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Pieces of the Puzzle

Two hockey teams that combine for a 9-2 record to face-off on 105 The Ticket

Two hockey teams that combine for a 9-2 record to face-off on 105 The Ticket

Hopkins, MN – Sports Radio 105 The Ticket takes to the road for another Thursday night game of the week and lands at the Hopkins Pavilion.  It is a game that features two teams that are making waves early this season and both of them have found the road to success in different ways.  The newly formed co-op of Robbinsdale Armstrong/Cooper Wings (3-1) will face-off with the fast charging Hopkins Royals (6-1) in a Section 6AA non-conference game at 7pm.

Deep and talented coaching staffs

Both coaching staffs have a long and deep rooted hockey resume that is shaped by some of the great coaches in high school hockey history.  It is evident in the programs that the players are benefiting.

Hopkins coach Cory Peterson played for a pair of Minnesota Coaches Association Hall of Famers at Bloomington Jefferson in Tom Saterdalen and John Bianchi.  On those teams, Peterson was a two-time state champion as a heavy hitting blue liner and was a member of the last undefeated team in high school hockey in 1993 when his Jaguar team posted a 28-0-0 record.  His assistants, Jaguar teammate and goaltender Randy Koeppl and Mike McMahon also played for the Jefferson coaching duo while Dan Hatzung played for Willard Ikola and Bart Larson at Edina, a pair of Hall of Famer’s themselves.

Dan Charleston’s Robbisdale Armstrong/Cooper staff, has 46 years of coaching experience that includes long time Cooper coach Bill Rooney who has been a head coach for 16 years and coaching at the high school level for 18 years.  Joe Shuman and brother Jake played collegiately and in high school where they won a state championship with Charleston at Benilde-St. Margaret’s under future Hall of Fame coach Ken Pauly.

Both coaching staffs carry long post secondary playing resumes as well but know there are a number of influences that have made them the coaches they are today that are being felt by their players.  When Peterson was asked if he felt his culture was taking shape in the Hopkins program, he tipped his cap to those that have shaped his hockey life and said, “It’s not my culture – it’s stolen from many great coaches and programs. We as coaches have to make sure we don’t stray away from what has started.”

Charleston, who is in his third season as the bench boss owns a 17-34-4 record, feels like he has a number of head coaches on his staff and knows it is not about one single person.  “The mix of coaching is just phenomenal for these players,” Charleston said.  It’s not just one of us running the show-doing everything.  Somebody has to be the head coach because things have to be worked out that way.  As a staff we work so well together to get these kids prepared.”

Royals get it done with development

It has been a slow ascent for the Hopkins Royals after achieving a 22-win season in 2008-2009, they slowly fell from that plateau and at one point lost 24 straight Lake Conference games.  Last year, the Royals snapped that trend and finished the conference season 2-5-1 and lost to the Benilde-St. Margaret’s Red Knights 4-3 in a drama filled Section 6AA quarterfinal game last year.   

This year, the Royals picked up where they left off and were rewarded with a fast start to the season and are ranked 9th in the MNHockeyMag top ten this week.  Peterson’s Royals delivered on an impressive road trip to the North Shore opening  with a 6-1 win over Cloquet-Esko-Carlton last Frida.  The Royals followed that up with a 2-1 overtime win against the highly regarded Hermantown Hawks.

Offensive flair has not been an issue for Hopkins this year and average 5.29 goals per game, 43.2 shots on goal per contest, and own a power play that is sizzling at 34% illustrating a high level of skill and depth.

They are getting it done defensively with a 1.75 goals against average and are led by pre-season Breakdown USA All-State goalie Josh Kuemichel.  He has a stout

.934 save percentage and is a key component to his team’s play in the defensive zone that leads to the offensive zone and opportunities.

Hopkins is not known to have an overwhelmingly large youth hockey program and in fact, it can be argued that it is one of the smallest in the State of Hockey.  With two bantam teams, two pee wee teams, and three squirt teams this year, the Royals seem to produce enough high end players that contribute to the overall success of the program each year with this year’s edition poised to make some noise.

“We are one team from Mites all the way up,” said Peterson who oversees the entire on and off season development program for Hopkins hockey.   “I’m proud of the fact that people have bought in and are taking that to heart.  At the youth level we have great people in place who do the job for the right reasons and at the high school level it’s the same. It makes my job that much easier.”

Hopkins has two players in double digits in points led by senior Josh Laven (5g-6a-11pts) and junior Riley Martin (6g-4a-10pts).  Junior center Nathan Nelsen is tied for the team lead in goals with 6 and scored both goals including the overtime winner against Hermantown last Saturday.  Four year varsity defenseman Matt Hines (2g-4a-6pts) is an anchor on the blue line and newcomers to the lineup such as Webb Bolstad is tied for second on the team in goals (5g-2a-7pts).

