Here in the State of Hockey, it is not unusual to see members of the NHL in attendance at our local rinks. For decades, NHL staff and alumni have scouted our high school and collegiate hockey games, mining for undiscovered skill and trying to tap into the rich vein of talent that flows within our borders. But recently, a substantial amount of NHL alumni have found themselves in a different position all together in our local rinks: Behind the bench.
According to the elite hockey minds at Let’s Play Hockey magazine, there are currently at least 24 ex-NHL players coaching at the high school hockey level. They range from Minnesota hockey institutions like Curt Giles, who attended UMD for four years and played twelve years for the Minnesota North Stars, to University of Minnesota collegiate legend Johnny Pohl, the 1998 winner of Minnesota’s Mr. Hockey at Red Wing High School and St. Louis Blues draft pick who played 183 games in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.
A large number of these coaches are native sons and nearly all of them have deep ties to the Minnesota hockey community. Minnesota high school hockey head coaches who played in the NHL include Jim Archibald (Brainerd), Tim Bergland (Thief River Falls), Shawn Chambers (Northern Lakes), Giles (Edina), Jim McElmury (Tartan), Joe Dziedzic (Minneapolis), Phil Housley (Stillwater), Gordie Roberts (Elk River), Dave Snuggerud (Chaska), and Shjon Podein (St. Louis Park). Minnesota high school hockey assistant coaches include Don Beaupre (Edina), Brad DeFauw (Lakeville North), Bryan “Butsy” Erickson (Roseau), Ryan Kraft (Lakeville North), Dave Langevin (Edina), Paul Ranheim (St. Louis Park), Doug Zmolek (Rochester Century), and Tom Chorske (Minneapolis). The Minnesota high school girl’s head hockey coaches that played in the NHL are Pohl (Cretin-Derham Hall), Matt Koalska (Fergus Falls) and Tom Younghans (Eagan).
All of these ex-NHL players bring a vast array of amateur, collegiate, and professional experience to their local teams that can be invaluable to the development of our state’s young players. Chorske played 11 seasons in the NHL and now is an assistant coach with the Minneapolis Novas, a cooperative of players from all of the Minneapolis public high schools. He leans on his lengthily hockey career experience when he coaches.
“In my career, I had ten different coaches in the NHL. And that doesn’t include the coaches I had in the minor leagues, international play in Europe and world tournaments,” Chorske said. “I can fall back on all of those situations and pass it down to the kids.”
Throughout his hockey career, Chorske experienced a lot of different coaching styles, some positive and some negative. But he learned from all of them and now incorporates various drills, techniques and styles he picked up along the way.
“My favorite coaches were the more cerebral coaches like Herb Brooks and Jacques Lemaire. Jacques was more defensive minded and Herb loved the creative, attacking philosophy,” Chorske said. “But both had a system and they assigned players different roles. Jacques was really good at not trying to put a round peg into a square hole. With the Minneapolis kids, Joe (Dziedzic) and I are doing the same thing. We try to put a player in a situation, teach him some skill, so that he can succeed in that role.”
When Chorske played for the New Jersey Devils in 1995, Lemaire helped guide the club to a Stanley Cup. During this time, Chorske picked up a few of the Lemaire’s legendary motivational quotes that now rattle around in his head when he is coaching the Minneapolis Nova hockey players. No matter what age group is on the ice, the players don’t always listen and carryout the plans a coach has designed.
“Jacques used to say to us, ‘You guys think you know, but you don’t know. Do it my way, you win more games,’” Chorske said, laughing at the memory of Lemaire’s now famous vernacular.
But like any good youth hockey coach, the fraternity of ex-NHL players that are now coaching in Minnesota do not focus solely on on-ice development. After going through the meat grinder that can often times be a long hockey career, one that encompasses tremendous sacrifice and toiling in the minor leagues to pro hockey, all of these ex NHLers know that game play is only part of the equation. Coaching X’s and O’s can only go so far.
“These kids are at a very important stage of their life,” Chorske said. “They are on the verge of going into the real world. So, we talk to them about all sorts of stuff off the ice.”
Developing life skills outside the rink is just as important as developing a snap shot. Shjon Podein, head coach at St. Louis Park, prides himself on instilling values into his players, virtues that he has gleamed from his long career.
“I tell the kids that the harder they work the luckier you get,” Podein said.
Podein, one of the 1990’s era’s best third-line checkers, knows all about hard work. It was his grit and sweaty fortitude on the checking line and penalty kill that was the foundation of his hockey career. He was unrecruited out of Rochester and walked on at UMD and worked his way, practice after practice, into stardom.
“I tell the kids that nothing can replace hard work,” Podein said. “A person’s work within, I believe, shows a lot about their character.”
There are few who are more qualified than Podein to teach young players about character. In 1997, he started Team25, the Shjon Podein Children’s Foundation to help kids facing extremely difficult lives. In 2001, he won the NHL’s King Clancy Memorial Award given to the NHL player that best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and makes a significant contribution to the community.
Not only that, he has one of the sunniest personalities the hockey world has ever seen. Sure, he played 11 seasons in the NHL and won the Cup in 2001. But one of things he’ll be most remembered for is staying in his sweaty pads and jersey for a full 24 hours after he helped the Colorado Avalanche win the Cup, all in an attempt to fully relish the moment.
When asked if any of his St. Louis Park Oriole hockey players knew about that particular stunt, Podein laughed, “Actually, they don’t. With computers and especially YouTube all they see is what an embarrassing excuse I pretended to be as a tough guy. I get more, ‘Coach Podein did it hurt when that guy beat you up?’ than anything else.”
“The most important thing is to have fun,” Podein said. “And by fun I mean be fulfilled. Having players take pride in their commitment and sacrifice and at the end of the day feeling proud of what they have given and what they have achieved.”
In the end, it is truly a special thing that so many of our elite hockey players that have reached the very pinnacle of the sport are now returning to where it all began for them, all in an attempt to help the next generation of Minnesota hockey players.
Chorske, the State of Hockey’s first ever Mr. Hockey in 1985, a collegiate all American, an Olympian, a Stanley Cup Champion, a player who played in 733 professional games, recently summed up his migration from the playing under the bright lights to being behind the bench.
“It’s more than just giving back,” Chorske said. “I feel a part of the State of Hockey.”