Sophomore forward Madelyn Knaack (12) and the Princeton/BBL Tigers are chasing after victories.
Photos by Arnie Hamel
Sophomore forward Madelyn Knaack (12) and the Princeton/BBL Tigers are chasing after victories.

To build a winner

Gage Chaffee is laying the foundation for eventual success in Princeton, while his players try to have fun right now

Arnie Hamel
Sunday, November 20, 2022

As winter’s first snow flurries fell outside the First Bank and Trust Ice Arena in Princeton on this November Saturday, inside, the concession area was lively and early-season excitement filled the air.

Closer to the rink, junior defender Gracie Cooke leaned against the glass with her Princeton teammates, watching their JV sisters skate to a decisive victory over Rock Ridge prior to the varsity game. The mood was hopeful as the Tigers’ first game of the season neared. “It should be a good game,” Cooke said. “Last year we had two close games with them.”

Princeton/BBL juniors Hannah Doty (7) and Jadyn Ulm (20) battled for the puck against Rock Ridge.

Princeton/BBL juniors Hannah Doty (7) and Jadyn Ulm (20) battled for the puck against Rock Ridge. 

Head coach Gage Chaffee, in his third year at the helm, has undertaken the challenge of building the team back up to competitive status after two difficult seasons.

“We were four schools, now we’re down to three schools, just to make a hockey team,” says Chaffee of the co-operative program that includes student-athletes from Princeton, Becker and Big Lake high schools. “And if you look at our roster, we are all very young. Two seniors is all we have this year. The whole idea is to build a core where, for these girls, it becomes family.”

Last season was a tough one for the Tigers, finishing with a 2-24-0 record. The year before that, they were 0-18-1. When wins are hard to come by, a coach has to look for different kinds of victories. “We all want to win. It’s not always about winning (the game)”, says Chaffee. “It might be win this shift, win the period.”

So before the Tigers set their sights on winning streaks, coach Chaffee stresses getting better at the little things. “We have to start with what’s important,” he says. “It's the fundamentals to make them better. It’s not always about ‘hey, we’ve got to win.’”

Princeton/BBL head coach Gage Chaffee.

Princeton/BBL head coach Gage Chaffee. 

A change in culture

Players and coaches now think a corner has been turned and the team is eager to see what further progress they can make this season. “The culture had to change, and now that it has, it’s a turning point,” says Chaffee. “I'm watching these young ladies in their first JV game going out and really playing hard and it’s fun to watch.”

“We built this whole thing on what we call a one-team atmosphere,” says Chaffee, a former high school hockey player, who spent 15 years as a professional drag racer. “We don't have a JV and a varsity; we have one team.”

Sophomore Jaelynn Mogren appreciates her coach’s philosophy: “He’s on the same personal level with us. He makes us all feel like one family and one team: JV, varsity; it’s just one team.”

“I think what you’re seeing from Jaelynn is she’s excited about how finally this group is coming together and you don’t have that in-fighting, that separation, the clique,” says Chaffee. “They might have disagreements, but they fix it.”

Mogren, a Princeton High student, is optimistic about the strides she and her teammates have made in having fun out on the ice together. “We’ve persevered for the last two years and it’s just been so difficult to just be able to be happy playing games,” says Mogren.

Freshman forward Naiya Hanson.

Freshman forward Naiya Hanson. 

A Rocky Start

But rebuilds don’t happen overnight, and the Tigers were reminded of that chilly headwind once the puck was dropped to start the new season.

Princeton fell behind the visitors from Rock Ridge 2-0, on a goal just a half-second ahead of the first period buzzer.

Then in the second period, when Princeton freshman Naiya Hanson scored on a rebound for the Tigers’ first goal to cut the lead to 3-1, Rock Ridge responded with a tally ten seconds later, before Hanson’s goal could even be announced over the PA system.

And so it goes for now, as Chaffee and his staff work to build up an enthusiastic but downtrodden program.

