The Best Job I Never Got
This is a different kind of post for me. The Minnesota high school hockey season began about a month ago, and for the first time in my teaching career, I am not coaching. I loved coaching, but combined with my teaching responsibilities, it had just become too much, so I resigned at the end of last season. To be honest, I became a teacher because I wanted to be a coach, and I think I became a good teacher because I wanted to be a good coach. This is a story of a coaching job that I didn't get. It was in the rough draft of my book as I worked on it during the 2003-04 school year, and it was called The Best Job I Never Got. But as the book developed and was edited, it became clear that the story no longer fit, so I had to drop it. I hated to do it, because it was my favorite story in the book. I've always wanted to share it, so here it is. It is about how the biggest professional disappointment in my life became one of the best things that ever happened to me.
The first fifteen years of my teaching-coaching career were spent in Mt. Iron, a small town in Minnesota's iron range. I moved to Warroad in the summer of 1989 after the school district contacted me and offered me a social studies teaching job. They told me the reason they wanted me was that their head hockey coach at that time, Tom King, would be retiring from coaching in two years. Their plan was for me to become an assistant to Tom with the idea that I would become the head coach when he stepped down. I had always dreamed of being the head coach of a team with a real chance to make it to the Minnesota state hockey tournament--a hugely prestigious event that receives four days of state-wide television coverage--and after having struggled for twenty years in a little town that didn't even have an arena, I was thrilled at the prospect of becoming the head coach of a truly competitive team. Our family had made a lot of friends in Mt. Iron, but the financial situation of the school district there was worse than ever. So we decided to make the move.
When I came to Warroad, the high school hockey team had been to the state tournament for three consecutive years, and the coaching staff was viewed with something approaching awe in the community. It's amazing how quickly things can change. Tom King didn't resign after two years, but he was "encouraged" to quit after four. Warroad's high school hockey team, which had been so successful, went through some mediocre seasons, and the man who had been viewed as being able to do no wrong came to be viewed by many of his former fans as someone who could do nothing right. The fans perception of the rest of the coaching staff was no better. Nevertheless, when Tom resigned and the head coaching job was posted, I had high hopes that the Warroad school district would fulfill what I had taken as the promise it had made to me four years earlier.
It's hard to describe how important it was to me that I get that job. In many ways, Warroad is one of the worst possible places for my wife and me to live. It is six-and-a-half hours away from any of our family, and anytime we need anything it involves about a two-and-a-half hour drive to Grand Forks, North Dakota. The Warroad area is the hunting and fishing capital of the world, but I do neither of those things, so my social life, at times, resembles that of a monk. Whenever I am with more than one male, the conversation inevitably turns to hunting and fishing, and anyone observing could probably see my eyes begin to glaze over. Warroad is a great place to bring up kids, and I love my teaching job, but if I had not been promised the head hockey coaching job, we would never have moved here.
I had never campaigned for anything in my life, but I did campaign for that job. I was well prepared for my interview, and came in with a viable plan to get the Warroad hockey program back on track. I could tell that I had made a good impression on the panel, and the athletic director even told me privately the next day that I had the job, so I waited anxiously for the phone call to make it official. Two weeks later, the school announced that they had hired Cary Eades, who had just coached the Dubuque Fighting Saints to the national junior hockey championship, as Warroad's new head hockey coach.
I was devastated. Perhaps even more devastated was our middle son, Andy, who had been a defenseman on the high school team for the preceding two years. Since he was a little boy, Andy had dreamed of having his dad as his head hockey coach, and he knew that one of the criticisms of me involved him. Andy had always been what is referred to as a "stay at home" defenseman whose main priority is to prevent goals. Certain influential hockey fans in our town preferred "rushing" defensemen who like to take the puck from end to end in an effort to score goals. Consequently, they didn't think Andy was very good. All of them believed he played too much, and some of them thought he shouldn't be playing at all. Naturally, they thought that the only reason Andy played as much as he did was because of my presence on the coaching staff. Every town with high school sports has its share of fans who are considered to be authorities, but in Warroad these people have an unusual amount of influence in the community and school district, and they were the ones who wanted Cary Eades. Andy had reason to be concerned about what this decision meant for him.
