Though it’s been 28 years, Steve Rohlik vividly remembers the moment he and his teammates won a national title.
A senior captain at Wisconsin in 1990, Rohlik recalls how difficult it was to compete on the highest stage in college hockey, but also the magic he felt within his squad.
“We had that bond, that feeling and that chemistry from Day 1,” Rohlik said. “A lot of people talk about championship teams, and how they have a great bond. It was certainly true with our group.”
This year, Rohlik is leading his team in much the same direction—this time as the head coach of the Ohio State men’s hockey team. He’s also in the running to be just the sixth coach in history to win the NCAA title as both a player and as a coach.
The chance to compete for a national title isn’t the only familiar aspect of Rohlik’s trip to the Frozen Four this year.
The head coach of the Buckeyes will be traveling back to his hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota— the place where his passion for the game began.
Many of Rohlik’s earliest memories were on skates. He grew up on the East Side of St. Paul, and would travel around the city from playground to playground playing hockey.
“Hockey is the culture in Minnesota,“ Rohlik said. “It always has been. You got dropped off in the morning and you got picked up at dark, and you played pond hockey or boot hockey all day. That was what we did. That was normal for us, and that’s what I grew up with.”
Rohlik’s father, Jim, grew up in Wabasso, Minn., a small, farming town of just 700 people. There was no hockey there, but Jim was quickly immersed into the sport when he moved to St. Paul. For nearly a quarter of a century, he worked in various positions at Hill-Murray School.
Unlike his father, Rohlik grew up on the ice. From the time he could walk, he was at every state high school tournament at the old St. Paul Civic Center.
“Hockey is the culture in Minnesota. It always has been. You got dropped off in the morning and you got picked up at dark, and you played pond hockey or boot hockey all day. That was what we did. That was normal for us, and that’s what I grew up with.”
After playing at Wisconsin, Rohlik spent time as an assistant coach at Wisconsin and Stillwater High School, and became head coach at Hill-Murray in 1992.
A coach at just 23 years old, he feels privileged to have gained valuable experiences at such a young age.
“I was fortunate someone had a belief in me and gave me an opportunity at such a young age to get into this profession,” Rohlik said. “I made a billion mistakes, but at that time, it’s what you make of those mistakes and it’s what you learn from them.”
Now in his fifth season as head coach at Ohio State, and two wins away from a national title, Rohlik couldn’t be more proud of his team. At the same time, he knows there’s still work to be done.
“You have to enjoy the process and enjoy the journey,” Rohlik said. “But you have to take advantage of the opportunity you do have. You can’t be just satisfied, and I think our group talked about it a lot. It’s an honor and a privilege to be there among three unbelievable programs. But at the same time, our goal wasn’t to just to get here. Our goal is to try to win two more hockey games, and we’re trying to prepare ourselves in practice to accomplish that.”
Joining Notre Dame and Michigan as one of three Big Ten teams competing in this year’s Frozen Four, Ohio State knows those victories won’t come easy.
“It really paints the picture of what our year was like,” Rohlik said. “Every weekend, it felt like we were playing the best team in the league. When it’s that competitive, it forces you to be a better coach and it forces your team to be better.”
Rohlik will face off against a familiar Minnesota-Duluth team Thursday evening—the same team he helped coach for 10 years.
“Great friends with those guys,” Rohlik said. “Being able to go up there with Sandelin when he started and be a part of the staff for 10 years will always be a part of my life. But now to me, it’s just about this program, and it’s about these guys. As we all know, hockey is a small world and Duluth’s a part of that. But for me right now, all my focus is truly on our guys and our programs at Ohio State.”
The chance for Rohlik to see his players raise the same trophy he won back in 1990 is a unique feeling.
As the puck drops at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul this week, Rohlik can’t help but think how special it would be to see his team win a title in the same town that shaped his love of the game.
“So many unbelievable memories here,” Rohlik said. “For me, it’s a hockey place, it’s a hockey town, and I’m really looking forward to it.”