The team in its road blues pops in another goal. A groan goes down the line. One of the assistant coaches calls out the numbers of the five boys on the ice, and tells the girl with the scoresheet to circle one particular culprit. “We need to realize that just because someone does well in a drill, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well in a game,” muses another. Someone asks a much younger kid, the son of former Wild winger Antti Laaksonen, if he brought any gear and might be available to suit up. It’s all in good fun; part of the long and slow process of building up a hockey program into relevance.
Most of my hockey-watching involves matchups between the very top high school teams in Minnesota. I usually only see those outside the top 20 or so when they play Duluth East, and even then, I tend to be more intent on what the Greyhounds are doing. On Thursday night, I enjoyed a welcome change of pace and, on the invitation of a member of the forum I moderate, immersed myself in a program I hadn’t seen before.
Chanhassen High School broke off from Chaska just five years ago, and its fledgling hockey program under coach Chris Wilson has had just one winning season to date. They still share a youth program with Chaska, and have the added difficulty of being in AA; while Chaska became small enough to play in Class A after the split, the Storm are left battling the likes of Edina and Burnsville in the first round of the 2AA playoffs. This season also brings the Storm some new challenges, as the old Missota Conference dissolved, leading to the formation of the Metro West. Chanhassen now has perennial title contender Benilde-St. Margaret’s on its schedule, plus another longtime state power in Bloomington Jefferson. They entered this game at 2-2-1; one of those wins was over a decent Hopkins squad, but they were coming off a humbling 7-1 loss to rising 2AA power Prior Lake earlier in the week.
Their opponent on Thursday was Class A heavyweight Breck, and while the game wasn’t quite as lopsided as the 6-0 scoreline made it look, the Storm were certainly on their heels for most of the contest. They held their own for substantial chunks of the first period, but were bottled up whenever the Mustangs’ top line hit the ice, and Breck—not an overwhelmingly deep team themselves—exposed the lack of depth on both goals in the period. Things began to unravel in the second, with all three goals coming in painful ways: off a juicy rebound, on a shorthanded rush, and a very soft shot just before the end of the period. A victory was probably out of the question, but a rematch might bring out a better fight.
With the game out of reach, Wilson and his staff shook things up in the third. They loaded up their top line, pairing together their two more skilled junior forwards in search of a little more offense. Running up against the age-old high school hockey conundrum of age and experience versus youth and promise, they put in a freshman goalie, who performed ably. (Their best skater on the ice was also a young gun, a sophomore defenseman.) The Storm had some of their best chances in the game’s dying minutes, finally applying some serious pressure as the clock ticked down to zero.
This was some consolation to the group I joined in a perch behind glass at one end of the rink. While Chanhassen’s stats and video operation can’t match Benilde’s small army of backroom staff, a group of student managers kept meticulous stats and shots, and the assistant coaches at their side kept a running commentary, delighting in improvements from some players and sighing in defeat when others repeated old mistakes. They rushed down to the locker room between periods to relay things they’d seen from their perspective, doing all they could to correct errors and dissect trends in Breck’s approach. (This was all new to someone used to the Duluth East method for collecting details on games, which mostly involves Mike Randolph’s memory.)
After the game, the Storm staff huddled in the small coaches’ office next to the locker room, looking to regroup after a second straight game ended in running time. I diagnosed a work in progress; the players are hearing the right messages, but have yet to have them drilled into their minds. The learning curve is long, and after a pair of lopsided losses, the coaches have to play that delicate game of ego management. They want the top players to be confident and creative, but one can only tolerate so many attempts to dangle through traffic when there are open teammates, or blind backhanders that gift-wrap the puck to the opposition. The coaches want to play appealing and aggressive hockey, but how much does the opponent dictate what a team does, at what point do they content themselves with a neutral zone trap—or even simple damage control? They want to put pressure on the bubble players so they know their jobs are on the line, but at what point does juggling mess with their minds? There’s no easy formula for any of those questions, and Wilson’s staff has to experiment on the fly. Their approach for Friday night? A pasta dinner for the team.
Most of the conversation themes were familiar to anyone who’s been around youth hockey, but I was left with an appreciation for how much thinner the margin for error is with a team like Chanhassen. Where an elite team might be able to withstand a slight lack of hustle on the forecheck, a defenseman out of place, or an attempt to dangle straight through the heart of a defense, such lax play does in the Storm. So much of the game still comes down to fundamentals: if the breakout isn’t swift enough, it’s only a matter of time before someone is caught running around, and even when they do clear the blue line, there’s the whole matter of gaining the other team’s zone. The challenge comes in turning hesitation into instinct, and in getting a group of boys to buy into a complete team concept that might get them somewhere by February.
What path might this Storm take? Realistically, they can use their two games with Bloomington Jefferson and one with Holy Angels to earn a 4- or 5-seed in 2AA. There’s a very capable core of players here, and if they come together, they have some chance of winning a playoff game for the first time in school history. Beyond that, they simply have to keep strengthening the foundation, building a young program shift by shift.