Hill-Murray continues strong state hockey legacy

| March 1, 2019 | 0 Comments

Hill-Murray Head Coach Bill Lechner celebrates with his players after winning the state championship in 2008. DAVE HRBACEK | THE CATHOLIC SPIRIT

Bill Lechner led Hill-Murray hockey players in skating drills at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood on Valentine’s Day. Holiday festivities would have to wait, as the boys in green had some work to do.

After a short gathering at center ice, Lechner, the head coach, started to blow his whistle.

Legs churned and pucks whizzed across the ice as the perennial state hockey power got ready to make yet another postseason run that would hopefully end at a familiar destination — the Minnesota State High School League Boys’ Hockey Tournament in St. Paul, the largest prep puck tourney in the country. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the event, which began in 1945.

The Pioneers made their first trip to the tournament in 1975, the year the MSHSL allowed Catholic schools to join. In 1980 — with Lechner as an assistant coach just a few years older than the players — the event took place at the former St. Paul Civic Center, which was built for the Minnesota Fighting Saints franchise of the World Hockey Association. Years later, it was moved to the new building at that site: the Xcel Energy Center, home of the Minnesota Wild.

In every decade since that first trip, the Pioneers have gone to state at least once, winning championships in 1983, 1991 and 2008. They have advanced to the title game a total of 11 times. Hill-Murray is, by far, the most successful Catholic school in state hockey tournament history, and one of the best teams, period.

No one knows better than Lechner how high the expectations are at Hill-Murray, where he also serves as athletic director. Hence, his serious demeanor and “bulldog” look while on the bench, which players at the Maplewood school recognize as his trademark. The pressure to win is so high that “there’s relief,” Lechner said, when his team wins a section title and plays in the state tournament.

There’s also plenty of fun, and, more important, opportunities to help his players grow in faith and values. That’s what got him started in coaching and that’s what keeps him going. He calls it “teaching them for life.”

But, make no mistake, playing in the state high school hockey tournament is a huge deal for anyone who laces up skates at Hill-Murray and throughout Minnesota, which is often referred to as the State of Hockey.

“It’s bigger than most people think,” said Lechner, 65, who became head coach in 1997. “I’ve had a lot of players and guys I’ve coached with that went through Hill[-Murray] that have been professional athletes, played on NHL teams, played in Stanley Cups, played in World Series in baseball, and they still think of the state hockey tournament as one of the biggest things in their life. … It’s pretty cool.”

Early success

It didn’t take him long to taste success. In his first year of coaching hockey at the school, 1980, the Pioneers made their sixth straight trip to the tournament. They got all the way to the finals, falling to Grand Rapids 2-1. They played against a goalie, Jon Casey, who later made it to the NHL and played for the Minnesota North Stars.

Just three years later, they won their first state title, 4-3 over Burnsville, which also was launching its program to the top at that time and would defeat Hill-Murray in the finals in 1985 and ‘86. Lechner was extra familiar with his school’s ‘83 players because he coached some of them in baseball, where he had been the varsity coach since 1981.

As he looks back on nearly four decades of Hill-Murray hockey tradition, Lechner can remember with keen clarity what it was like to spend nearly a week in St. Paul for the tournament and “get little sleep.” He can describe important games in the tournament and explain why his team won or lost. He can talk about how his teams would come together and work through adversity to punch their ticket to St. Paul.

Yet, as he nears the twilight of his coaching career, he realizes more than ever that there is more to coaching hockey than playing in the state tournament. He has tried to decorate his office to match his current priorities. In his small office in the school’s field house, he has cleared out hockey mementos to make room for pictures of his family. It’s an intentional reminder of what matters most — his wife, Sue, his three adult children and five grandchildren. A daily reminder is his son Jake, who played for him and now is a member of the coaching staff.

Along with changing priorities, he has developed a softer side, illustrated by the tears that flow when he talks about what coaching means to him.

“People observe you on the bench and it’s just like, ‘He looks like a mean old man,’” said Lechner, 65. “(But) there’s a big heart, I promise you.”

Prayer plays a role

He prays every night before he goes to bed, but so privately that his wife, Sue, doesn’t know about it, he said. They were married at St. Pascal Baylon in 1976 and go to Mass at various Catholic churches, and also attend Sunday services at other churches.

His prayer goes like this: “Give me the strength to do this, to be a good role model, to be a good coach… to guide them (players) the right way.”

The right way means staying in touch with players  well beyond their final game in a Pioneer uniform. He regularly plays golf with a group of former players from the 1980s. Texts come almost daily from former players sharing news about their families.

Then, there are the invitations.

“We go to a lot of weddings,” Lechner said. “It varies anywhere from eight to 10 to 12 in a summer. You feel good that they’re inviting you, and you gotta go. If you go to one, you better go to ‘em all.”

He is godfather to two children of former players, and his son Jake has a former player for a godfather, Tom Quinlan, who chose baseball over hockey after graduation and ended up playing in the Major Leagues.

Wheelchair coach

The relationships run deep between Lechner and his former players, perhaps none deeper than with a player he coached for only one year on junior varsity more than 20 years ago. That player, Pat Schafhauser, went on to play two years on varsity for two different Hill-Murray head coaches, Terry Skrypek and Jeff Whisler. He was a standout defenseman on a team that was state runner-up his junior year.

