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Always teaching, always learning

03/22/2019, 1:30pm CDT
By Andrew Vitalis

John Hamre has taken a winding road to his current role as Minnesota men’s hockey director of hockey operations

In every corner of John Hamre’s office there is a picture. Behind that picture is a story.

In every available space on his desk there seems to be a stack of papers waiting to find a home. With each stack there is a current or future project, each one driven by a special brand of enthusiasm that only the genuine love for the game of hockey can bring.

On all four walls of his slice of hockey heaven – inside of the walls of 3M Arena at Mariucci – there are small snapshots of hockey history. Behind those team logos, autographs, poems and within those frames there is perspective. Experience. Gratitude.

As he puts it, he wears a lot of hats. 

Currently in his second year as the University of Minnesota men’s hockey program’s  director of hockey operations, the Gopher alum’s list of responsibilities range from tackling the weekly video clips that help head coach Bob Motzko and his team look back at what they have done, are about to do and what (and who) they are going to face in the upcoming weeks; to coordinating the team’s travel schedule and the headaches that go along with securing dates, hotels and modes of transportation for the Gophers as they embark on another hockey season (as well as looking ahead and planning for future seasons), traveling from one end of the country to the next in a six-month sprint; and to that pesky thing called the budget. It seems at times that one would need numerous college degrees to truly master all of the challenges that someone in Hamre’s position faces each and every day. Well, not surprisingly, Hamre has three including an MBA (with an emphasis in finance) and a Ph.D.

“I wear lot of hats. I am a very visual person and I embrace technology. I have lots of phones. I am very visual so these are all visual cues to different projects I have,” Hamre said while looking down and pointing to various stacks of paper on his desk. “I would describe it to somebody in the simplest way possible for someone to understand as being half assistant athletic director and the other half assistant coach. Being the director of hockey operations, you are a lot of both and you’re not all of either, so you are somewhere in the middle.”

Being in the middle of anything requires a certain level of flexibility. To reach that stage in life where being flexible becomes second nature, life experience and the lessons you learn throughout the journey are almost always the deciding factors between success and failure. Hamre has had plenty of success. He’s also had a lot of amazing teachers.

From his days as a graduate assistant in the early 1990s under the tutelage of then-Minnesota head coach Doug Woog, to his time as an assistant coach under legendary Yale head coach Tim Taylor, and all of the other stops from then to now, Hamre has soaked in every ounce of life he could get. The list of influences who have impacted his career list like an all-star team of hockey minds that cannot be matched. In addition to Woog and Taylor, coaches like Mike Eaves (served under Eaves at the University of Wisconsin and the U.S National Team Development Program), Don “Toot” Cahoon (was an assistant under Cahoon at Princeton University), Moe Mantha (USNTDP), Don Lucia  and Motzko (among others) have all talked and Hamre has listened – to everything. Hamre even remembers brief, but memorable encounters with legends John Mariucci and Herb Brooks when he was young. 

With each interaction, no matter the duration or contact, Hamre took something away from it. His approach has always been guided by the thirst for knowledge, the unique desire to pay it forward and a second-to-none love for the game and the lessons the game of hockey can teach.

“I owe everything I have in hockey to Doug Woog,” Hamre said. “The way Doug looked at the game and had patience with people. I don’t know what he saw in me, but I’m thankful he saw something to get me started. I look in the mirror and see someone who works hard. If someone gives me a task, I’m going to fulfill it. If someone gave me an opportunity, I tried my hardest to fulfill what they wanted. I have tried to recognize that I’m a part of that team in whatever role you have, whether it’s a coach, a player, a staff member – you are supporting the common goal. Just recognizing that has been important and I am really blessed to have the mentors I have had. Maybe they saw in me someone who they can give some wisdom to who is going to carry it forward.”

