Former Gophers men’s hockey player Pat O’Leary, 36, took over as Wayzata boys’ hockey coach five years ago, and he has helped the Trojans to two Class 2A state tournament appearances in that span. Wayzata earned the second of those two trips Wednesday with a 4-1 victory over Cretin-Derham Hall in the Section 6 final. A day after that, O’Leary chatted with the Star Tribune’s Michael Rand:
Q Is it different making it to state the second time around?
A I remember talking to people after the game this time. Last time it was kind of a blur. When you get into the game you become the coach and forget to try to enjoy yourself. I definitely enjoyed the game [Wednesday] night a little bit more because I took some deep breaths.
Q What other wisdom have you gained in five seasons as head coach?
A I think the biggest thing for me is the process of the season and getting the kids to buy in to what you’re teaching — and having them enjoy coming to the rink every day. Are they coming out of the locker room together as a unit or are they pointing fingers? Coaches can only do so much when the game is going on. Behind the scenes and at practices are when you can really get the kids to jell together and do what they’re supposed to do and accept their roles.
Q Is high school hockey the same as or different from when you were growing up playing for Armstrong?
A I’d say a little bit of both. You have the trickle-down effect. Everyone is trying to give opportunities and get opportunities for their kids, and there’s a lot more opportunity for kids at a younger age to play somewhere else, get a scholarship earlier, get drafted in the USHL or the North American league. When it comes down to it, what we try to do here is explain to kids just how fun and important it is to play. There’s nothing wrong with being a good high school hockey player. That’s the biggest difference. When I was growing up, my number one goal was to play for Armstrong.
Q You just won the section title at Mariucci Arena. You’re playing for the state title at Xcel Energy Center. Does this bring back memories of 2002, when you won a national title with the Gophers as a senior?
A Yeah, it was really cool to go back [to Mariucci] and walk around. I go back once in a while, but it’s always so busy. I had a good hour and a half before the game, and I could just walk around with my assistant coaches and talk about old Gophers teammates. And then the Xcel, getting a chance to play there is something our kids will remember for the rest of our lives. The memories I have of those places are the best you can get.
Q As a fan and former college player, do you miss the old WCHA or are you adapting to the Big Ten?
A Well, it’s a funny question to ask today because Michigan is in town and that’s a big series, but at the same time in my heart I look at myself and my Gophers teammates and North Dakota was our biggest rival. … You miss some of the inner battles and relationships because you just can’t have them when you have teams all over the nation. I’m old-school. I love the WCHA.