When South St. Paul native Phil Housley was named head coach of the Buffalo Sabres this past June, it was the continuation of a meteoric rise in the coaching ranks. After starting at Stillwater High School in 2004, Housley had made his way to the coaching pinnacle. But he hasn’t forgot about the value of his experience with the Ponies.
“It was a unique situation. I could really test my patience with high school kids, with the things that they go through and the changing society they’re in,” Housley told the Pioneer Press in November. “There’s a tremendous amount of pressure on kids these days, so it really taught me a lot about young men and developing patience.”
Housley is just one example of a former collegiate or professional player helping the sport of hockey by coaching at the amateur level. Throughout the State of Hockey, former players are continuing to grow the game by pushing the next group of players to a higher level.
This growth of former players coming back to coach is no accident and has been a focus of many with Minnesota Hockey and USA Hockey.
“We’ve made a concerted effort in the last 15-20 years to get these guys coaching,” said USA Hockey National Coach-in-Chief Mike MacMillan. “We think that sort of experience is invaluable. It’s a win-win for everybody.”
The path for some of these players-turned-coaches starts with helping out at camps and during private training sessions. This is true for Erik Westrum, a Minneapolis native that played collegiately at the University of Minnesota and played professionally for 11 years with the Arizona Coyotes, Toronto Maple Leafs and the hometown Minnesota Wild.
Westrum started at Apple Valley High School, his alma mater, where he helped train players in the offseason, including current Sabres forward and Gopher alum Hudson Fasching.
From there, he started working at high performance camp and has helped coach his own kids in the Prior Lake Youth Hockey Association. Now, he serves as both a youth coach and the head coach of the Southwest Christian/Richfield high school program.
"When you can have coaches that are former players that played at a high level that understand the game and understand skill development, I think that really goes a long way."
- Zach Parise
“It’s been nice to be able to give back,” Westrum said. “My goal is just to be an ambassador to the sport and grow it with whatever resources I have.”
One advantage Westrum and others who have experience at high levels might have over other coaches is experience with different coaching styles. Westrum specifically was coached and mentored by the likes of J.P. Parise, Doug Wood and Jacques Lemaire.
“Being able to play hockey for as long as I did, you just learn so much and become a sponge,” Westrum said. “Even now, I continue to sit back, watch and learn.”
Aside from Westrum, there are countless other examples of former players succeeding as coaches in Minnesota. Look no further than Edina boys’ head hockey coach Curt Giles, who has had a run of nearly two decades and kept the Hornets at the top of the high school hockey helm. Former NHLers Mark Parrish and Trent Klatt tossed on coach’s hats at Orono and Grand Rapids respectively.
These are just a few of the success stories. MacMillan sees these only helping the effort to get more former professional players on the bench as coaches.
“That success sparks and interest and makes guys think about it,” MacMillan said. “We offer so many experiences for coaches and there are many former pros that are giving back in their communities that go unheralded.”