Last season was an eye-opening experience for the Manitowoc United hockey program. It was also a great learning experience.
“We weren’t a varsity team last year,” said junior goaltender Ian Herzog.
Manitowoc, which moved up to the varsity level after a three-year hiatus, went 2-18 with 15 of those contests being decided by double digits.
“When you’re losing some games 17 or 20 to nothing that’s not a hockey score, that’s a football score,” said United’s first-year coach Jeff Olson.
The losing record wasn’t because of a lack of talent says Olson, merely a simple math equation. A team with enough players for two line shifts will have trouble against a team with four.
“When you play a team like (Bay Port or Notre Dame),” Olson said, “they have four full lines and you only have two you can see how our ability to physically keep up … it becomes exhausting for the team.”
Olson is trying to build a solid foundation for a program, in conjunction with the Manitowoc Breakers, which fields five squads ranging from seven-eight all the way up to 18 year olds.
“Part of what we’re doing is trying to encourage kids to keep playing hockey right through high school because without the numbers in players it becomes very difficult.” Olson said.
The draw to continue with the program the whole way through high school graduation could be another math problem, one which affects parents’ checkbooks.
“Winning helps motivate parents,” Olson said. “Who wants to pay $1,000-1,500 a season in high school to have their kid playing on a team not winning many games? Hockey has always been an expensive sport. Kids either drop out thinking they’re not that good so why play or parents just can’t afford it.”
The solution to the problem is equally as simple for Olson: make hockey fun.
“Keeping kids having fun on the ice is the number one job of any hockey program,” Olson said. “If it becomes a burden for kids its no fun. Teach them skills, make sure that when they come off the ice and they’re sweaty, they’re coming off sweaty having fun.”
Olson is also hoping to help alleviate some of that financial burden.
“I’m working with people within the program to help create some scholarships and things like that so kids who really can’t afford it but want to play can come in and play.”
A love of hockey
Player after player recounted the joys of playing a sport they loved even though the payoff for the program is several years in the future.
“It feels very good,” Herzog said of laying the foundation for the program. “What we accomplish this year and next will be the bedrock for all the young people who come to our games and they see what they can do…it feels very good to help the younger kids out. The more we help them, the more they want to become us.”
For junior Jeff Khail, it means something to be apart of the program.
“It’s an honor to be apart of this and involved with the program,” Khail said. “I’m doing this because I have a love of the game and how much fun we’re having with our teammates.”
Junior Cody Olson, coach Olson’s son, says it takes a certain type of player to compete for United.
“Heart,” Olson said of the top trait a player must have. “Most of the kids who are competing are working out everyday. Doing more advanced things to play on the high school level requires a lot of heart to put in the work.”
The immediate future for the program is to remain at the junior varsity level while a new crop of players is developed.
Those players at the bantam stage, the level before high school, will be taught similar tactics to help ease their transition.
“Since I have changed the offensive and defensive strategies, I have worked with the bantam coach so there’s a smoother transition,” Jeff Olson said. “The system we’ve set up are used by professional teams, but really help us because we’re focusing on the type of players we have, there skill levels and what we need to do to compete.”
Manitowoc won the Wrobel Cup in Green Bay last week, which is comprised of JV teams from across the Green Bay and the Upper Peninsula.
“For us going from winning about three games a season to having a record of (7-4-1 as of Tuesday) and winning the JV tournament at the end of the year is a huge benefit,” Olson said. “It shows the system we’re implementing is working. A lot of the kids getting up into the bantam level and see a program losing all the time kids think ‘maybe I should go play baseball or basketball. When you see a team putting some wins on the board and then goes and win a championship over a long weekend I think it means a lot.”
“In the past, Manitowoc high school hockey was a joke but we’re starting to turn that around,” Herzog said of the Wrobel Cup win.
The future remains bright.
“I’m excited for next year because we’re losing three seniors but we’re gaining at least five sophomores so we’re still gaining players,” Olson said. “We’re really excited because a lot of the talent coming up next year is really top notch which has been in the system since they were young kids.”