By Bob San
Osseo-Maple Grove Sports
For new Maple Grove boys’ hockey coach Tom Starkey, Friday, Nov. 22 could not come fast enough. That’s the night the Crimson played at Wayzata in Starkey’s debut as the coach of his former high school team.
“I have been looking forward to it for quite sometime,” said Starkey, a 2000 graduate and a former four-year standout for the Crimson. “It’s great to be back here and I am ecstatic to be part of the Crimson program again. I am looking forward to building on what’s already been established here.”
Starkey’s first game as Maple Grove’s coach was a thriller. The Crimson made it loud and clear that they are a team to be reckoned with because they lost 4-3 in overtime to a Wayzata team that is ranked No. 1 in the state by Let’s Play Hockey. One night later, Starkey got his first coaching victory in a 4-3 win over Holy Family Catholic.
For Starkey and his players, 2013-14 represents a season in which the Crimson will not only try to win games and titles, but also to restore respectability to the program.
Last season, the Crimson hockey program was rocked by an off-campus incident in December 2012 that resulted in the suspension of 13 players. The scandal ruined the hockey season, caused embarrassment to the school and community and eventually led to the firing of Gary Stefano, who had coached the Crimson since Maple Grove High opened in 1994.
Starkey, who played for Stefano, applied and got the job last spring, and he immediate went to work to make sure incidents like that won’t happen again. He met all the players in the summer, conducted meetings with players and parents and made it clear what’s expected of the players.
“I have gotten to know all the kids this summer. They are all very good kids, good students and very well respected in the school,” Starkey said. “All the guys know we are accountable for ourselves. If something were to happen they are letting the guys next to their locker-room down, not themselves. They know that they’d be disappointing the rest of the team if something like that were to happen. We have had team meetings and parents and players meetings and we talked about the standards and expectations that are involved to be part of the program. The kids have totally bought in. Honestly, I don’t anticipate having any issues with it.”
Starkey then assembled a coaching staff that includes former National Hockey League player Lawrence Nycholat, Greg Peterson and Todd Bergland and worked on creating a new culture and environment for the program.
“The biggest challenge is creating the culture and environment you want your team to play like,” Starkey said. “To get the kids to buy into our system is the big deal. As soon as we do that I think we will achieve the success we want.”
Starkey inherited a team that has all the ingredients to be successful. The Crimson return all their top scorers and also welcome back two top veteran defensemen and both starting goalies.
“We have a very talented group of kids,” Starkey said. “We have a lot of seniors and juniors, two sophomores and two freshmen that will be playing varsity this year, which is very unusual. We are excited about our senior leadership and our youth. We should contend for the conference title and section title. Our goal is to get back into the state tournament like we did two years ago.’
Senior Sam Valerius and junior Josh Passolt are the top returning scorers along with senior forwards Nate Erickson, Jake Abernathy, Evan Augustine and Jack Kuelbelbeck and junior center Joe Norenberg.
Instead of a No. 1 and a No. 2 lines, Starkey said the Crimson have two balanced top lines. One has Erickson centering Valerius on leftwing and freshman Sam Huff on rightwing and the other line has Norenberg centering Passolt on the left and Jake Abernathy on the right.
Starkey will choose among Augustine, Kuelbelbeck, sophomore Sam Ross and junior Dane Abernathy for the third line.
Senior captain Drake Thomsen returns to anchor the defense.
“He is our rock back there,” Starkey said.
Junior Sam Franta is another returning blueliner. Other defensemen are seniors Austin Ricklefs and Cuyler Fischer, sophomore Josh Wente and freshman Jack Kelly.
The biggest problem Starkey faced in tryouts was one many coaches wish they have: he had four goalies fighting for two varsity spots.
“We have four really good goalies. The unfortunate part is only one can play,” Starkey said. “Goalie is one of those positions that you have to ride whoever is hot so we will figure that out throughout the year.”
Senior John Danielson and junior Cal McKenney, who split time last season, will open the season on the varsity. But junior Sam Renner and sophomore Brady Goodman are waiting in the wing.
Each coach has his own systems and styles and Starkey said Crimson fans can expect a more physical brand of hockey from his squad.
“Some of the major differences we will show this year is aggressiveness and physical play,” he said. “We have been stressing that with the guys since the day we walked in here as a staff. We have to be more physical, we have to play with an attitude and play with an edge. Our goal is to be the most difficult team to play against.”
The Crimson will run into familiar foes in Blaine, Centennial, Elk River in their bid to return to prominence but Starkey said his team is looking forward to the challenge.
Starkey said the success of the football program provides inspiration for his program.
“It’s the same thing. Coach Lombardi has done a great job with the transition he has made to the football program in the last three years,” Starkey said. “We are at a time right now when I have never seen Crimson Pride any higher as it is. The football team had a great run into the state tournament. We want to take some of that momentum and transition it right into the hockey season.”