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A winning mentality

By David La Vaque, Star Tribune, 02/23/11, 8:15PM CST


Hill-Murray finds strength in its vocal and silent team leaders

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

After three weeks of mostly lopsided victories, Hill-Murray found itself locked in a 2-2 tie after two periods of Saturday’s regular-season finale at St. Thomas Academy. Skilled sophomore Zach LaValle left the game because of an injury. Players were sapped by an emotional, fast-paced game and unusually warm locker room. Winning would require the Pioneers to play their best even if they didn’t feel their best.

“It’s gut-check time,” coach Bill Lechner said. “You’re a little tired, a little warm. But you’re in a great hockey game. Bottom line, you win the period and you’re undefeated in the conference and we start getting ready for the tournament. Can you lay everything you have on the ice?”

Hill Murray coach Bill Lechner talked with his fowards in the ice resurfacing room, before the game against Moorhead at the 2011 Minnesota Hockey Day in Moorhead. Photo by Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Senior defenseman J.D. Cotroneo, a bag of ice resting on his head, nodded. Pressure to perform comes with the territory at tradition-rich Hill-Murray. And it comes from the regal hockey blood running through Cotroneo. His paternal grandfather, Lou Cotroneo, coached St. Paul Johnson to the state tournament seven times from 1964-71.

His mother’s brother is former Pioneers and Wisconsin standout Steve Rohlik. He has absorbed generations worth of athletic truths.

“I care for everything,” said Cotroneo, who by all accounts has a Zamboni-sized heart. “I care for the game; I care for my teammates, my friends and family. Everything I have, I take care of, whether it’s a new stick or a new teammate. You have to take care of it to have it perform well and to always be there for you. I want to have something as long as I can have it and in the best condition I can have it.”


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Cotroneo’s philosophy provides a working template for the Pioneers’ season. Hill-Murray persevered for a 4-2 victory Saturday — but the game, while playoff-like in atmosphere and intensity, was not for keeps. The postseason games from here on out are another story. Hill-Murray, the No. 1 team in Class 2A and top seed in Section 4, is favored to make its sixth consecutive — and 25th overall — state tournament appearance.

How long the team can stay in the best condition possible will determine its fate.

The Pioneers (21-3-1) are familiar with the challenge. They returned 13 players who were at state last season, including a handful of seniors who went as sophomores. Getting to state is a season-long process of growing through minor successes and challenges. Mr. Hockey finalist Ben Bahe has played hurt. Kevin Becker accepted a drop from the first line to the third line, while the opportunistic Bobby Bruski went from grinder (four goals last year) to goal-scorer (16 this year).

What vocal leadership there is in the locker room comes from three-year starting goaltender Tim Shaughnessy. And Cotroneo is learning that playing his best means playing within himself.

“This group of seniors has grabbed this team,” Lechner said. “They’ve done it quieter and by example. They goof around a little, but they are a pretty serious group that goes about their business. You kind of look at them like maybe they’re not having fun, but at the end of the day, when we have success, it seems like they all get along and have a lot of fun.”

Outsiders saw Hill-Murray hit its stride during a five-game stretch through the holidays that included a 3-0 shutout of rival White Bear Lake, comeback victories against Edina and Minnetonka en route to a Schwan Cup Gold Division championship and a competitive 2-1 loss to then-No. 1 Eden Prairie. Around the same time, five seniors from last season’s team spent some time at practice with the current Pioneers. Lechner saw the level of play rise and later shared the observation with his players, encouraging them to push themselves because it was their team now.

“I don’t know if that was the moment they figured it out, but it was one of the moments that helped get them there,” Lechner said.

As players prepared to take the ice at St. Thomas Academy, assistant coach Pat Schafhauser said, “Some of our guys have grown since November.” He meant physically, but the observation also fits the way tri-captains Cotroneo, Kevin Schulze and Ryan Holler have not let personal doubt or disappointment keep them from becoming respected leaders who make important contributions.

While Lou Cotroneo was known for a fiery temperament and Rohlik played with a mean streak, J.D. (short for James Dean) has a more subdued personality. Even on a team of quiet players, Cotroneo’s stoicism in the locker room makes him appear aloof. But that is not the case.

Cotroneo is at his best in the defensive zone, using his size (6-0, 205 pounds) and strength to separate forwards from the puck and limit their chances. Hill-Murray outshot opponents by an average of 37-16 during regular-season games.

