skip navigation

Leader of the Pioneers

By David La Vaque, Star Tribune, 01/16/11, 11:00AM CST


Bill Lechner endures the fishbowl and grind of coaching the Pioneers, rewarded by lessons learned and a rock-solid bond formed by his players.

Editor's note: This is the second of four parts in an occasional series that will span the length of the Hill-Murray boys hockey team's season.

With his helmet still on, Hill-Murray senior tri-captain J.D. Cotroneo wore the team's mood on his glum face after a 2-1 loss to top-ranked Eden Prairie last week. Most players seemed in a hurry to get out of Aldrich Arena. Hill-Murray head coach Bill Lechner wanted to make sure they got something out of the game.

"Thirty seconds," Lechner announced, signaling players to stop rustling equipment bags, peeling tape and ripping Velcro and prepare to hear from the coaches.

A good coach doesn't need a lot of words. He just needs the right ones.

"You're still a good team," Lechner told his players. "It's Jan. 6 and you're not supposed to be perfect. Just keep your heads up, stay out of trouble and like each other even more. That'll get you a goal or two and get you where you want to go."

Hill- Murray hockey coach Bill Lechner (light sweater) leads the team in a prayer before the start of a game versus White Bear Lake at Vadnais Sports Center in December. Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Coaching one of the state's most visible high school teams means every game – and every teachable moment – is a big one. Lechner is in his 14th season as the head coach at Hill-Murray, where deep playoff runs are expected.

More than a blueprint for players, Lechner's layered message after the Eden Prairie game summed up his coaching mission. Hockey is his vehicle for teaching young men to be assets in society. But winning is also critical, which is why Lechner was replaying moments during a fitful night of sleep after his then-third-ranked Pioneers lost to Eden Prairie. Losses, he said, can reduce him to pouting. Before the Internet and text messaging, Sue Lechner knew her husband's team won or lost by how late he arrived home.

Coaches throughout high school are judged by wins and losses, and with only three state tournament appearances in his first eight seasons, Lechner was feeling the heat. The ensuing five consecutive trips to state, including the 2008 Class 2A title, simply restored order.

"He's expected to win the whole thing every year," said Curt Giles, who took over a similarly pressure-packed job in Edina in 1999. "People don't understand how difficult that is."


Hill-Murray is a storied hockey institution, but it comes at a price. Read the story

The growing financial and time commitments have cranked up the temperature across high school sports. Private school tuition – $10,800 this year at Hill-Murray – is one more log on the fire.

Former Pioneers goaltender and current Mahtomedi boys' hockey coach Jeff Poeschl "felt that aspect" during a stint coaching at St. Thomas Academy.

"Parents' attitudes were, 'It's a lot of money to go here. Why can't you make my kid better?' " Poeschl said.

Former Hill-Murray coach Terry Skrypek (1973-87) concurs.

"For the current generation, hockey is expensive," Skrypek said. "And I think that brings a mentality for some parents that, 'You people owe this to me.'"

Not even success keeps Hill-Murray coaches from scrutiny. Lechner was Skrypek's assistant coach during Hill-Murray's run of one state title and four runner-up finishes in the 1980s. Somewhere during that span, the phone rang inside Skrypek's hotel room at 2 a.m. – a parent wondering if a son was starting in goal for the next game.

Pioneers alum and former coach Jeff Whisler led Hill-Murray to the 1991 state championship and resigned weeks later. Job consolidation within the archdiocese played a role in him leaving his "ultimate dream job," as did the parent who came by Whisler's office to complain about a son's lack of recognition during the state tournament.

Since first making the state tournament in 1975, Hill-Murray has gone 24 times – tops among any program in the state during that span – and suffered two dry spells during which the program missed the tournament for three consecutive years. The second such drought, 2003-2005, came under Lechner's direction.

Getting to the top and staying there requires an intense focus. Sue Lechner said her husband heads to school hours before games to prepare. On one evening, not long before the opening faceoff, she saw the opposing coach out to eat with his wife.

"I asked Bill, 'How come he can do that?' " Sue said.

Bill's reply: "Did you see the final score?"

Rather than trying to win at all costs, Lechner holds his players to high standards.

In January 2009, Lechner dismissed four prominent players halfway through the season for violating team rules – a dramatic demonstration of discipline at the high school level.

