Another week, another notable piece of news on a 7AA coach: Gordie Roberts, the former Minnesota North Star and four-year head coach of Elk River, has resigned to take an assistant position in Maple Grove. He ends with a 76-31-2 record, with two section semifinal losses bookending a pair of overtime section final defeats.
During the 2011-2012 season, a coup led by a single Elk River family pushed out Elk River icon Tony Sarsland, a man who had become synonymous with the program and built it up from scratch into a regular state contender. The fiery Sarsland was a difficult act to follow, and the drama surrounding his unfortunate exit meant his successor would be under a microscope. The Elks scored Roberts to fill that gap, hoping his NHL credentials would carry the gravity necessary to return to glory. Indeed, Roberts enjoyed a strong wave of goodwill at the start, and seemed a sensible way to turn the page.
He also came into Elk River at a good time, as an upsurge in talent promised more success than in the previous few years. While the Elks were usually toward the top of the section in their seven years in 7AA prior to Roberts’ arrival, they weren’t as strong as they were in the 1990s and early 2000s, with only two teams that had a serious shot at a section title. (Those came in 2006 and 2010, and in both years, the Elks faced stiff competition.) There were still roadblocks, from grumpy parents to that long road trip to Duluth in sections, but Roberts’ Elks looked like they’d have the talent break through.
It never happened, and the inability to win big games only snowballed, and grew worse every year. The Elks entered the 2013 semifinals on fairly even terms with Grand Rapids, and seemed like they’d scrape out a workmanlike 1-0 win. But with ten seconds left in regulation, Avery Peterson struck to tie it. The Elks lost in overtime. The next year they beat five-time defending section champion Duluth East during the regular season, and seemed very even with them heading into the section final. This time, they coughed up the lead with a minute and a half to go. The Elks lost in overtime. In 2015 they entered the clear favorite, with Mr. Hockey and a 20-win regular season in tow, and ran out to a 3-0 lead over East after the first period. In the ultimate gut punch, the Elks lost in overtime. Finally, this past season, a strong regular season despite injuries had them as a popular upset pick to knock off a vulnerable-looking East. They were down 4-0 before fans had settled into their seats. The wheels had come off, and the Elks’ Amsoil hex had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
That sloppy loss finally brought some murmurs of discontent into the open. While I wouldn’t give it excess attention, Roberts’ request to move up the time of that game so that he could attend the North Stars’ alumni game at TCF Bank Stadium that evening (while fellow ex-NHLer Curt Giles skipped it to coach his team) seemed to show conflicting priorities. Roberts did nothing glaringly wrong tactically in any of the losses; I didn’t pick up on any unusual locker room angst, and his regular seasons all seemed to meet expectations. Still, playing in the NHL is no guarantee of coaching success, and reputation alone does not win section titles. Nor does it automatically create respect in the locker room, and Roberts, for all his decency, never seemed to quite inspire players to expend every last ounce the way Sarsland did. Following in the footsteps of a giant is never easy.
To pick up on a theme from the Trent Klatt discussion, being a head coach has huge challenges beyond pulling strings on the bench, and Roberts had to handle a big-time program with sky-high expectations. He deserves credit for running a clean ship, and for recognizing the mounting frustrations and making a graceful exit. His new position with Maple Grove should allow him to share some wisdom in a rising program that could use some stability at the top, and will free him of the heavy commitment he had with the Elks. With Elk River’s youth program looking as strong as any in the section, Roberts’ successor will once again have the pieces necessary to head to State in the next few years. Whether the team is able to capitalize on that is an open question.