Three years ago Casey Mignone was a first-time head coach, building a first-year team in a city where the previous junior hockey organization ended its existence with some lean years.
In a span of nine months, the Rochester Grizzlies revitalized junior hockey in Rochester, winning 32 games and qualifying for the North American 3 Hockey League playoffs in the spring of 2019. The Grizzlies’ success paid off for Mignone, who departed Rochester after the Grizzlies’ inaugural season to become an assistant coach for St. Cloud of the North American Hockey League.
Friday, Mignone announced he’s on the move again. And he’s a head coach again.
Mignone has been named the head coach of the Chippewa Steel, the NAHL team based in Chippewa Falls, Wis.
“They have the guys coming into town on Sunday,” Mignone said of the Steel’s players, “so we’ll hit the ground running. I’m trying to really wrap my head around the roster and what kind of needs or improvements there needs to be.”
The position came open just days before the Steel were set to open training camp, when previous head coach Mike Janda was fired after Steel ownership learned that he had been suspended by the California Amateur Hockey Association for "fraudulent and misleading game reporting and scoresheet manipulation of non-eligible participants." The suspension was the result of Janda’s actions in his previous position, as coach of the San Jose Jr. Sharks U18 team, but the Steel still decided to part ways.
That opened the door for Mignone, a 33-year-old New Jersey native, to accept the job and work alongside Chippewa’s director of hockey operations Brad Stepan, a former amateur scout with the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning.
“The timeline was a little tight, with our guys being in St. Cloud already and (Chippewa’s) players coming in (soon), so that was a bit stressful,” Mignone said, “but I had a good talk with Brad and (Steel owner) Kelly Kasik. They wanted to act fast and I wanted to act fast to ensure St. Cloud has as much time as possible to find someone.”
Mignone said his experiences in Rochester and St. Cloud — from handling administrative duties to working with billet families to recruiting to preparing game plans — has prepared him to be a head coach at the NAHL level, where teams typically have anywhere from a half-dozen to a dozen or more college-committed players.
Coincidentally, Mignone's assistant coach from his time with the Grizzlies, Rochester native Mike Aikens, will also be a head coach in the NAHL this season. Aikens will coach the first-year Anchorage Wolverines.
“I was given a lot of responsibility in recruiting and the administrative side, and game situations, things like that,” he said. “I feel like I’m pretty well prepared to take charge of a team and we’ll have a pretty good staff in place.
“I think, just the amount I’ve learned in the last three years … you think you know everything then you realize you don’t know anything. Getting to work with (current St. Cloud coach) Corey Millen and (former coach) Moe (Mantha), two guys who’ve been around the game at high levels, I’ve learned how to delegate to good guys on your staff and empower them. I’m excited to get going.”
Though Mignone only spent one year in Rochester, he has continued to follow the Grizzlies. He recruited some of the players who sit atop the team’s record books for goals, assists and games played, including three-year Grizzlies Peyton Hart, Matt DeRosa and Joey Fodstad. Mignone said he felt some pride in seeing the Grizzlies reach the Fraser Cup and the NA3HL championship game last spring under Chris Ratzloff, the Rochester native who replaced Mignone as head coach.
“It’s awesome,” Mignone said. “Ratz and I have a great relationship. He deserves all the credit for how they’ve done the last couple of years. He does an outstanding job and does it the right way. It’s a great pleasure to see those guys in short order become a premier place to play in that league.”