It may be cliché to call a former athlete a warrior, but the description fits second-year Northern Lakes coach Shawn Chambers perfectly. Despite more than 20 surgeries on his knees during a 13-year NHL career, Chambers endured long enough to win two Stanley Cups as a hard-nosed, tough defenseman.
After one final injury-interrupted season in Dallas in 1999-2000, Chambers and his battered knees retired to the relative quiet of the deep woods of central Minnesota. But he’s found his way back to the game, teaching a new generation of hockey players how to win with defense and hard work.
One wouldn’t expect his team to have an attitude any different. In an area traditionally known for its basketball programs, Chambers has resurrected hockey. In just under two seasons, the co-operative Northern Lakes Lightning have posted a 31-8-4 record under Chambers – and the rest of the state has begun to take notice.
“He just brings a lot of experience. He knows what we need to do and helps us learn a lot,” said Lightning senior goalie Trey Flesch, a three-year starter. “Worry about the D-zone. Dump and chase. Hustle, hustle, hustle. Get off to a quick start. That’s all we try to get done.”
“He brings a lot more hard work,” agreed senior defenseman Ben Kepner, who has played varsity hockey for Pequot Lakes and then the Lightning since the 8th grade.
From the ground up
Northern Lakes is in its third year as a co-operative program, drawing the majority of its players from Pequot Lakes and Crosby-Ironton, with a few sprinkled in from the other communities (Aitkin, Pine River-Backus and Northland of Remer). It’s an odd arrangement, as many of the Lightning are multi-sport athletes who compete against each other during the fall and spring. But they set the rivalries aside when they hit the ice.
“The first year was a big adjustment because it was a rivalry,” said Kepner. “But now that we’ve been playing together, outside of school everyone is hanging out together. We’re an actual team as if everyone were at the same school together.”
“We’re all best friends with each other, even though we’re rivals (in other sports),” agreed Flesch. “It’s kind of weird at first, when you play with some people that you thought you didn’t like before when you played against them all the time.”
If Chambers has his way, it won’t be such a big transition in the future. He’s leading a charge to merge the Pequot Lakes and Crosby-Ironton youth programs at the Bantam and Pee Wee level, which would allow for larger teams that could separate into A and B squads at each age.
“We played a B hockey game growing up. Every kid on this team has never played A hockey,” admitted Chambers, who coached his sons all the way up through the Pequot Lakes youth program. “They get in the B habits of wanting to do it themselves and not passing the puck.
“The first thing I said was ‘there are no guys going end to end here. We’re moving the puck. We’re playing as a team.’”
Moving on up
The Lightning play in the Mid-State Conference against a predominantly Class A schedule, but because of the combined size of the schools that make up the co-op, they’re forced up into the Class AA playoff system. Yet nearly a decade since last playing in the NHL, Chambers still isn’t afraid of a challenge.
“I’d like to see us go up against somebody good and maybe get pounded and show these kids what they need to do,” challenged Chambers, whose team lost to Moorhead 11-0 in last year’s Section 8AA quarterfinals, despite the best season in program history (18-6-2).
“You go into playoffs and you suddenly have to get ready for a different speed right away,” said Flesch. “It provides a big challenge for us.”
Chambers isn’t afraid to take on the Moorheads and Roseaus, though. He’d love to add more Class AA teams to his schedule and thinks that as his program grows, they’ll close the gap. The Lightning was hung with a low seed last year, and despite a record that may be even better than last year, it’s likely to happen again this winter. Northern Lakes is currently 13-2-2 after beginning the season with a 10-game winning streak. But the only Class AA schools on its slate are lower-rung Section 8AA teams River Lakes and Becker-Big Lake.
“We do know that we’ll probably get the lower hand in sections because we do play a single-A schedule, no matter what our record is,” said Kepner. “We’re going to take what we get.”
From the net out
As might be expected from a former NHL defenseman, Chambers has instituted a strong defensive team, anchored by Flesch in nets.
Flesch has a self-described hybrid style of goaltending: he’s not afraid to drop down into the butterfly, but he prefers a more stand-up style. It’s been plenty effective. He ranks in the top-15 in the state in wins (13), save percentage (.929) and goals against average (1.61). But he’s quick to deflect credit to his defensemen, many of whom have played many years of varsity hockey.
“They make my job a lot, lot, lot easier,” said Flesch, who noted a huge decrease in shots he’s faced and a distinct lack of odd-man rushes.
The Lightning appear ready to best last year’s victory total as the best in program history. It’s been a bit of a surprise, considering they lost their top three scorers to graduation (Brandon Sterling, Eddie DeCent and Adam Cook), who combined for 128 points.
“We thought we were going to be pretty down this year, but it turns out we’re doing really well,” admitted Kepner. “Everyone’s stepped it up and picked up the slack.”
“I stepped into a nice team, I’ll admit it,” said Chambers. “We had three seniors who basically carried our team last year. But I think the rest of the kids that are here bought into what I sold them and you can see it this year.”
Chambers has accepted that high-scoring trio’s graduation and tried to form a more balanced offensive unit. So far, so good. His son Cody leads all scorers (7-19-26), but is followed quite closely by Charlie Hollinbeck (9-16-25), sniper Sam Johnson (17-3-20), Kepner (6-13-19), Derik Midthun (5-12-17), Ryan Donovan (6-11-17), Collin Burke (9-6-15), Denver Monn (3-9-12), Chris Smieja (8-3-11), Kyler Decent (5-4-9), Max Engen (4-3-7), Justin Miska (2-5-7), Derek Jensen (3-2-5) and Shane Brewer (3-2-5).
“We have a lot more balance,” said Hollinbeck, who has played for Chambers since his Bantam days in Pequot Lakes. “Now we have three equal lines, which works out a lot better than having one really strong line.”
“The key for me is to get more guys involved so I don’t have to shorten the bench,” said Chambers. “I want guys to get ice time and I want them to see the game. That would be my goal is to have four lines and six D and just open the door every 25 seconds. These teams that only play two lines, (we’ll) run them into the ground.”
Spoken like a true warrior.
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