The Breakdown, which puts out a superb high school hockey preview guidebook each season, recently asked me to make a fool of myself with a series of preseason predictions. In among the usual questions about who will win State and Mr. Hockey and who will be a surprise this season, there was a straightforward but very difficult question: who is the best coach in Minnesota high school hockey? I took the easy way out and was a total homer about it, but it got me thinking about the many options, and will ramble some about them here.
It’s a tough question. A coach who is right for one program at a certain time might be useless for another, and vice versa. They all have strengths and weaknesses, and bring interesting mixes of skills to the table. They also change over time, learning lessons and adapting to the different teams they have. When measuring coaches, it can also be very difficult to separate them from their programs: how on earth do you compare the work of Edina’s Curt Giles with the work of the coaches in River Lakes or Owatonna?
Instead of trying to devise a ranking, I’ve settled simply for some short descriptions of many of the most prominent coaches. I’ve tried to be fair with each of them, though that doesn’t mean I’m entirely neutral. I’ve focused on the coaches I know best; if I’ve omitted someone prominent, it’s probably because I don’t know them all that well, not because I’m trying to slight them. They’re listed in rough order by section.
Trent Eigner, Lakeville North Eigner walked into an ideal situation as the community-chosen successor to Randy Schmitz, who had been run out of town. He inherited a team that was just about ready to take off, with a rising golden generation and a section ripe for the taking, and take off it has, making the state final last season. He’s not one to over-structure things; he simply turns his players loose. This has its downsides—see last year’s state final, when the wheels fell off and people were flopping all over the place—but he’s also young and still on the learning curve, and there is plenty to be said for letting players play with their emotion. No one will be under heavier scrutiny this upcoming season.
Kurt Weber, Lakeville South Weber has been on the receiving end of some criticism over the years; in 2010 and 2011 the Cougars were favored to win 1AA, but fell to mediocre North teams. South has also seen some talent migrate north over the past few years. Still, when he did break through in 2012, he coached a game to define a career, putting in a lot of video work and planning to orchestrate the upset of Duluth East. Top players have also done pretty well under him.
Lorne Grosso, Rochester Mayo Grosso has been around forever. He’s not nearly as intense or territorial as some of the other long-tenured coaches, and seems to go with the flow. Back when he did have some serious talent in the mid-90s, his teams did quite well, finishing 4th in 1995 and giving undefeated Duluth East a one-goal quarterfinal game in 1997. Lately, there’s been so little in the pipeline that he just can’t be compared with the others here.
Curt Giles, Edina Giles is blessed with an embarrassment of talent, making him hard to measure him against the others on this list. He made some mistakes early in his career, riding his top line too often in the Budish-Everson-Lee days, and failing to deliver a title with that golden generation. One of the best marks of a successful coach, though, is his ability to learn from his mistakes, and Giles has done exactly that. He now uses all of that incredible depth at his disposal, and with three titles in five years, the results speak for themselves. He’s also drawn some criticism for reliance on younger players, but again, it’s hard to argue with success, and Edina has so many talented players that some will inevitably be jilted. He’s left his own distinct mark with Edina’s physicality—no soft cake here—and he’s also a master at line-matching. It’s hard to say how he’d do if he were thrown in somewhere else, but right now, he’s mastered the art of coaching Edina, and he’s got the hardware to back it up.
Janne Kivihalme, Burnsville Kivihalme burst on to the scene in 2007, when his Blaze went on a surprise run, beating Holy Angels in sections and made the State semis. The Finn had a bit of an aura around him, but the results haven’t quite followed since. A lot of this is due to the misfortune of sharing a section with Edina, but there have been a number of very narrow calls over the years. In spite of it all there doesn’t seem to be too much criticism in Burnsville, though they also lose top players to juniors at a faster rate than perhaps any team in the state. Nothing about his in-game coaching jumps out at me, for good or ill.
Jeff Lindquist, Bloomington Jefferson Lindquist has had the unenviable task of succeeding a legend in Tom Saterdalen, and his time at Jefferson has coincided with a drop in the talent pool on the west side of the Twin Cities’ largest suburb. He made State once and has had a couple of other teams threaten, but have usually been overwhelmed by Edina. Also had some success with Blake in the 1990s.
