Bruce LaRoque, who coached Grand Rapids High School hockey for 14 seasons, retired on Monday, citing health and family-related reasons for his abrupt departure. He put together a 215-135-27 record at the helm of one of Minnesota’s most decorated programs in a stint that included six trips to the section final and two State Tournament berths, both of which resulted in second-place finishes. Once the dust has settled, Grand Rapids fans should be able to reflect fondly upon his tenure at the head of the small-town hockey hotbed on one end of the state’s famed Iron Range.
It is worth remembering where the Grand Rapids program was when he took over at the start of the 1999-2000 season. At the time, Rapids hadn’t been to State since 1991, and had only made one section final since. The incredible Rapids dynasty of the 1970s and early 1980s was a distant memory, and though the program still put out a star player every few years, it never mustered up the depth displayed by the rising suburban and private school powers, to say nothing of section rival Duluth East. In his 2001 book Blades of Glory, John Rosengren said that the 2001 Rapids team “played for pride, no longer for glory,” and seemed to be headed for the realm of hockey nostalgia much like their Iron Range neighbors.
LaRoque’s teams changed that. First, they took Duluth East to the brink in a pair of section finals in 2003 and 2004, and in 2006 and 2007, they broke through back to the State Tournament. They represented the program in style while there, knocking off the top-ranked team in the field (Hill-Murray and Edina, respectively) each year. Those Thunderhawk teams were also perhaps some of the last of a dying breed in Class AA hockey: while they had two legitimate high school superstars in Patrick White and Joe Stejskal, very few other players went on to play beyond their senior year. These days, title contenders often have ten-plus players who play after high school; those Rapids teams did it with a group of kids who weren’t hockey specialists, but filled the old northern Minnesota stereotype of hard-working, hard-hitting multi-sport athletes. Grand Rapids proved that small northern towns could still be relevant on the State stage, even with apparent disadvantages in numbers and offseason training.
LaRoque’s final years were weighed down by a series of frustrating playoff defeats. Since 2009, the Thunderhawks have suffered three first-round losses—two of them upsets—and two agonizingly close section final losses to Duluth East. The 2011 loss to East, in which arguably the deepest and best Rapids team of the LaRoque era held the Hounds scoreless until the last two minutes of the third period, was especially galling. Indeed, Duluth East was a constant source of frustration for LaRoque, who had an on-ice record of 3-19-1 against the Hounds, though one of those wins was Rapids’ only victory over East in eight playoff meetings.
Between the disappointment of losing and some of the grumbling that occurred when LaRoque’s sons made the team—whether merited or not, a seemingly inevitable occurrence for any parent-coach—it is not hard to see how stress drove LaRoque from the game. He had to deal with a fiercely loyal but demanding fan base that expects Rapids to add to its storied history regardless of how good the competition might be. Through it all, he leaves the program in better shape than it was when he took the reins; while many other people and outside factors played a role, Rapids’ youth system is now among the strongest in the state, and looks capable of producing high school contenders for years to come.
LaRoque was never an attention-grabbing coach. He didn’t have the personality of other long-term northern Minnesota coaches like Mike Randolph and Bruce Plante, but his even-keeled style made things work. He didn’t blame outside factors for the program’s struggles, and took responsibility for losses instead of passing things off on the referees or other things beyond his control. In an era when many players leave for junior hockey, Rapids has been unique in its ability to keep its star players at home. That is a credit to the power of the community, and LaRoque had a talent for respecting that tradition without over-hyping it or forcing it down anyone’s throat. Whoever succeeds him in overseeing the Halloween Machine will inherit a program that has its house in order as well as any in the state, and that is a testament to LaRoque’s success, no matter how frustrating those narrow losses might have been.