Prep boys hockey: Former assistant Walters becomes CEC's third coach in three years
CLOQUET — Fans are prone to fretting over their favorite team consistently playing for a different coach. That instability impedes progress by repeatedly forcing players to learn new systems and new philosophies.
Or so the theory goes.
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's Shea Walters — the Lumberjacks' third head coach in three seasons — believes it's much ado about nothing.
"Kids, especially at that age — 17, 18 years old — they're pretty resilient. They grow up playing for a lot of different coaches, whether it be summer hockey or they're going to different camps," Walters said earlier this month. "They're used to listening to a lot of different coaches. That continuity of having the same coach for three years of high school is obviously ideal, but we're going to make the best of the situation. And, luckily I coached them last year, so that'll help."
Indeed, the 31-year-old Walters was on Kevin Smalley's staff in 2017-18. Smalley resigned in July, saying he needed to focus on his job at Sinnott Blacktop, though he had been booked into the St. Louis County Jail days earlier on suspicion of driving while intoxicated. Smalley, popular amongst his players, retracted his resignation, but the Cloquet School Board in early August voted unanimously not to renew his contract.
Smalley succeeded longtime CEC coach Dave Esse, who stepped down in the spring of 2017.
Enter Walters, who went on to play junior hockey, then at Bemidji State, after graduating from Hibbing. He takes over a program that keeps getting talented sophomore classes fresh off bantam state tournament appearances. This year has been highly anticipated by CEC fans for some time.
These Lumberjacks can play. They've experienced success at every level of youth hockey.
"In my opinion, they're a special group," Walters said. "They've worked really hard, there's a lot of talent and they've had a lot of success growing up. For me to step in as an assistant last year, that made the transition to head coach a lot easier."
It made the transition easier for both Walters and his players. During one of his first practices at the helm, at the old Pine Valley Ice Arena — replete with its arctic air — Walters looked like a veteran bench boss. Flipping pucks from near the side boards to initiate a small-area drill, he kept the pace up-tempo.
As the session wound down, Walters briefly addressed the Lumberjacks before they hastily retreated to the cozy confines of their locker room.
Walters is picking up where Smalley left off. Much of the structure is the same.
"If we would have had a whole new coaching staff, it would have been harder" to adjust, senior forward Gavin Rasmussen said.
While it's premature to peg a head coach's style a mere two or three weeks into his tenure, Walters appears to trend more toward being a player's coach. He's an approachable guy.
"Last year we had him as an assistant, and we really loved him around here," senior defenseman Andy Acers said. "It's really fun playing for him. He's a great guy and a great coach."
Walters also was an assistant at his old program, Hibbing-Chisholm, under Todd Versich.
He's excited to guide a club that has the requisite skill and depth to make a run in the always-deep Section 7AA. The bulk of the offensive production is back, with Landon Langenbrunner, who totaled 25 goals and 23 assists as a junior, leading the way. The Lumberjacks do have questions on defense, where Ryan Nelson graduated and is now playing for the Minnesota Wilderness, and Dane Stoyanoff tore his anterior cruciate ligament during a football scrimmage. The 6-foot-4 Stoyanoff, a senior, would have been one of the area's best blueliners.
Like Walters, CEC players don't consider the coaching turnover a hindrance.
"But with playing for three different coaches in three years, we have a strong group of seniors," Langenbrunner said. "We're all friends and we've all been through it together, so it makes it that much easier when we all have each other's backs and we've all been there for each other."