Professional hockey came next, but a tragic accident, much like the one that happened to Jack Jablonski of Benilde-St. Margaret’s School in 2011, ended Schafhauser’s career in 1995 when he was playing in a Swiss league. He lost the use of his legs, and has limited movements of his arms and hands, and is now confined to a wheelchair. After a rough period of physical and emotional rehabilitation, Schafhauser got a call from Lechner with an offer to be an assistant coach.

He quickly accepted, and has been on the Hill-Murray coaching staff ever since. Schafhauser goes out on the ice in his wheelchair during practice and coaches the defensemen. Lechner credits him for helping create perhaps the best defensive team in school history in 2007-08. The Pioneers shut out two of their three opponents in the 2008 state tournament, including perennial power Edina 3-0 in the championship game.

After that game, the players lifted Schafhauser off the bench and brought him out onto the ice to join in the celebration, which was an emotional moment for him and the entire school.

“It felt special to be out there with them,” said Schafhauser, 47, who graduated from Hill-Murray in 1989. “It was pretty fun. It was neat, it’s something I’ll always remember, for sure.”

St. Paul roots

Lechner, who was called “Billy” all the way into adulthood, remembers playing football, baseball and hockey at Cretin High School in St. Paul. His position on the ice was goalie, but not by choice.

“I had two [older] brothers that said, ‘We need to shoot at somebody, and you’re it,’” Lechner recalled. “I was like, ‘OK.’ I didn’t know better.”

He graduated in 1971, and was able to play in the State Catholic Tournament his senior year. Cretin reached the finals and lost to Hill High School, which merged with Archbishop Murray Memorial High School later that year. When Lechner arrived at Hill-Murray in 1980, the program was making a steady climb toward the top of the hockey heap. They were poised to bring home the first state title for their school — and for any Catholic school.

Once they accomplished that in 1983, the success continued. Today, the Pioneers are as strong as ever. Even though it’s been more than 10 years since their last title, they continue making their annual trips to St. Paul. They have made it to the tournament all but three times since ‘08, and Lechner proudly talks about a display on the north wall of Aldrich Arena that shows how much success the program has had in developing not just good teams, but good players.

Listed in the display, called the Heritage Wall, are names and photos of former players who have gone on to play in college Division 1, the Olympics and the NHL. One of the players, Jake Guentzel, won a Stanley Cup with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2017. He played in the 2012 state tournament, in which the Pioneers placed second after losing to Benilde-St. Margaret’s School 5-1 in the championship game (see story at right).

“There’s like, 150 guys,” Lechner said. “(For) 80, 90 percent of them I was either a young assistant or the head coach. . … That’s really cool. And, that’s what I’m proud of, from a hockey standpoint.”

When Lechner looks at that board and reminisces about those players — and hundreds more he has coached — he sees more than wins and losses. He sees “the bonding and the relationships, and hopefully, the guidance you gave them.”


Coach’s philosophy is ‘teaching them for life’

As head coach of a perennial state high school powerhouse, Hill-Murray’s Bill Lechner is under near constant scrutiny — from parents, opposing players and coaches, and from hockey fans in general.

He has had to endure accusations of illegal recruiting throughout his 40 years of coaching at the school. People often say this is the primary reason the Pioneers make regular trips to the state tournament.

But, he will stake his reputation on a simple practice — doing things the right way. Even when it means making painful decisions that hamper the team’s success on the ice.

Such was the case during the 2008-09 season. The Pioneers were fresh off a state-championship season, and had some key players returning. Hopes were high that Hill-Murray could repeat as state champion in 2009.

Then, the unthinkable happened. Lechner was informed that four of his top returning players had broken team rules right after a Christmas tournament. School policy called for their dismissal from the team.

The tournament took place over a weekend, and Lechner and his assistant coach, Pat Schafhauser called the four players in the following Monday at 9 a.m. The players admitted the violation, and were ordered to go clean out their lockers and turn in their equipment and jersey.

As the players walked out of the athletic office and down the hallway toward the locker room, Schafhauser remarked that the team was losing players who had scored a combined 100 goals the year before.

For Lechner, the feeling was simply, “terrible.” But, he wasn’t going to overlook the violation of rules.

“We don’t throw it under the rug just for the trophy case,” he said. “Never.”

Local media got wind of the dismissals, and Lechner recalls reading that the Pioneers were given no chance to repeat as state champions.

Instead, that became a rallying point, and Hill-Murray got to the state tournament, despite calling up four inexperienced players to replace the four who had left. The Pioneers played a strong game in the quarterfinals before losing in overtime to Eden Prairie, the eventual champion.

“Did [losing four players] hurt? Yeah,” Lechner said. “I really believe we had the talent to be champions again [before the dismissals].”

Yet, for Lechner, coaching hockey at Hill-Murray is about more than winning games and championships, it’s about “teaching them for life.”

“The terminology I always use [with the players] is, ‘Here’s our rulebook. If you want a jersey, you’ve got to do it this way,’” he said. “‘If you don’t, I’ll still love you, care about you, help you on Highway 36 if you run out of gas, give you a [job] reference. … But, you don’t get a jersey. [Following the rules] is what you have to do to get this jersey and keep it.’ That’s what our philosophy has [always] been.”

 

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