2011-12 Winter Preview: Fresh ice for East Ridge girls hockey teamLongtime NHL player Craig Norwich working on installing new systems at East Ridge.
By: Patrick Johnson, Sports Editor, Woodbury Bulletin
East Ridge junior goalie and team captain Katie Ahmann is starting her fourth year of varsity hockey. Over the past four years, she’s had four different head coaches – one as an eighth grader for Woodbury High School, then Stacy Anderson, who led a cooperative between Woodbury and East Ridge two years ago, last year’s coach at East Ridge, Tony Hoops, and now Craig Norwich.
She said she’s most excited about her latest mentor.
“Craig is definitely the best coach we’ve ever had,” Ahmann said. “He’s the most qualified we’ve had, definitely. He knows his hockey, obviously, and he knows how to coach girls, which is important. Coach Norwich really knows how to communicate with us and he pushes us so hard. He really believes in us.”
Norwich said his initial goal as the new head coach of the East Ridge girls hockey team is to implement his systems – methods and procedures culled from the philosophies of some of the country’s most renowned hockey coaches.
Norwich, a former Minnesota state champion, NCAA title holder, gold medal winner and longtime NHL player, learned how to coach from legends like Bob Johnson, John Mariucci and Herb Brooks.
“Everybody has their own system,” Norwich said. “Some are just tweaked versions of somebody else’s, but there needs to be a system. We have our systems. The biggest thing we’re trying to do right now is to get the girls to appreciate the different systems – where to go, what to do and why to do it.”
Norwich played 15 seasons of professional hockey in the NHL and Europe.
In the NHL, he played for five teams over five years between 1979 and 1984, totaling 75 points in 104 games as a defenseman. He also played for Team USA in four different World Ice Hockey Championships, winning a gold medal in 1983. In high school, he was a member of three consecutive state tournament teams at Edina, and was captain of the Hornets 1974 state championship team. In college, he was a two-time All-American at Wisconsin, where his team won the 1977 NCAA championship. He holds three WCHA records, is a member of the Wisconsin Hall of Fame, and was named to the WCHA Top-50 Player list.
Norwich’s systems in the defensive, offensive and neutral zones include aspects from the college game and professional hockey.
“I want to get them to a point where it’s second nature to know how to change systems from game to game, period to period and shift to shift,” Norwich said. “I don’t know if they had a system in the past. That happens. I played on an NHL team in Winnipeg. Barry Melrose was my defensive partner on that team. I asked him what system we were playing. No one knew. Each coach has his personal idea of what works best. It’s just a matter of strategy.”
Norwich, 56, has led hockey programs across the country for the last 20 years. He has a history of building programs from the ground up. After retiring from professional hockey in 1990, he created and directed the esteemed Shattuck-St. Mary’s School in Faribault.
Prior to taking over East Ridge, Norwich, who lives in St. Paul, coached Edina 14U “A” girls hockey, guiding his teams to a state championship in 2010 and a state consolation title in 2011. He has also led AAA hockey teams in Colorado and California and was the Director of Hockey at St. Paul Academy for five years.
“It’s fun teaching hockey,” Norwich said. “Everybody’s light bulb goes off at a different time. I’ve seen some go off and some haven’t yet. You just have to keep working on that connection so they get it.”
To help him out in year No. 1 at East Ridge, Norwich brought in some talented assistant coaches – former South St. Paul standout Tim Fink, goalie coach Meryl McGovern and fellow former NHLer Tom Younghans. Younghans played 429 games for the New York Rangers and Minnesota North Stars between 1976 and 1982. He also played for the University of Minnesota and represented the United States at the Ice Hockey World Championships in 1976, 1977 and 1978 as well as the 1981 Canada Cup tournament.
Ahmann said the girls on the team have a lot of respect for the new coaches.
“We definitely look up to them a lot and they’re very inspirational to us,” Ahmann said. “They know what it takes to be successful and the girls definitely listen to what they have to say.”
Norwich and Younghans go way back. The two men played against each other with the rival Badgers and Gophers and faced off in NHL games between the Winnipeg Jets and North Stars. Once, they even dropped their gloves and squared off.
“I don’t think it was much of a fight to be honest,” Norwich said. “It’s definitely not in the top 1,000 hockey fights, but maybe the top 10,000. It was a vicious battle up in Winnipeg in 1979 when I was playing for the Jets. Tom said something about my hair color I think and it was enough to set me off.”
Last year, East Ridge was 6-20-1 in its first year as a solo program after going 9-11-6 in a cooperative with Woodbury in the 2009-10 season. So far this season, East Ridge is 2-2.
“It’s going pretty well actually,” Norwich said. “The girls are working hard. We’re young and we’re learning. It’s a process. We hope we can get better at every practice and every game. It’s going to take time. We just have to be patient.”
East Ridge has 39 girls in its high school program. However, the Raptors have only three seniors and five juniors this year. The rest are sophomores, freshmen and eighth graders. The team’s biggest class are the freshmen.
“It’s nice to have a full roster to do what we want. It’s really a luxury,” Norwich said. “A bunch of girls have jumped in and played well at different times. But, we are very young. It takes time to ingrain all this stuff so they know it instinctively rather than having to think about it.”
Norwich said the team’s goalies – Ahmann and freshman Paige Press are “the backbone of the team” and that he is still experimenting with his position players, some of whom he said may be playing in the wrong positions.
In addition to Ahmann, senior Bri Elsmore is a team captain and leader on and off the ice. Other key players include junior Katelyn Bergloff and sophomores Kayla Bender, Jessica Hammer, Liv Henderson and Kayla Griffith.
Ahmann said she is looking forward to seeing how good East Ridge can get.
“The older girls I’ve played with in the past have really pushed me. Their influence was really big. As a captain last year and this year, I’ve been focused on inspiring the younger girls to push themselves and improve the program,” she said. “One of our big goals is just to improve from last year. Last year was disappointing. With all the young girls coming up, we just want to improve the program so we’re not just good for the next three years, we’re good for the next 20 years.”