PUEBLO – There’s a sense of optimism in Pueblo that the kids playing hockey for the Tigers and Hornets now may eventually wear a different jersey.
That’s because a new junior hockey team is coming to town — the Pueblo Bulls, who will play in the Western States Hockey League as soon as one year from now.
“We want these little kids looking up to these players going, ‘I want to be just like them,'” said Chris Wilhite, who will be head coach for the Bulls.
What began as a college project for Wilhite and David Nelson, his college teammate and friend at St. Mary’s University in Minnesota, is now coming to life.
The group introduced their business plan to Pueblo City Council at a work session Monday night.
The pair, along with Tyler Tuneberg, devised a business plan to create the franchise as part of their classwork. All three, who have a combined 60 years of hockey experience, will coach the team.
“You get the question, ‘What are you doing after college?’ Ultimately, this is a passion project,” Nelson said. “Growing up playing hockey my whole life, it’s the only thing you kind of breathe and think about when you’re playing hockey in Minnesota.”
The announcement comes just months after the Orem Owlz, a minor league baseball team, also tried moving to Pueblo.
That said, there’s a difference this time around — the Bulls weren’t searching for big tax breaks from the city.
“We haven’t come and ask the city for anything, except the opportunity to be here and be in the community,” said Jerry Wilhite, Chris’s father and owner of the team.
On top of that, no new construction is needed thanks to a hockey arena many already see as top-notch.
“I saw this rink one time and fell in absolute love,” Chris Wilhite said.
His dad felt the same way about the Pueblo Ice Arena.
“This is a beautiful barn. It just has a hockey feel to it,” Jerry Wilhite said.
And the group likes the potential for fans in Pueblo right away. They chose the Steel City over Colorado Springs and aren’t looking back.
“The people that we wanted to bring, we don’t know if it would’ve worked [in Colorado Springs], because they obviously have the Air Force, they have [Colorado College], so we just don’t know if we could’ve compete with them,” Chris Wilhite said.
The Western States Hockey League gives players between 16 and 20 years old the chance to further develop and hone their skills, putting them before scouts in the hopes of continuing their playing career in college. The players are not paid, and the Bulls will be looking for families to host some players.
As for the talent, Nelson and Chris Wilhite will hit the road Wednesday to begin recruiting players in Minnesota, known as the ‘State of Hockey’.
“We’re interested in good kids that’ll fit in the community and obviously bring value to the community as much as being good hockey players on the ice,” Jerry Wilhite said.
There are already two teams in Colorado, but in different divisions – the Northern Colorado Eagles of Greeley and Steamboat Wranglers of Steamboat Springs.
The league features players ages 17 to 20 who are looking to play organized hockey while developing their skills and hopefully earn a college scholarship to play.
Games for the 2018-2019 season get underway at the end of this month with play ending in mid-March.
Teams in the Mountain Division for 2018-2019: