It takes a certain mindset to willingly stand in front of 90 mph cannon blasts of vulcanized rubber.
Gene Sack, coach of Rochester John Marshall’s 1977 state championship team, famously described Paul Butters, the Rockets’ fabulous goaltender, as “eccentric” when asked why Butters requested to wear the No. 10 — highly unusual for a netminder. Sack explained that Butters’ reasoning was that 1 stands for a traditional goalie number and the 0 signifies a shutout.
St. Thomas Academy coach Trent Eigner said he’s grown accustomed to goaltenders who operate, “in their own little atmosphere,” noting happily that Cadets senior Tommy Aitken’s just-one-of-the-guys demeanor was an exception.
Coaches, like goaltenders, are targets for a certain amount of abuse. Second-guessing from fans, criticisms from tunnel-visioned parents, pink slips from administrators — it can all be part of the deal. It’s only fitting, then, that the state tournament has a rich history of goaltenders-turned-coaches. Three of them had signature days Saturday.
Willard Ikola, the three-time state champion goaltender at Eveleth and eight-time state championship coach at Edina, was in attendance as a bronze statue of his likeness was unveiled in front of Braemar Arena.
Later in the day, Jeff Poeschl, who backstopped Hill-Murray to the 1980 state title game (the Pioneers lost 2-1 to Grand Rapids) coached Mahtomedi in the Class 1A title game against Hermantown — the Zephyrs’ first title game appearance.
Bill Lechner, captain and goaltender of Cretin High School’s varsity as a senior, completed the trifecta by coaching Hill-Murray against Eden Prairie in the Class 2A championship.
Several of the biggest coaching names in high school hockey history emerged from playing careers between the pipes.
Larry Ross, winner of six state titles as International Falls’ legendary coach, was a high school goaltender for Morgan Park in Duluth. Former Eveleth goaltender Oscar Almquist guided Roseau to four state titles. Current Benilde-St. Margaret’s coach Ken Pauly, winner of two Class 1A titles and one Class 2A title leading the Red Knights, played goal for Wayzata. Former Hermantown coach Bruce Plante, a lightning rod because of unfiltered and opinionated comments while coaching the Hawks, played at Cloquet.
“I have a theory on that,” Poeschl said when asked why so many of the state’s great coaches have goaltending origins. “Number one, from your persepctive from watching the game back in the goal, you get to see everything develop.
“You have a bird’s eye view of how plays develop and what works and what doesn’t. I think that is a unique perspective. In addition to that that, while I think all positions have a passion for the game, goaltenders tend to have a different flavor of passion to play that position that makes us dense enough to be willing to become coaches.”
Poeschl famously appeared on the cover of the 1981 state tournament program (pictured below), looking resplendent in his old-school facemask emblazoned with a green and gold star.
“I had a fellow student at Hill-Murray paint it,” he said. “It was pretty primitive.”
Poeschl was asked Friday if he sees any similarities in his goaltending style to that of Zephyrs’ sophomore standout ’tender Ben Dardis.
“Oh no, he is way better than I am,” Poeschl said with laugh.