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St. Norbert College Magazine
Winter 2008 | At the Margins

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Men of Ice

Two hockey coaches. Five spots to fill. Upwards of 1,000 prospects to watch in action. That’s right, 1,000 young players to observe on the ice. September though April each year, Coaches Tim Coghlin and A.J. Aitken manage to cover a few miles.

“Recruiting is the name of the game,” says Coghlin, head coach of the Green Knights. “We’ve got to get good student athletes. For us, that means we do everything firsthand. We don’t usually take people on stats. We want to see the prospects play.” 

Here’s what this philosophy means mid-season. While, for the current players, hockey takes a back seat to final exams, the coaches hit the road to scout for next year’s team.

With Aitken in Alberta, Coghlin flies to Seattle and heads north. That evening sees him wrapping up a 17-hour day at a game in Vancouver. More driving, more night games, more early starts to take in morning practice, then it’s back to campus Christmas Day in readiness for some pre-tournament ice-time. The year-end tournament, at Oswego, means 32 hours on a bus but it nets not only two more wins but also the chance to see a few more prospects.

And that takes care of December.

The Green Knights draw from the United States Hockey League, the North American Hockey League, and the Canadian provinces of British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

It’s a huge territory and, while out recruiting, the St. Norbert coaches see a lot of Division I scouts on similar missions. Coghlin and Aitken have established good ties with their counterparts from larger programs. They may have had the chance to watch prospective players five or six times.

Right now, the Green Knights are keeping an eye on a player in Colorado Springs following a tip-off from an Air Force scout. Coghlin is looking forward to being able to see this prospect in person later in the season.

“Hockey is not a sport that’s sponsored by a lot of campuses,” he says. “There are 72 Division III programs and 60-some Division I programs, and that’s it.

“Young men are saying, ‘If I don’t get to play at Division I, then St. Norbert College is one of my three or four picks.’ Being a perennial top 10 team, as well as the Frozen Four successes of the last few years—it helps.”

Junior league coaches want to send more players where their former players have met with success, and that helps, too.

Unlike many sports, there is no direct sequence from high school to college for hockey players. Coghlin estimates that some 90 percent of Division III recruits come from a junior league. For St. Norbert, it’s an even higher percentage.

The juniors Coghlin sees are a little bigger, a little tougher, than they used to be. “Year-round training has certainly had an impact on that. Certainly an element of toughness is required—we need every player to stick their nose in there. It’s not how many times you go down, it’s how many times you get back up.”

What’s on the shopping list for this year? Coghlin knew straight away he would need to look for players to fill the shoes of two graduating standouts, goaltender Kyle Jones ’08 and forward Marc Belanger ’08.

“It’s a lighter list than usual. We just have some very specific needs. We’re looking for four or five guys, one of which will be a goaltender, one a defenseman, and at least two forwards. We’re just trying to get the best prospects.”

He’ll ask his current players about the teammates and opponents they played with before college. “We’ll use pretty much any method we have available to us without incurring any cost! We’ll pick up the phone and call alumni. Maybe it’s a phone call they can make as a bridge. We’ve had parents say, if you want a parent’s perspective, we’ll be happy to make that call.”

Once spring comes, Coghlin will typically get in the car and drive to meet players and parents in their own homes, where he can sit down “to tell the St. Norbert story and talk about why the young man is a good St. Norbert prospect.

“We always tell prospects three things. First and foremost, when visiting any school, make sure that academically it’s a place where you can see yourself fitting. The second thing is, we really sell the qualities of not only our campus life, but the community life surrounding De Pere and Green Bay. That’s a big piece. You’re going to live here a lot of months out of the year, so you really have to like the area and want to be there.

“The third piece is hockey—evaluating their skating skills, their puck skills and how they are developing. The college game is much different than the junior game. They just blossom. It’s been fun to see that over the years.

“We spend the majority of our time harping on about school. Most guys are very focused on the hockey side, so that tends to take care of itself. We, as coaches, tend to focus on the development of the whole person and what the experience here can do for the rest of their lives.”

Coghlin says he waits a full 10 years to evaluate the success of his teams and is constantly gratified at the qualities he sees persist in his recruits as they become launched in their careers, give time to local hockey programs, get married and start families.

“On many, many of our best teams, our best athletes have been our best students. I think those kids have a work ethic and a willingness to make it all work.”

Read in the February issue of @St. Norbert how national hockey records are falling to the Green Knights, who now boast the winningest goaltender in Midwest Conference history.

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