(Left to right) Hill Murray's J.D. Cotroneo, Ryan Holler and Jonah Johnson talked during a break in the action during the game against Moorhead during the 2011 Hockey Day Minnesota event in Moorhead. Photo by Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Fueled by his hockey genes and self-imposed pressure to do it all for the Pioneers, Cotroneo strives to be the best player on the ice every shift, every game. Earlier this season he remained on the ice throughout a two-minute penalty kill. Coaches lauded his effort, but when they told Cotroneo to sit out his next shift and catch his breath, he thought he was being punished.

“He wants to be so perfect,” Rohlik said. “At times, I think it gets into his head a little bit.”

Schulze, the other top defenseman, was twice cut from the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League despite skating regular shifts for a Hill-Murray team that just missed reaching the state title game last season. He runs the power play and is among the Pioneers’ most consistent performers.

“It’s still in the back of my mind that I want to go out there and prove to everybody that I’m still a good player,” Schulze said. “But I’m mainly focused on this season because that’s what I should be focusing on.”

Tabbed by Lechner to emerge as the team’s vocal leader, Holler, a three-year starter, said his comparative lack of skill makes him uncertain of his right to speak.

“Last year [Chris] Casto was able to get on guys and be vocal and then he went out and scored big goals,” Holler said. “I’m not always able to back it up. I just go out and work hard and hope that’s contagious.”

No player is perfect. But Cotroneo, Schulze and Holler take their captain roles seriously.

“These guys work day in, day out,” Bruski said. “They are captains at heart.”

Other seniors, such as the vocal Shaughnessy, are captains without patches. Before away games, he alerts players to the nuances of the rink, such as the amount of space behind the net and in the corners or the way the puck is coming off the boards. Before each period, Shaughnessy calls players to huddle and gives them a pep talk. After games, when Lechner opens the floor to players, Shaughnessy is often the only one to offer an opinion.

“I just decided someone has to be the vocal leader,” Shaughnessy said. “It gets me a little pumped up before a game.”

During the second intermission Saturday, a fatigued and frustrated Bahe sprawled out on the hallway floor. Two of his rushes had failed to produce a goal.

Bahe knows what it means to pick himself up. He and Becker skated on the USA Hockey U-17 Select team, but neither made the U-18 team. Bahe took getting cut to heart. It was the first time in a long time he didn’t get what he wanted in hockey.

“It stung for a little bit,” Bahe said. “It gave me new perspective that if I don’t want to work hard, I’m going to get passed up.”

Bahe took a knee to the thigh during December’s White Bear Lake game and needed help getting off the ice. After a short rest and some encouragement from Lechner, he returned and scored the Pioneers’ first goal. In past seasons, Bahe might have been done for the night.

“Maybe it showed that I’m dedicated to the team and if we all come together and are dedicated to each other, good things are going to happen,” said Bahe, who is five points shy of his season goal of 60.

Lineup changes in January broke up Bahe and Becker, who skated together on the top line since their junior seasons. Becker dropped to the third line, a move Lechner said improved the team’s depth.

Hill Murray goalie Tim Shaughnessy took a quite moment in the locker room hallway before the Pioneers' game against Moorhead during the 2011 Hockey Day Minnesota event in Moorhead. Photo by Bruce Bisping, Star Tribune

Bahe said he “could tell it was hard on [Becker] the first couple days, maybe even a week. But then I think he figured he just has to go out there and play his game. If he does that, he’ll have success for himself and he’ll be helping the team in the long run.”

Meanwhile, Bruski earned a promotion to the first line after displaying soft hands to go along with hard checks. He has formed a good partnership with Bahe and sophomore Jake Guentzel, a gifted passer.

“This just happened, and I’m taking full advantage of it,” Bruski said.

Lechner told his players that by February he wanted to open the door and let the Pioneers execute systems by heart and “just be athletes.” After grinding out a 3-2 victory against host Moorhead as part of Hockey Day Minnesota, players used their bus ride home to just be teenagers. They howled and laughed through a showing of the horror film “Paranormal Activity 2” while Lechner sat in the front of the dark bus reflecting on the journey to date for players and coaches alike.

“You don’t give them too long of a rope to start,” Lechner said. “When they work hard and do the things you ask them to do, you can let the rope go a little longer. As long as they aren’t taking advantage of it — and they are kids — then you can let the rope go a little longer. These guys have handled that pretty well. Once in a while you have to pull the rope in. But they are good for us. They teach us lessons. They respectfully tell us that we as coaches don’t have to tell them certain things anymore.

“So the lesson is, shut up and don’t say too much because they are living it.”