There was a time when the North Branch High School boys’ hockey team was known for all the wrong reasons. Matt Cottingham remembers.
“I remember reading a story in the newspaper about how North Branch broke a record for most penalty minutes in a season, or something like that,” Cottingham said. “There was this reputation that they were goons and were fighting all the time. When I came in, I wanted to change that reputation. We started to emphasize that first you are going to be the best person you can be. Then, you are going to be the best student that you can be. Then be the best player you can be.”
That was five years ago. Since then, the North Branch hockey scene has changed. Thanks to consistency at the top and a wave of momentum throughout the hockey community, the Vikings have climbed from the cellar to near the penthouse in the Mississippi 8 over the last year and a half. In Cottingham’s first season, North Branch won just three games. Last season, Cottingham’s fourth as head coach, the Vikings won 17. This season, they are 2-0 and haven’t lost a regular season game since Jan. 26 of last season.
“The improvement is because of the work the kids put in,” Cottingham said. “You sit back and watch practice and see how hard they work, or you watch the conditioning drills during the last 10-15 minutes of our practice when it comes to skating, and you see how hard they work. You look at our first game last year and our second game this year. We were down 4-1 to Sauk Rapids (last season) and then we come back and win 7-5. We were down 3-1 to Simley and won 4-3 (this season). The kids see that and they start to believe. They believe in each other and they believe in themselves. That’s been the best part. The wins are fun, but watching the team come together and play as one, that’s the best thing that has happened to me in the last five years as a coach at North Branch.”
Besides Cottingham, no one is smiling more about the surge within the program than Craig Moline, the president of the North Branch Area Hockey Association (NBAHA). He has watched the program rise from the very beginning. After moving to North Branch from the Bloomington hockey association, Moline immediately got his feet wet and went to work. From the time he first coached the Bantam program in 1985 to the late 1990s when he jumped onto the association board, Moline has watched the program grow one baby step at a time.
“For me it was a shock to come here in the first place,” Moline said. “I grew up playing in the Bloomington program and I was a part of probably the peak of that program in the 70s and 80s. I went from probably the highest program to one of the lowest programs. Now we have kids here who have started to skate more year-round. Skating at the Super Rink and the Herb Brooks Center has been huge for us. That’s why our levels have grown to where it is now.
“There are hardly any kids, including my son Cody, who have played A-level hockey. We couldn’t play A-level youth hockey when they were coming up. We had three different levels of kids on the same team. We do have a couple of kids who have played A-level hockey who open-enrolled from the Forest Lake program, or have come back to the association after leaving, but I think there are only two kids who have played A-level hockey on the varsity team right now. That says a lot when you look at where these kids are at. Not saying some of them couldn’t have played A-level youth hockey when they were younger, but they never got the opportunity.”
Having pure talent certainly helps the transition. Things jumped to another level inside the program during the 2015-16 season when Brady Meyer and Cody Moline (Craig’s son) skated onto the varsity scene. It was Cottingham’s third season as head coach and one of his most memorable. Meyer, a freshman at the time, had already attracted attention at the national level thanks to his size and ability to make plays. Moline, then a sophomore, was a speedster whose work ethic was contagious. Now two seasons later, Meyer (now a junior) has already committed to the University of Minnesota Duluth and is coming off a summer where he skated for the USA Under-18 Select Team.
As for Moline, now a senior, the team’s co-captain has netted two straight hat tricks and is considered one of the top players in the state thanks to his scoring touch. In his varsity career, Moline has registered 43 goals and 35 assists in 55 games. Meyer has added 43 goals and 48 assists in 53 career varsity games.
“You always go through those periods where you get those program changers,” Cottingham said. “It just happened that both program changers that have come in since I have been here came in the same year – one as a freshman and the other as a sophomore. Just to be able to see their growth has been special.
“For Brady, being such a sought-after kid when all of the recruiting was happening, the main focus was always been about the team, and that’s where both of these kids are great. That’s why they are our captains this year. It’s that leadership ability to put the team first and put everything they have accomplished individually on the back burner. It’s a lot easier for Brady now after he verbally committed. Cody is working his butt off to get noticed. To have two players to come through the program who can change the game and create a lot of buzz is great for the other kids in the program.”
And there are a lot of them. When looking at the program’s growth, two of the major differences between today and several years ago fall under the category of talent and numbers. They often go hand in hand. Consider that just a handful of years ago, because of low numbers at the high school level, several players jumped from the PeeWee level right into the high school program, skipping Bantams altogether. Now that the numbers have stabilized, North Branch is not only able to field several youth teams, but also has teams playing at the highest levels against some of the best competition from around the state. Just two years ago, the North Branch PeeWee A squad qualified for the state tournament. The team, consisting of 10 skaters and a goalie, was the first North Branch hockey team at any level to make it to the state tournament.
“There are a few hidden kids in there who are really talented, within the association, who haven’t gotten the exposure like Brady or even Cody, but that will come,” Moline said. “Those are benefits of getting out there and getting exposure playing at the higher levels. A lot of these kids are kind of under the radar because of the size of our program. Things are changing. They are definitely moving in the right direction.”
The puck is bouncing the right way, but make no mistake, Cottingham and Moline know there is more work to be done. The Vikings are still without a home rink, making their recent surge all that more impressive. Each morning, Cottingham and his players wake up at 4 a.m., and take the 20-minute trip (or longer) to the Chisago Lakes Arena in Lindstrom for practice. Their home games are also played in Lindstrom, meaning that the Vikings are essentially the road team in every game they play. The NBAHA’s next hurdle is to raise enough money to build their own rink, but that battle is only just beginning. In the meantime, the varsity program (and the youth teams) will continue to find ice wherever, and whenever they can. A successful season takes dedication. A successful program takes commitment.
“The five years I’ve been here, everyone has had open arms when it comes to the morning practices,” Cottingham said. “The kids actually enjoy them. We know we don’t have our own rink; we are a road team for basically 25 games, but the kids seem to have a bigger focus during the morning practices as opposed to the afternoon. I’ve had more laser focus during the morning practices than I ever had in the afternoon. It speaks to the commitment these kids have to the program and to each other, and I think that shows when it comes to how they are playing right now.
“These kids are just committed to one another. Everyone was worried about our team coming into this season, but when you have two of the best players in the section on the same team and then you have a goalie that is coming off a 16-win season, kids will step up and fill in holes when needed. I feel like we have two of the best lines in our section. To me, there is a different feel to this team in the way that they have come together and have bonded. We have a very good chance of doing a lot of great things this season. It will be a fun ride.”
The ride will also be a bit bumpy. In addition to facing off with section and conference foe Princeton this week, next week North Branch travels to Monticello to take on the Moose. To date, Monticello is the 11th-ranked team in Class A and considered by many to be the section favorite.
Andrew Vitalis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.