By Ross Forman – In an unprecedented season that no one will ever forget, the Chicago Steel delivered memories to always remember.
The Steel defeated the host Fargo Force 3-1 in Game 4 of the 2021 Clark Cup Final on Saturday, May 22, to capture the second Clark Cup title in team history as champions of the United States Hockey League (USHL).
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Steel
Chicago is the first team since the 2012-2013 Dubuque Fighting Saints to win the Anderson Cup (regular season title) and Clark Cup in the same season. The Steel won their only other Clark Cup Championship in 2017.
Chicago won the best-of-five series against Fargo three games to one, anchored on forward Adam Fantilli, who was named the Clark Cup Playoffs MVP. He finished the postseason with 9 points (8 goals, 1 assist), including a 2-goal performance in the Clark Cup-winning game.
Jackson Blake scored the other goal in Game 4 and goalie Simon Latkoczy turned away 27 shots.
“Our approach has always been about the development of our players, especially with an individual focus, which we feel leads to team success,” said Steel head coach Brock Sheahan. “Battling adversity all year, I think our players got better and better all season, and we played our best hockey at the end of the season.
“I was really proud of the group, including (the front-office) staff, coaching staff and players. It was pretty awesome to finish of the year the way we did.
“I think our players were able to have as normal of a season as possible. Our guys were able to develop as hockey players and people, and that’s probably the biggest memory that I’ll have.”
The Steel never trailed in Game 4, and the title certainly helped ease the anguish of an unfinished 2019-2020 season, which was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, the Steel held the league’s best record and were preparing to head into the playoffs as the favorites win it all.
The Steel finished the 2020-21 regular-season with a 38-11-3-2 (81 points) record, earning the club’s second consecutive Anderson Cup crown.
Chicago led the league in scoring for the second consecutive season, tallying a franchise record 265 goals. The club’s 4.91 goals per game shares the second-highest scoring average in USHL history, trailing just the 2019-2020 team which had a 4.94 goals per game average. The Steel were not held scoreless during the regular season, and only once during the playoffs.
Photos courtesy of the Chicago Steel
“Our approach was, get better day by day. And in games 2, 3 and 4 of the finals, we played our brand of hockey. To do that, on that stage, was an amazing thing,” Sheahan said. “We pushed the game the entire (Game 4). I felt all four lines, all seven defensemen … everyone did a great job, and we got unbelievable goaltending from Simon Latkoczy.
“Often teams wait for something to happen, but in that last game, we went after it.”
The Steel had the first four names on the league’s list for most-points in the regular-season, an accomplishment never-before-seen in the USHL.
Sean Farrell led the league, becoming just the second player in USHL history to break the 100-point mark with 101 points (29 goals, 72 assists) over 53 games played. Farrell owns the league record for single-season assists as well as the franchise career and single-season records for points and assists.
Matt Coronato ran away with the USHL goal-scoring title, celebrating 48 goals in 52 games played. The Harvard University-bound skater finished with 16 more tallies than the second-place goal-scorer. Coronato owns the Steel franchise career and single-season marks for goals.
Josh Doan finished third in the league in scoring with 70 points (31, 39), while Erik Middendorf rounded out the top four with 68 points (32, 36).
“It’s great to be able to watch that level of hockey locally. The Steel are that next level, which all aspire to play at,” said Gino Cavallini, hockey director for the Chicago Mission. “It was pretty cool, nice to see,” the Steel win the championship.
“Players should have fun playing the game; that’s something we stress every day. One reason I really feel our players get better is, they absolutely love playing the game,” Sheahan said. “If you watch us play, we have highly skilled players, but, we play a team game. We move the puck; we support each other. Most of what we’re looking for with our guys is, hockey sense, competition level, and skill. That’s what we build our team on.”
Chicago, the last USHL team to allow fans into their home arena this season, skated late in the regular-season in front of about 500 fans at Fox Valley Ice Arena. The team’s last home playoff game, there were about 1,000 fans.
About 5,000 attended the games in Fargo.
“We have a very loyal fan-base and they’re passionate,” Sheahan said. “Our attendance numbers are not as high as other teams in the league, but we are consistent and have fans that love our team, love our players, and are very passionate. They help make Fox Valley a very tough place (for opposing teams) to play.”
The Steel will have 15 returning players next season, and though there were no Illinois native skaters for the Steel this season, many locals skate for opposing teams.
Chicago will have a training camp in mid-June and the team’s championship defense will begin in late-September.
UPDATE: Chicago Steel general manager Ryan Hardy has been named GM of the Year in the United States Hockey League, as voted on by his peers, the league announced Friday. This is the second time in three seasons Hardy has earned the yearly award. The Madison, Conn., native was awarded GM of the Year after the 2018-2019 campaign, his first with the team. Hardy becomes the ninth general manager in USHL history to win multiple GM of the Year awards since the inception of the honor after the 1982-1983 season.