To say that my immediate reaction to the decision was anger would be an understatement. I was determined to hold on to my job as assistant coach, do just enough to keep it, and nothing more than necessary to help the new head coach. If I could undercut him, I would. We even thought about sending Andy to another school under open enrollment. I hated Warroad, I hated our town hockey "authorities," I hated the school officials who had given them their way, and I hated this new coach!
Fortunately, the day after the decision was announced, I began to calm down. I thought about the situation and Andy and my future, and I realized that the anger I was feeling wasn't going to accomplish anything. There are people who are very good at being vindictive--some of the Warroad “hockey authorities" could give classes on the art--but I had never been one of them. I knew that the only thing I had ever accomplished when I had tried to be vindictive was to make a complete fool out of myself. As I was driving to church, appropriately enough, I began what turned out to be a 180-degree turn in my thinking. If I was never going to make it to the state tournament as a head coach, maybe I could at least make it as an assistant. I decided to call Cary Eades, congratulate him, and let him know that I would do anything I could to help him be successful.
Cary Eades turned out to be the best hockey coach I have ever known. He stressed a defensive system which emphasized doing the things necessary to keep the puck out of our own net, and Andy's style of play fit perfectly into it. Seven months after making the decision I had made as I parked my car by that church, I stood at the blue line in the St. Paul Civic Center and watched as my son received the state championship trophy as one of the team captains, and he was named to the all-state tournament team. I have heard the saying, "I thought I had died and gone to heaven," and I now knew exactly what is meant by that. No moment of my life could match that one for the feeling of pure joy.
Because he had the opportunity to play in a state tournament, Andy was noticed and recruited by a junior team in Iowa where he played for two years. He had also been noticed by the hockey coaches at Minnesota State University-Mankato, which was just about to enter Division I competition. They followed his junior career and then offered Andy a scholarship. He was highly valued at Mankato for his defensive style of play and was chosen team captain both his junior and senior years. He only scored seven goals during his college career, but three of them were in overtime -- one against Ferris State to give MSU its first win ever in Division I competition, one against North Dakota to give his team its first win ever in the WCHA playoffs, and one that gave MSU its first win ever over the University of Minnesota Gophers. Because of my own coaching responsibilities, I rarely got to see Andy play in college, but I was in the arena for his goal against North Dakota, and I watched him score his goal against the Gophers on TV. If anyone happened to be looking from the street into the window of our house at that moment, they must have wondered why in the world that middle-aged man was doing cartwheels across his living room floor.
The thrills and joy that Andy's hockey career gave our entire family went beyond our wildest dreams, and he met a beautiful and intelligent young woman named Kelly in the process who is now our daughter-in-law. I am convinced that all of this was made possible because Cary Eades was hired as the hockey coach of Warroad High School. In the first twenty years of my hockey coaching career, no team that I was involved with ever came close to making it to a state tournament. During Cary's tenure in Warroad, our high school hockey team was in seven state tournaments and we won three state championships. Andy, of course, played on the first state championship team, and our youngest son, Garrett, played on the second. Besides the hockey success, I gained a great golfing partner and one of the best friends I've ever had out of the deal. My all-time favorite line from a novel comes from a Stephen King horror story, believe it or not. It says, “if life teaches us anything at all, it teaches that there are so many happy endings that the man who believes there is no God needs his rationality called into serious question." The Warroad High School head hockey coaching position turned out to be the best job I never got.
In August, 2004, Cary Eades shocked our community when he announced that he was leaving Warroad to accept an assistant coaching position at the University of North Dakota. I was named as co-head coach of our high school hockey team along with Albert Hasbargen, who had been a very successful coach in our youth program for several years. Albert and I were blessed with an outstanding group of players, and the work habits and knowledge the veterans on our team had gained playing under Cary was apparent. In March of 2005 our team won Warroad’s fourth Class A State Championship and completed the school’s first ever undefeated season by beating Totino-Grace 4-3 in double overtime.