Silver linings: Coaches Walz, Fink spark East Ridge hockey turnaround
The picture was bleak. The East Ridge girls hockey team was 0-3, had lost its games a combined 19-0, its starting goalie was injured and the program needed a new head coach.
However, every cloud has a silver lining.
Fast forward two months. East Ridge is in fourth place in the highly competitive Suburban East Conference with a 7-4-1 record, its starting goalie is back on the ice and -- with wins over Stillwater, White Bear Lake and rival Park -- East Ridge is coming off the best stretch in the program's young history.
The revival of the Raptors has many wondering, "What happened?"
The answer is multifaceted, but it starts with co-head coaches Wes Walz and Tim Fink.
Following the dismissal of East Ridge head coach Craig Norwich three games into the season, Fink stepped up from assistant coach to co-head coach along with Walz, who jumped from the stands to the bench. Walz, a former NHL player and assistant coach, picked up the reins of the Raptors in order to help a fledgling team that his daughter, Jaedyn, plays for.
"The girls needed a spark and Wes provided that," Fink said. "The girls believe in the systems, believe in what they're doing and are finally coming around to seeing what they are capable of. They're playing a great brand of hockey right now."
After starting 0-4, East Ridge is 9-5-1 since, including going 5-2-1 in its past eight games.
"It's like anything, when you have some success it breeds confidence," said Walz, who played in the NHL 13 seasons for five teams, compiling 260 points at the center position. "We've been winning some games here the past couple of months, which hasn't happened a lot here in the last few years. It's just nice for me to see the smiles on the girls' faces and have them know they have some relevance and have them be able to walk around East Ridge High School being proud of what they're doing. They should all be very proud."
East Ridge senior goalie Katie Ahmann, who strained her ACL and was out for the first three weeks of the year, said Walz has "been a big part of the turnaround."
"He's really gotten us into shape and has us working toward the same goal," Ahmann said. "Before it felt like we were more individuals, but he's built us as a team and we've really connected together."
Ahmann has been playing varsity hockey since she was a seventh grader, first at Woodbury and now at East Ridge. She said she's had six different coaching staffs in those six years.
"I think this season has been monumental for our team," Ahmann said. "We've been through so much. Now, we have some stability and it's really nice. I'm very proud of our team. I've been playing high school hockey for six years and I've never beaten Stillwater once. To beat Stillwater now, right when we're climbing the ladder was a big win for us. It shows how we've grown as a team."
The opening at East Ridge came to pass after Norwich was dismissed by East Ridge. First-year East Ridge Activities Director Jon Hinzman would only say that "situations occurred." Other sources at East Ridge said that Norwich was ultimately let go for playing an ineligible player.
"(Norwich) just wasn't a fit for what we were trying to do at the time," Hinzman said. "You never know when an opportunity is going to present itself. (Walz and Fink) have done a great job."
Fink, a former standout player at South St. Paul and uncle of current Gophers' starting goalie Adam Wilcox and former UMD goalie and current San Jose Shark Alex Stalock, coached under Norwich for his one year at East Ridge. He said the transition has been as positive as it can be.
"There was some confusion there I think and Craig made a mistake," Fink said. "It was a bad situation all around. For Wes to jump into this situation and adapt to myself and (assistant coach) Bob Gella really worked out. Everything is cohesive. Everyone is on the same page. You can see it on the ice. The girls are playing great."
Walz spent seven seasons with the Wild before retiring in 2008. In the 2005-06 season Walz had a career-high 19 goals to go along with 18 assists for a total of 37 points in 82 games played. Three years ago Walz moved from Florida, where he was coaching the Tampa Bay Lightning back to Woodbury, where he and his family had lived while he played for the Wild, in order to give his son Kelvin a chance to play high school hockey in Minnesota. Walz helped out the East Ridge boys team as an assistant coach during Kelvin's senior year.
Last year, Walz began working as an analyst for Minnesota Wild games broadcast on Fox Sports North. However, with the NHL lockout delaying the start of the season this year and with East Ridge needing some help, Walz lent a hand.
"We stepped back and looked at who could help us and who would be a fit and Wes came to the forefront," Hinzman said. "He's grabbed the bull by the horns. He has the experience, he knows what it takes to be a professional hockey player and coach, has high expectations and knows what needs to be done."
Walz humbly said he hasn't done much differently as head coach at East Ridge. However, he said he has revamped the team's defensive zone coverage, split the team's practices into JV and varsity, worked on the girls' conditioning and on specific hockey skills in practice and has tightened up the shifts during games, keeping them to a one minute maximum.
"From an outsider prospective watching the club, I felt like the skill level of the girls had really deteriorated the past couple of years," Walz said. "I just felt that was something we really needed to concentrate on. Our skill level has definitely gotten better."
Ahmann has liked what she's seen from Walz.
"He has a very updated perspective of the game," she said. "He's very updated on the new ways to play the game. Wes has been watching us a lot. He knows us as players and he knows how to get us to play to the best of our abilities. He's a great coach."
With the way the team is playing currently, East Ridge should be a contender in Section3AA. With teams like Eagan, Apple Valley, Burnsville, East Ridge, Hastings, Park and Rosemount, the Raptors' section is deep - anyone could beat anyone on a given night - but it lacks a true stand-out. Only Apple Valley (No. 18) and Hastings (No. 19) are ranked in the top 20 in Class AA.
"We're still working and still climbing that ladder," Ahmann said. "We're hoping to peak at the end of the season and give everyone a run for their money at sections."
Walz said he didn't want to speculate on the team's postseason chances, saying the team just needs to "work, scratch and claw for everything we get."
"I wouldn't get too carried away with talk about state tournaments," Walz said. "That's not something we talk about as a team in our locker room. We talk about playing well the next game and the next period. We don't look too far ahead."
Hinzman gave a lot of credit for the hiring of Walz to current ERHS Principal Aaron Harper and former Activities Director and current Assistant Principal Trent Hanson, who had hired both Norwich and Walz previously. The three men will once again have to decide the fate of the program at the end of the year.
"East Ridge asked me if I would jump in and help out just to bridge the gap," Walz said. "This is not something that'll be a long-term situation. I explained that to the girls and the parents. Everyone understands that. With the lockout, I had the time on my hands to get involved, so it was a good fit."
How things play out for Walz and Fink will be decided after the season, which the Raptors hope goes deep into February.
"I have to be honest, I've had a lot of fun working with the girls," Walz said. "We have a great group of parents, too. The girls have really, really paid attention to details, we've won a few games and the girls are starting to see the fruits of some small adjustments we've made. We'll find out how it'll all play out this summer."