Farewell, dear Bruce: one of high school hockey’s most colorful and recognizable coaches has decided to head for the exits. He led the Hermantown Hawks for 28 years over two stints as head coach, went to 13 Class A State Tournaments, won three titles, and produced an NHLer of a son along the way. Bruce, 68, goes out on top, having claimed his second consecutive title just a month ago.
When I first started attending State Tournament press conferences in 2012, Bruce immediately stole the show. He was passionate, he was insightful, and he was downright hilarious, with some memorable quip coming out of his mouth with every other line. What more could you ask for out of a coach? He did it all with his heart on his sleeve, and it wasn’t hard to see why his players loved him and usually managed to stay loose in big games. His feisty teams that hung with St. Thomas Academy teams drowning in D-I talent channeled their coach full-stop, and the sight of Bruce chasing the referees all over the ice after St. Thomas topped the Hawks on a questionable series of calls late in the 2013 title game will always be among my State Tournament favorites.
The News Tribune’s write-up tells some of the early details about Bruce that got lost in his later coaching success. It’s a superb redemption story, as a man coming out of a divorce and a drinking problem put it all together to become a community pillar, as recognizable a face as any in a town on the rise. His players were always approachable, respectful, and shared in more than a little of that infectious charm. Mike Randolph at Duluth East is probably the only other coach in the state who is deeply wrapped up both in the history and as the present-day face of his program as Plante was at Hermantown.
Bruce will go down as a program builder, a person who took a school that had been a hockey afterthought and turned it in to a power. It was a slow but steady process, as they first broke through with a second place run in the ‘98 Tourney, built their way into a Tourney regular, went through year after year of agony as runners-up, and then finally started claiming crowns at the end. He had some perks, to be sure: Hermantown runs right up against a busy commercial corridor in one of Minnesota’s larger cities, and (unlike that neighbor, Duluth) has ample tracts of undeveloped land for new single-family housing on large lots. As history has shown us, this is the exact formula for building a great program, and few have done it without such favorable conditions. (At about the time the announcement came, I happened to be driving around Hermantown for work purposes, and it was hard not to notice the amount of new home construction under way.) A variety of situations with neighboring school districts also helped the Hawks along. Still, it takes a committed leader to guide that process over many years, and Bruce was a steadying influence every step of the way.
Bruce won by inspiring confidence in his players and turning them loose. While he could at times be creative tactically, he never seemed to fancy himself a chess master, unlike some of his fellow longtime Duluth area coaches. Instead, he just lets his forwards fly and apply constant pressure. It’s fun hockey to play and watch, though perhaps worth noting that it is much easier to win with this style in Class A than in AA, and if there were a few playoff games that his Hawks probably should have won but didn’t, they came against big, tough defensive squads, as with the East Grand Forks team that knocked them off for a second straight year in 2015.
I can’t write this column without mentioning the controversy that plagued the Hawks in Bruce’s final years. After years of being the plucky upstart against Class A’s private powers, Hermantown suddenly became that power themselves. The Hawks’ advantages were obvious, and the program came to enjoy a combination of perks that no other Class A public school could claim. The 2017 Tourney, in which they frankly did not play anywhere near their potential throughout three games (two of them against vastly less skilled opponents) but still won it all anyway, seemed to underscore the tiredness of it all. While I’m not in the “Hermantown must move up!!!” camp—it’s their program to run as they see fit—I was a little disappointed that someone I’d come to like a lot seemed stuck in a rut of denial.
Hermantown will stay in A for at least two more years, though, and while they will still be a power, Bruce’s successor will start out with a slight down cycle in Hawk talent. This program has become big time, and the pressure will be on, both from inside and out of Hermantown. The position should attract some big names. For now, though, I suggest we take a moment to drop the class warfare and the pressure of the post and stop to honor Bruce, who was as rich a character as there was in high school hockey. Whether we know it or not, we’ll miss him.