Joe Pankratz, Prior Lake Pankratz has quietly turned the Lakers into a relevant team, building things from the ground up. This past season was the first real bump in the road, but the future remains bright.
Mike Taylor, Eagan Taylor has been brilliant over the past few seasons, getting a lot out of teams that were supposed to be dropping off in talent. Eagan has never had the youth success of many of the top programs in the state, but the high school teams have been right there over the past five years (though some transfers do help there). He brings a strong but not excessive defensive emphasis, great tactical chops, and a complete team system that has teams looking very fluid. If there’s an obvious flaw, it’s in the poor special teams, and it’s hard to go too far with someone who’s never made a state title game. Still, he comes across as one of the most intelligent coaches in the business, and isn’t one to rock any boats. We’ll see if the success continues now that the well is drier than ever before.
Tom and Greg Vannelli, St. Thomas Academy The Vannelli brothers have built STA up from nothing, turning an also-ran into a state power. Their personalities complement each other well, with one doing the yelling and the other being more even-keeled. They run a tight ship and are good ambassadors for STA’s image, and stayed above the fray when lots of people were griping about their presence in Class A. Their style, which doesn’t vary a whole lot and places its emphasis on strong transition play, was great for Class A domination, but I wasn’t surprised to see it undone by a physical Eagan team in the first year in AA. Their success in the big school division will likely be determined by their ability to adapt to the different situations, many of which they did not see in Class A. They did a great job of building STA up, but the jury is still out on any further verdict.
Drey Bradley, Eastview Made a splash in 2013, and has built a contender out of a team without overwhelming skating talent. Tried some unique little tactics in the Tourney against Hill, though it didn’t amount to much in the end.
Jim O’Neill, Cretin-Derham Hall The Raiders under O’Neill have never become the hockey destination that other Twin Cities private schools have, but he does quite well with what he has, winning a title with a team that didn’t have much prolific talent beyond Ryan McDonagh in 2006, and making the semis again in 2009.
Bill Lechner, Hill-Murray Lechner’s even-keeled demeanor is well-suited for the Hill ethos; he comes off as a confident blueblood who stewards a storied program with ease. His biggest triumph was in 2008, when he knocked off the top two teams in the state en route to a title, and his best teams bring an intense physicality and stout defense. (Assistant Pat Schafhauser often gets some credit here.) He’s also developed a reputation strict disciplinarian with high standards for off-ice conduct. He’s good at building a winning atmosphere, which helps make up for a relative lack of tactical innovation or creativity. He inherited a great situation at Hill, but does not strike me as someone who would be great if thrown into a job with a struggling program and asked to grow it from the ground up.
Tim Sager, White Bear Lake Perhaps the most notable thing that can be said about Sager is that he is a survivor. No one has taken more heat over the years, yet he hangs in there, and has had some seasons of legitimate overachievement, as in 2011. His teams rarely have Hill’s talent, but by the playoffs they can almost always give the Pioneers a good run, usually by relying on emotion and a neutral zone trap. There has been some maddening inconsistency over the years, but through it all, the Bears put out some good talent remain perennial 4AA contenders.
Matt Doman, Stillwater He’s only had one year, but in that one year he did what no previous Pony coach could do, from Bill Lechner to Phil Housley: he got them to State. Their run through 4AA featured lots of good energy and ambition, though they were quickly throttled by Edina at State. With some talented youth teams feeding in, he’s one to watch in the coming years.
Ritch Menne, Centennial Menne also has a very short résumé, but it’s an excellent one, with two State berths in two years, both as a lower seed. His Cougars have done it with tight defense, good discipline, and just a bit of an edge. He’s another one to watch in the coming years.
Tom Starkey, Maple Grove It’s way too early to say much about Starkey, but his team was consistently in the picture last season, and given the strength of the program, he’ll be under the spotlight. He has a chance to leave his mark in a section that is fairly open for the taking.
I’m breaking this post into two so that it isn’t overly long. Here is part two.