Even before the 2019-20 United States Hockey League (USHL) season began in September, players on the Chicago Steel sensed they had something special.
"It just started from day one," remembers forward Mathieu De St. Phalle. "I think we were really close off the bat, and I think right away, the coaching staff took notice of how much skill we had as a group."
"We were talented, but our guys pushed each other to get better every day," head coach Brock Sheahan said. "I think that was the biggest piece of our group – we had guys willing to work, not just talented."
Combining their talent and work ethic, the Steel started stacking wins early and they didn't stop. After 49 regular season games, they'd won an eye-popping 41 of them. That put them on pace to set a new USHL record for points in a season.
"I think we did a really good job of staying level-headed and never getting too high on ourselves," said De St. Phalle. "We respected every team we played the whole year. Whether they were last or first in the standings, I think we took every game the same and as a learning experience to get better. So I think the professional approach to each game really made us a much better team," he added.
But like most athletes across the country and world, the coronavirus pandemic put an early end to the Steel's season. The only consolation? The league awarded the team the Anderson Cup, which goes to the regular season champion. It's the first Anderson Cup in franchise history.
"It’s a tangible accomplishment for this team that so deserved it based on the 49 regular season games that they played," Steel President Dan Lehv said.
"I think after the way things went and the craziness of this whole situation, I think that was the best thing that could have came out for us as a team," added De St. Phalle.
Sheahan fully agrees.
"I think it is meaningful because we put so much effort into the season – you don’t want it just to end with nothing," said Sheahan. "It’s something our players and the organization should be proud of."
Despite claiming the Anderson Cup, the Steel can't help but feel some disappointment that they didn't get to see if they could win the Clark Cup, which goes to the postseason champion.
"It was just something we dreamed about all year ... winning that Clark Cup, making it all the way, and eventually getting to the top of the mountain," De St. Phalle said before adding, "I think it’s just heartbreaking."
Then again, had it gotten the chance to play out the rest of the season, the Steel feel confident it would have ended with them celebrating a league title.
"Certainly the playoffs would have been challenging, they always are, it’s a great league," Lehv said. "But if you ask any member of our team, they’re going to say they know exactly what was going to happen in the playoffs."