10 years of community: After 10 years, the Austin Bruins are firmly a part of Austin

Published 9:54 pm Thursday, August 8, 2019

Mike Cooper was just taking his son to a hockey game and Brian Schulz had just moved back to Austin when his son started to gain an interest in playing youth hockey.

Little did Cooper and Schulz know that nearly a decade later, they along, with co-owner Craig Patrick, would be playing big roles for the Austin Bruins, who are about to begin their 10th season this fall. Cooper has gone from fan to sponsor to billet to co-owner, which he’s been for the last six seasons and Schultz has been the team’s P.A. announcer for seven years and the President of Operations for one year.

The Austin Bruins and Owatonna Express line up for a face-off in the second period of of the Bruins’ inaugural game in 2010. Herald file photo

Schulz said the Bruins have become a huge part of the community and the team continues to have a big impact in Austin and beyond as players go on to play in the Division I and NHL levels.

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“It’s not just the team, it’s the community as well,” Schulz said. “Whether they worked a job here, went to school here, or billeted with a family, the players are connected to Austin. Junior hockey is a very unique experience. It’s not often that a player will actually live with someone in the community and attend community events. They’re from places like Sweden, Alaska and Florida and this is a place where they can grow and develop.”

Cooper has enjoyed the relationships he’s developed with players over the years and he’s also embraced being part of a community event that includes residents from all walks of life amongst it’s fan base.

“To be part of someone’s journey is special,” Cooper said. “I give a lot of credit to our coaches. They really do a good job of stressing the importance of how they represent themselves, especially in a small town. There’s not a lot that happens with the boys that we don’t hear about and when they do, we try to address it right away. We’ve been fortunate with some great kids.”

The Bruins players have been able to make themselves at home due to the hospitality of the local billet families. Kim Lange has hosted a Bruins player in her home for eight years and she’s served as the team’s billet coordinator for the past six years.

“The Bruins are a really good organization and the players that come in are all really good kids. They’re looking to fulfill their dreams in whatever way they can. Having them here in Austin is a positive thing,” said Lange, a lifetime Austin resident. “It’s all about getting to know the kids. You come to the games and you know who the kids are. We’re giving them an opportunity to advance their careers, wherever they go. We’re a stepping stone.”

The Austin Bruins hosted a tailgate meet and greet during a past season at Riverside Arena. Herald file photo

TJ Chillot is in his in second season with the Bruins as he works as the play-by-play announcer, the media director and the director of sales operations. Chillot, who would like to eventually announce NHL games, has learned a lot about running a hockey franchise and he’s also learned how big the Bruins are in town.

“It connects everybody. I go to the grocery store with a Bruins jacket or hat and people always ask me if I work for the Bruins. When I say ‘yes,’ and they say ‘that’s awesome,’” Chillot said. “When they see that bear head and the black and gold logo, they know. It’s become intertwined with the city of Austin, which is impressive becuase it’s only been here for 10 years. Lasting ten years is a feat in the NAHL and it’s even more of a feat in the NAHL to be this close to a community in 10 years.”

While the Bruins don’t have a lot of nearby opponents since the Owatonna Express left town, Austin has managed to form rivalries with its divisional opponents like Aberdeen, South Dakota, Minot, North Dakota and Bismarck, North Dakota.

Schultz said that good rivalries make for good hockey.

“Those programs are successful too,” Schulz said. “We love teams in our own division to be tough and blue collar like we are because that provides a great game and a great fan experience. I know Aberdeen really stepped up their game last year as far as building up rivalries and I think you’re going to see us do a little bit more of that this year and we’ll have some fun with it. We can stoke those fires a little bit and poke the bear, so to speak.”

Schultz also said he’d like to see the Bruins and the community become even more united in the years to come.

“We want to give back to the community as much as we can, but we need the support and we need the fans and we need the businesses to support us,” he said. “It’s important for us to really grow and develop and do the things we want to do in the community, we’re going to need the communtity’s help.”