Beefing up the bench
Doug Long believes that every few years something magical happens on the hockey rink.
Maybe you don't realize it at the time, the East Ridge boys hockey coach said. But eventually it sinks in.
Long thinks he's going through one of those experiences right now - and this time the magic of the moment is crystal clear to him.
"This is going to rank right up there," Long said, "regardless of how the season ends up."
He's talking about the new addition to his coaching staff: former Minnesota Wild player Wes Walz.
The retired NHLer last year returned to Woodbury, where he and his family lived while he played for the Wild. Walz said the move - he lived in Florida the last two years while he worked as an assistant coach for the Tampa Bay Lightning - was all about giving his son Kelvin a chance to play a higher level of hockey in his final high school year.
"It's awesome to be back in real Minnesota hockey," said Kelvin, currently the Raptors' team leader in points scored.
When the family returned to Minnesota, Walz contacted East Ridge Athletic Director Trent Hanson to see if he could join the hockey program. Long, who fondly remembered meeting Walz briefly once at a Stillwater signing event while he still played with the Wild, agreed to sit down to talk with Walz in Woodbury.
"It worked out pretty good," Long said of the meeting.
Walz now serves as an assistant coach and as team's unofficial video analyst. Long said Walz spends up to three hours creating about 10 to 15 minutes of video footage to go over with the players and coaches.
"He just breaks the game down into easy teaching points for the kids and I think it's making a huge difference," Long said.
The former NHLer also has a keen eye for player positioning on the ice, Long said.
Kelvin agreed, saying his father's teaching points "are really paying off." He said his father has helped players concentrate on smaller aspects - penalty kills on power play, for example - where "we've never been taught at that depth and detail."
Walz played in the NHL 13 seasons for five teams, compiling 260 points at the center position. He spent seven seasons with the Wild before retiring in 2008. His best statistical season came in the 1993-94 season when he tallied 38 pooits and a plus/minus rating of 20 in 53 games played for Calgary. In 2005-06, however, Walz had a career-high 19 goals to go along with 18 assists for a total of 37 points in 82 games played for the Wild.
Walz said his focus has been on moving away from X's and O's on the ice and getting the high schoolers to concentrate on team aspects.
"No one player's more important than the next in order to have success," he said. "That's the message I'm hoping to bring."
During games, like last week's road match-up against Mounds View, Walz is a force on the bench, shouting instruction to players on the ice and calling for intensity among players.
"People really listen to him when he's talking," Kelvin said. "He really gets people's attention."
Even Long has noticed that. When Walz talks, the kids listen.
"They're a pretty captive audience," Long said.
The experience has been a special one for East Ridge players, including sophomore forward Jack Greeley.
"He knows a lot about the game," he said. "He gets it."
Still, the transition from the NHL to high school ranks has been delicate, Walz said. With rare exceptions, high schoolers just don't execute at the same level, "so you have to be very conscious of that when you're coaching," Walz said.
He expects this coaching stint to be a one-year affair at East Ridge, but said he hasn't nailed down what the future might bring.
Long figures that will continue to be somewhere in the hockey world.
"That's where his skill set lies," he said.
Regardless, he said he's thrilled with the unique opportunity to have a former NHL player on board and glad to call Walz a friend.
"It's been a lot of fun," Walz said.