.com

Bruce Boudreau has done it all in the game of hockey.

He spent two decades as a player, skating for teams all over North America and around the globe.

Over the past decade, he's become one of the best coaches in the world and owns the NHL's best winning percentage among bench bosses who have coached in at least 250 games.

Now, Boudreau is ready to give ownership a try.

And while Craig Leipold likely won't be selling the Wild to Boudreau any time soon, Boudreau and his wife Crystal have purchased an ownership stake in the Minnesota Blue Ox, the newest team in the United States Premier Hockey League. The Tier 3 junior hockey team will play its home games in Coon Rapids starting this fall.

The Blue Ox will be a family affair for the Boudreaus; while Bruce will be busy tending to his A-job as coach of the Wild, Crystal is already playing a critical role behind the scenes, helping in a variety of areas including hockey operations, administration and marketing.

Their son, Brady, will be a goaltender for the team.

"[Coaching the Wild] will be my day job," Boudreau said with a chuckle. "My wife will be doing a lot of it. I'll be interested in the results, but I probably won't get a chance to see them play too often."

The team will be coached by Minnetonka native Jay Witta, himself a co-owner with the Boudreaus. Other partners include Great Clips executive Terri Yontz Miller as well as singer/songwriter Tim Mahoney. 

Witta first met the Boudreaus last summer after Bruce was named coach of the Wild. With he and Crystal in search of a place for Brady to play hockey, the two were connected by a friend of a friend. 

Pat Westrum, a teammate of Boudreau's when he played for the St. Paul Fighting Saints, reached out to Jacob Mars of USA Hockey and a local coach with connections to Witta, who was then coach of the New Ulm Steel of the NA3HL. 

Witta and Westrum chatted briefly before he was put in touch with Boudreau. The rest is history.

"It's a small hockey world," Witta said.

Brady Boudreau played for Witta in New Ulm last season. As the campaign came to a close, Witta went to ownership there hoping to be put in charge of personnel and perhaps gain a small ownership stake. 

When his hopes of purchasing a piece of the team were denied, Witta decided to start something new a little closer to home. 

A meal with Boudreau at Tom Reid's Hockey City Pub in St. Paul turned into a business lunch, where Witta shared with Boudreau his hopes for owning his own Junior A team. After another meeting, Boudreau let him know that he was in as well, and with that, the Minnesota Blue Ox was born.

Witta said he can't wait to use Boudreau as a sounding board when it comes to any number of ideas, and not just on the hockey side. 

Having one of the NHL's most successful coaches as a resource is valuable, but Witta said Boudreau has never once told him to "do this, or do that," instead offering to help out with whatever is asked.

"I always tell him I'll never question his personnel or power-play decisions if he doesn't question me on marketing decisions," Witta said. "But it's awesome to have him. He's just so humble. The good thing is, he's seen me coach and I'd like to think he liked what he saw with what we did with the kids in New Ulm."

Instead, Boudreau's involvement is simple, and it's consistent with his goals of growing the game at all levels wherever he has been, whether in Washington or in Anaheim.

"It's such a big State of Hockey, but after high school hockey, if you're not Division I from the 17 to 21-year old kids, and you still love hockey, where was there to play?" Boudreau said. "I know there's a lot of players just in our area, so we decided to go for it."

Witta shares that priority. The owner of a marketing agency by day, he'll likely never get rich running a junior hockey team.

For some, the Tier 3 level will be a final crack at competitive hockey, while others will go on to play at the Division III or NAIA levels. The really good ones may earn a chance to move up to Tier 2 and play in either the North American Hockey League or the National Collegiate Development Conference, a new East Coast league that will begin play this fall.

The United States Hockey League is the only Tier 1 Junior A league in the U.S. That means a vast majority of the kids who come through the Tier 3 level will one day be making their impacts in fields away from the ice.

"Being around the kids, and being energized through not only their energy but their outlook on life, it's fantastic," Witta said. "That's why I do it. I'm certainly not going to retire by owning a Tier 3 junior hockey team. 

"I love it. I love to grow the game, and it's another reason why Bruce and I hit it off when we started talking about it. He's such an ambassador for hockey, and not just at the pro level."

Still, Boudreau said he was pleasantly surprised last season the first time he went to watch a game in New Ulm. 

"I was surprised ... at quite how good the caliber was and how exciting it was. They put on a good show," Boudreau said. "I think there is a good future for it. Hopefully we'll be able to put on a good, affordable product that families will be able to come out, watch and enjoy."

Every once in a while, the Tier 3 level produces an NHLer , including the Wild's Charlie Coyle, who played for the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League in 2009-10. 

After a year and a half at Boston University, Coyle played half a junior hockey season in Canada and 47 games in the American Hockey League before debuting with Minnesota in 2013.

"I'm such a hockey fanatic that, especially in the states, if I can help it in any way and grow and have kids that love to play hockey not end," Boudreau said. "When I started hockey schools, the whole idea was the continuation for players to play hockey well after they knew they weren't going to make the NHL. 

"When I did start the hockey schools, when you were 13, if you decided you couldn't make it, then all of the sudden you weren't playing and you weren't playing for the enjoyment and love of the game. The more people we can do that with at that age, the better.

"Any time I can help grow hockey, it seems like I was put on this Earth to do. I've been at it all my life and I'd like to continue it."

The Blue Ox will be on the ice for the first time this weekend, conducting tryouts at Coon Rapids Ice Center. All skaters born from 1997-2000 are welcome and will receive two hours of ice time from 12 p.m.-2 p.m. on both Saturday and Sunday as well as a scrimmage. Cost is $50. 

Those interested in trying out for the team can register online by visiting blueoxhockey.com.

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