Tyler Stevens of Wayzata celebrated after scoring a goal in the third period of the Class 2A, Section 6 championship game.
Wayzata started its defense of its Class 2A boys’ hockey championship with a thud, losing eight of its first 11 games.
Frustration showed in the locker room, which got left in disarray one too many times for coach Pat O’Leary’s liking. So he instituted a locker room lockout that lasted about a week and forced players to carry their bags in and out of the Plymouth Ice Center. That might not sound like much of an inconvenience to kids in the affluent western suburbs, but the message got through.
The Trojans stumbled to a meager 7-17-1 regular-season record, but coaches and players saw improvement where once implosion seemed imminent. Then Wayzata won all three section games, punctuated with an upset of No. 2 Edina, and reached the state tournament.
The Trojans (10-17-1) face No. 1 seed and top-ranked Eden Prairie at 6 p.m. Thursday. The game is a rematch of the title game last March, when Wayzata rallied from a two-goal deficit in the second period to win the program’s first state title.
Though Wayzata is back with one of the lowest victory totals in state history, O’Leary said, “We’ll never use the term, ‘We’re happy to be there,’ because that’s just not our expectation. We know who we’re playing, and you probably wouldn’t bet on us. But I believe in our guys and I believe in the way we’ve been playing lately. Our guys will walk into the rink Thursday with confidence.”
Good vibes were harder to find around the holidays. Wayzata closed December with losses in all three Schwan Cup tournament Gold Division games. Falling to solid teams such as St. Thomas Academy, Minnetonka and Burnsville burned O’Leary less than what he saw behind the scenes.
So rather than a closed-door meeting with players, O’Leary simply closed the locker room door.
“It had nothing to do with how we are playing,” O’Leary said. “It had to do with how everything was kind of unraveling — taking care of the locker room, attitudes on the bus. They weren’t bad, but you could tell they were fighting something.
“So my goal was to revisit the understanding that they are blessed to play for this program and that they get nice uniforms and a beautiful locker room,” O’Leary said. “We needed to step back and realize that our attitudes need to be positive about the things you get when playing here.”
Senior defenseman Logan Lindstrand, one of Wayzata’s captains, helped ensure the message — more about life than hockey — got received the right way.
“Everyone is going to react to stuff like that differently, but as one of the older guys on the team, you have to keep telling them that the coaches are doing this for a reason,” Lindstrand said. “They’ve got a bigger goal in mind and even if you don’t see it right now, trust that they want what’s best for our team.”
Wayzata is hardly the only high school team to deal with adversity. Grand Rapids, once a fixture in the top five, lost games in bunches twice this season.
“They are high school kids,” Grand Rapids coach Trent Klatt said. “There is going to be some complacency. Arrogance sets in at times.”
No locker room for about a week cured Wayzata’s players. They became tighter, doing things in packs and enjoying each other’s company. They arrived at practices ready to work. And they maintained a better mood even if they struggled to get victories.
“There was definitely added motivation of hoping to get the locker room back,” Lindstrand said. “It’s not very fun carrying your bag in and out of the rink every day. I feel like it set a fire under our team. It was a reality check to get our stuff together.”
O’Leary later received a reality check of his own when he asked players to raise their hand if they had ever played on a losing team. One hand went up.
“The coaches looked at each other like, ‘Wow, they don’t know what they’re doing,’ ” O’Leary said. “No offense to them, they just never felt this before. So we had to keep them believing but at the same time, the expectations are what they are.”