"To his core, he believes being a coach is about being a positive adult role model," said Erin Herman, now in her 22nd year coaching girls' basketball at Hill-Murray. "His character is beyond reproach."

Though the 2009 team rallied to make the state tournament, Lechner's decision earned salutes and second guesses.

"The comments from people on message boards made us doubt ourselves," Sue Lechner said. "It was like, 'Are we that out of touch?' But if he were to change his values, he might as well leave coaching."

Lechner left teaching and coaching at Hill-Murray in 1989 and took a sales job at Arden Fasteners. Though he earned "double the pay for fewer hours" to support his wife and three children, he "felt like I drifted from my passion."

Though he remained in sales, Lechner returned to the bench at Stillwater High School in 1991-92. He coached the Ponies for six seasons and compiled a 2-10 record against Hill-Murray. In his first game as Hill-Murray head coach in 1997, Lechner guided the Pioneers to victory against defending champion Edina despite scratching a standout defenseman from the lineup for disciplinary reasons.

"We feel pressure of having to win – hopefully for all the right reasons," Lechner said.

Sue Lechner, an occupational therapist at the Courage Center in Golden Valley, keeps her husband grounded. She helps adult victims of traumatic brain injuries relearn lost motor, cognitive and visual skills.

"Sometimes I'll complain that we went 0-for-4 on the power play and she'll say, 'Today I taught a guy to pull up his pants' or 'eat cereal,' " Bill said.

Perspective can also be found on the Pioneers' bench. Assistant coach Pat Schafhauser lost the use of his legs in 1995 when he crashed into the boards while playing professionally in Switzerland.

Hill-Murray hockey coach Bill Lechner and his wife Sue at their home. Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Paralyzed from the waist down, Schafhauser has been coaching Pioneers defensemen from a wheelchair for 14 seasons. Giles, a former NHL defenseman, credits Schafhauser for turning out "some of the state's top defensemen every year."

"His patience with kids is something I've learned from him," said Bill Schafhauser, Pat's older brother and coach of Hill-Murray's girls' hockey team. "[Lechner] is more fiery and set in his ways, so he and Pat complement each other well."

Lechner considers Schafhauser a co-head coach, which was evident before the Mahtomedi game on Dec. 16. Schafhauser, a former Pioneers captain, spoke in a stern tone, telling players: "Establish yourselves. Don't lose the puck and don't let anyone move you. We're not here to be pretty. We're here to get better and move on."

Lechner looked around at players and added, "Enough said?"

Lechner asks a lot from his players but opens himself to them in return. He used to tell players that if they ever found themselves "out of gas on Highway 36, call me and I'll be there." Lechner made good on his promise when he received such a call last January.

"There is not a kinder man," said Pat Soutor, Lechner's longtime secretary in the activities office. Her son, Todd, played for Lechner. "He'll help anyone who asks him for anything. He's going to heaven for that alone."

But Soutor said it can be hard working with a man who keeps his pens and pencils facing down in the holder, cuts the baseball field grass in specific patterns on specific days and even picks lint off the carpet.

"I could be married to him for about five minutes," she joked.

Various student-athletes see Lechner in his other roles as activities director or baseball coach at Hill-Murray, but it is the hockey players who know him best. They hear Lechner saying self-described "corny" things and heed his advice when he tells them to put on a stocking cap so they don't catch a cold.

But they also see him on the bench and behind closed doors. The maddest three-year starting goaltender Tim Shaughnessy ever saw Lechner was last season, when Kevin Becker was leveled by an elbow from a Mahtomedi player. Lechner's concern for his players intertwined with his competitiveness, Shaughnessy said, when Lechner made it clear to his team that the scoreboard would measure their retribution.

Hill-Murray hockey coach Bill Lechner and assistant coach Pat Schafhauser look over the White Bear Lake roster before a game in December at the Vadnais Sports Center. Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

"Whenever we're with people who are not a part of the hockey team and mention Coach Lechner, they are like, 'You don't want to mess with him. He's scary,' " Shaughnessy said. "When they say that I chuckle. I mean, he's scary when he's mad, but the way to be on his good side is to work hard, listen and pay attention."

When both sides uphold their end of the deal in such a pressurized environment, the result is a bond that's hard to break. Every season – championship ones included – brings joy and pain. Lechner wouldn't want it any other way.

"As long as the kids are crying and don't want to take off their jerseys at the end of the year," he said, "I know I still want to coach."