When asked by a reporter what the key to the Royals offensive success was, Peterson had an answer on the tip of his tongue and said, “The guys are finding ways to finish and using their creativity to keep goalies on their heels and that’s creating more opportunities.”

Peterson, who is in his second season as the Royals coach and has compiled a 14-17-2 record, went on to add that his team is comprehending what his coaching staff is looking for in all three zones and on special teams and said it really had everything to do with communication.  “For the most part they have a good grasp on everything we’re trying to do and if they don’t understand they will ask along with talking with one another,” Peterson said.  “It’s funny once the team started talking everything came together.”

Merging to success

The Robbinsdale Armstrong/Cooper Wings merged two once proud and former Lake Conference rivals to one team this year amid plenty of emotional appeal on both sides of the discussion.

Early indications are the benefits are paying off.  With a big 3-2 overtime win against Minnetonka this past Saturday, the Wings not only have new jerseys but a new identity.  Trey Rooney delivered the game winning goal with :34 left in the extra frame to cap off a two goal come-from behind win in dramatic fashion an are now off to a 3-1 start and ranked 17th in this week’s rankings.

It wasn’t easy to come to the decision of merging once bitter rivals who share the same school District 281. “Politically it was a very difficult decision for both sides,” Charleston said.  “Both schools have a tremendous amount of pride and history and in District 281 there is a lot of memories and with the two clubs competing against each other not in just hockey but other events.”

Charleston noted that it was difficult for those that wanted to preserve the tradition to go along with the decision.  Ultimately, it was up to the school district and the board to make the decision.  “I think District 281 ultimately came to the decision that was the best thing for the high school hockey program,” Charleston said. “The board met and heard the voices of the pros and cons of the situation and the District 281 board came together and made the conclusion of  this is what we are going to do and this is going to happen.”

Regardless of the thoughts of many both pro and con according to Charleston, the people who matter the most in this is the kids and the early returns suggest “The Kids Are All Right” to quote the famous Who song.  “The kids have been great,” noted Charleston.   “The kids have not been the issue.  The players themselves went through Armstrong Cooper Youth Hockey Association so it really wasn’t that different for them.  The odd thing was that the players had played together all the way up, it came time for them to choose what school to go to, they were split up.  The players are getting along well.  They are gelling and things are going very well.”

Rooney a junior, who is the son of Bill, lead the team in goals and points after four games (5g-3a-8pts).  He has had a prolific start to his high school career including a huge eruption of (33g-36a-69pts) in his sophomore campaign last year.  “He is a good player,” Charleston said of his sniper.  “He has a tremendous work ethic. He is a fast, skilled player.  He does things hard, he works hard ad has a knack for scoring.”

Cory Gilbert (2g-6a-8pts) offers a playmaking option for Rooney who is a shooter and a goal scorer.  “Cory Gilbert has been very helpful for Trey who is a shooter,” said Charleston.  “Growing up, Trey has usually had to dictate the play he was the one who had the puck on his stick and that has changed a little bit for him.”

The team has blended well and when asked about the chemistry of his team, it is one of the areas that the team has excelled in.  Charleston did not hesitate in mentioning players such as Thomas Barber, who is a multi-sport athlete and captain of the football team, and Nick Holscher as many in a long line of contributors in the young season.

“We were missing some pieces of the puzzle to compete and now we have those pieces.  It is really kind of cool how it has with the merger have become a better hockey team,” Charleston summed up.

Mutual Respect

Both coaches are well aware of each other’s team and according to Charleston the Royals are the real deal.  He said his team will have to be ready to play 51 minutes against a deep Hopkins team.  On the other side of the coin, Peterson knows well that the Wings have benefitted from the coaching staff and merger this year and said,  “They have great skill and speed and it’s something we work on containing everyday in practice. We have a couple different systems that work against teams and players (teams) of this caliber.”

On the surface, traditionalists will opine as to where these two teams came from. These teams represent a new look in high school hockey this year and will deliver what should be a fantastic game from the Hopkins Pavilion Thursday night on Sports Radio 105 The Ticket.  The team that can put the final piece to the puzzle Thursday night will most likely come out on top.

Pete Waggoner has covered hockey since 1989 and his work includes play-by-play and studio hosting. Currently, he hosts This Week in High School Sport on 1500 ESPN and hosts the Overtime Hockey Podcast at that posts every Monday. His past work has appeared on Sports Radio 105 The Ticket, KFAN Radio,, Fox Sports North Prep Zone, MNHockeyCenter, and to that, Waggoner developed along with Fox9 Twin Cities and was one of the original architects of the from concept to delivery.

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