Just two years ago, I wrote about the departure of a Grand Rapids hockey coach. Now I’m doing it again. John Rothstein lasted just those two seasons in place of Bruce LaRoque, both of them ending abruptly in the section semifinals, and finishes 32-20-2.
Rothstein came in with the heavy burden of high expectations. The Thunderhawks’ religious fan base was hungry for another State Tournament. The talent level was on the rise, raising the stakes even higher. There had been some frustration with LaRoque—he wasn’t exactly subtle in saying that rumor-mongering about his handling of his own sons’ playing time was a key reason he stepped down—so maybe someone new could take the Halloween Machine back to its hallowed past.
It wasn’t to be, and I’ll be frank: I thought Rothstein’s teams did less with more than many of LaRoque’s did. Some in the Rapids fan base criticized LaRoque’s teams for going into a defensive shell in key games, but it usually gave them a fighting chance against more talented competition. In 2014, Rapids fans saw what happened when their team tried to skate straight into the teeth of a Duluth East forecheck, and there was never any effort to help out a very inexperienced defense. The result was their most lopsided section playoff loss in recent memory, despite having Mr. Hockey Avery Peterson and a talented sophomore core in the fold. Hunter Shepard was a fine goalie, but no one can be hung out to dry that often. The 2015 team improved defensively but was maddeningly inconsistent; at times flashing great skill, but far too easily knocked off their game and into mediocrity. Flustered by another disciplined East team, they sleepwalked through their first two periods in the playoff game before finally exploding to life in the final frame. But it was too little, too late, and too incomplete an effort to make any claim to victory, despite the absurd shot total. Rothstein tinkered with its lines a bit over the course of the season, an odd choice when he had a ready-made top line of star juniors at his disposal.
This doesn’t mean the inability to get out of the semis was all Rothstein’s fault. It’s hard to get high schoolers on the same page, and two years is hardly enough time to judge a coach with any finality. Mike Randolph didn’t make State until his third year at East, and only went once in his first five; it takes time to learn the ropes, and to get a whole program on the same page. Rothstein also had the misfortune of sharing a section with Randolph’s Hounds, whose recent teams have executed game plans and performed under pressure as well as anyone in the state, to say nothing of their healthy share of talent.
There were some real positives, too. Rothstein seemed widely liked and respected. He has overseen an overhaul of the Rapids schedule, ramping up what had been a fairly soft slate and giving the Thunderhawks a series of road trips to rival those of Duluth East and Moorhead, a necessary step for a team that wants to be on their level. They beat East in the regular season for the first time in twelve years, ending a long rut and likely ending any aura of invincibility. Unlike the 2014 squad, the 2015 team showed genuine signs of improvement over the course of the season. This Rapids return to glory is a slow process, and one that owes much to past coaches and a talent surge in the youth program, but Rothstein has ushered it along, and as was the case when LaRoque left, the future on the northern reaches of the Mississippi looks bright.
On Saturday morning, Rothstein told KOZY radio that he didn’t realize when he started that being a high school coach is a full-time job. He also told the Duluth News-Tribune that he’d never expected to stay for long, either. The former Rapids and Minnesota-Duluth standout is not a young man, and owns a business and teaches at a community college. His experience is proof once again of the amount of effort it takes to run a top high school hockey program, earning just four figures to do an often thankless job. Rapids’ next coach should be a younger guy who understands what he’s getting himself into, and one who is in it for the long haul. While it would be tough to attract an outside big name, there is more than enough hockey knowledge in town to carry the mantel, and with top-ten talent on board for next season–will this be the most talented Rapids team since the early 90s?–it has to be an alluring position. We’ll see who steps forward to claim it.