The team’s two seniors, Kaitlyn Stokke and Shelby Ulm, were appointed the team captains by Chaffee, as they try to foster the right culture for the Tigers to grow into. “They battle every day and show the younger girls how to go about their business and they’re doing a good job with it,” says Chaffee.

Sophomore defender Ava Prosser.

Sophomore defender Ava Prosser. 

The Co-op Imperative

In many communities, both urban and rural, forming cooperative programs is increasingly necessary, and Rock Ridge is another recent example. New head coach Paddy Elsmore says the cities of Eveleth, Gilbert, Virginia, Mesabi East, Mt. Iron, and even Ely - a full hour away - have come together to try and grow and maintain a girls program.

A new Rock Ridge high school is set to open next year in the shadow of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth. The new school will serve many of the Iron Range cities that had been fierce rivals for generations.

“Really it’s out of necessity,” says Chaffee of the proliferation of cooperative programs. “I don’t think we’re combining five schools to race for championships right now. I think we’re combining five schools just to have a program. We are small communities, small towns. We’re a lot of towns to make hockey teams. We’re trying to keep things alive for these kids.”

Princeton's Katelyn Chaffee (37) and Jadyn Ulm (20) surround Rock Ridge freshman forward Kyra Skelton (8).

Princeton's Katelyn Chaffee (37) and Jadyn Ulm (20) surround Rock Ridge freshman forward Kyra Skelton (8). 

It’s a family affair

The idea of a hockey team as ‘family’ is an easy concept for the Tigers to absorb. Assistant coach Cara Ulm has three daughters on the squad: senior goaltender Shelby, junior forward Jadyn and freshman defender Rylee.

Coach Ulm’s ties to the Princeton program run deep; she was on the first Princeton girls high school team 25 years ago.

And Chaffee has two daughters of his own on the team: sophomores Addy and Caitlyn. “My kids wanted to play hockey. They started late. I begged them not to play but they signed themselves up,” says Chaffee. “And then what you find out is a lot of these associations, they don’t have the help.”

“As parents and as people who love the sport, you get into it. I never thought that this is where I’d be, but the girls that I have in this locker room the last few years have been a changing point in my own life. They’re fun kids.”

And Jaelynnn Mogren has freshman sister Madysen as part of the family, and is among the most enthusiastic in touting the growth of the program.

Mogren sees the girls from the youth program cheering at the games in their Princeton jerseys and feels great about where things are headed. “They love to party with us. We have to make our music a little cleaner but it’s OK. We’ll just play from a good 2012 playlist and it’s OK,” says Mogren with a laugh. “We love having them in there. It’s just so exciting when we see them lining up outside our door wanting to give us high fives.”

Princeton/BBL sophomores Ava Prosser (26) and Katelyn Chaffee (37).

Princeton/BBL sophomores Ava Prosser (26) and Katelyn Chaffee (37). 

Smiling through the pain

The Rock Ridge lead had swelled to 6-1 by the end of the second period. Shots were 28-9 in favor of the Wolverines. In the third period, Rock Ridge forward Natalie Bergman finished off a five-point performance with a late goal for a hat trick.

The visitors from the Iron Range celebrated a comfortable 8-1 win.

Outside the locker room, Chaffee reflected on the opening-game defeat. “It’s tough for all of them; a lot of heads hanging down there right now, but it’ll get better,” he said. “They’re on the right track.”

So while the losses may continue to mount this winter, coach Chaffee and the Tigers believe they are making progress and can enjoy each day of the season, regardless of what the scoreboard reads.

“We practice one thing here,” declared Chaffee. “When we leave the ice arena, if we’re not smiling, then we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Rankings Rankings Class 2A
3.Hill Murray9.304
4.Gentry Academy8.913
6.Holy Family8.200
7.Maple Grove8.042
8.Centennial / SLP7.840
10.Benilde - St. Margaret's7.625
Rankings Class 1A
3.Proctor / Hermantown7.800
5.South St. Paul7.400
6.Mound Westonka / SWC7.200
7.Holy Angels7.160
8.Fergus Falls7.000
9.Duluth Marshall6.958


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