Known as “The Hammer,” Hamre is always moving forward and whenever possible, is always teaching. That foundation was instilled in him even before the game of hockey took over. Both have steered him across the state, the country and the world, and also throughout almost every level of hockey. Not surprisingly, Hamre’s parents were teachers. His siblings (six of them) each invested in education in their own right, to the point where Hamre freely jokes that he might be the least educated one of the bunch. Education has been such a staple in his life that the former Blake School boys' hockey coach recalls a story where his grandmother once told his father that the thing she was most proud of in her life was that all five of her children grew up to be teachers.  

Then came his addiction to hockey. Skating on a neighbor’s backyard rink as a youngster in Roseville, Hamre was drawn to the “unwritten rules” of the game more than anything else. Sure it was fun, but what the game represented to him – that was what kicked off a love affair that he still feels today. 

“It’s an honest game,” Hamre said. “It’s a game of honesty, work ethic and integrity. All entitlements are lost when you step onto the ice and you work hard. It’s a team sport and you are playing with and for teammates. You are playing for something bigger than yourself. When you grow up in Minnesota, you start skating before you can walk on an outdoor rink. That’s just a part of the game and it’s a special experience to be able to be a part of the game and play the game.”

It’s a fraternity.

Scott Bell, the former Gopher player and assistant coach, and current scout for the Toronto Maple Leafs knows firsthand just how special that fraternity can be. Bell first met “The Hammer” when he arrived on the campus as a budding freshman forward in 1990. The two connected right away and remain great friends today. Throughout the years, Bell has watched Hamre grow, both as a hockey coach and hockey ambassador. In 2000 when Bell was hired as assistant coach for the UHL’s New Haven Knights, he rented Hamre’s apartment after Hamre was transitioning from Yale to the U.S National Team Development Program. As Hamre’s journey moved from the National Team to coaching high school hockey, from Madison and now to Minnesota, Bell didn’t flinch when it came to the doors that opened for his good friend along the way. Passion and work ethic is a dangerous combination, and Hamre had both.  

“It doesn’t surprise me. John has his Ph.D. in math and can pretty much do anything he wants and he has taken this hockey journey – this windy road without missing a step,” Bell said. “He’s been on it going from high school hockey to the North American League, Alaska, U.S. National Team, the Olympic Team, Princeton, Yale – he’s been everywhere. I’ve always liked that John has been a student of the game and has always been willing to learn and always willing to work. Just seeing John and his willingness to do anything to learn and be in the game has been fun because not a lot of people will sacrifice something for their passion or their dream. 

“It has not always an easy road, but he’s always forged ahead. He could easily be making a bunch of money in the business world with his brain and his ability there. He’s an academic and his whole family is like that. He’s just a unique person and the one thing about him more than anything else is he is passionate about hockey and that seems to drive him. I’ve always had a high respect for him and the fact that he’s always followed his passion.”

“John has never had a bad day in his life,” Motzko said when asked about Hamre’s kind and enthusiastic nature. “He is as upbeat and as positive as anyone I have been around. It’s been great for me coming in. What he does for us is working behind the scenes – the video, the team travel, the in-house organization. He is so meticulous in that. As a new person coming in, I haven’t had to worry about details like that behind the scenes.”

Details, and a lot of them. Dating back to the 1994 U.S. Men’s Olympic Team when Hamre served as video coordinator under head coach Tim Taylor, he developed a reputation for the details. That special attention to the specifics has been one of the reasons why opportunities have continued to pop up for the 49-year-old. Even when he took on a different role as coach at Blake, Hamre found a way to explain the game, and teach the game, in a way everyone was able to understand. The level of competition may have changed. The talent on the ice may have been different. The details, however, and the passion behind them, never did. As Blake’s bench boss, Hamre led for the Bears for nine seasons, helping them advance to the state tournament three times. But despite the success, the veteran coach wanted to keep growing. He wanted to keep learning. Most of all, he wanted to keep teaching.

In 2010, Hamre’s childhood friend passed away. The loss gave Hamre new perspective and added passion – even more than what he already had. His journey started at the college level and “The Hammer” wanted back in. After a tour through the junior hockey ranks, one of Hamre’s old contacts and a prominent member of that hockey fraternity, Mike Eaves, hired Hamre as director of hockey operations at the University of Wisconsin in 2015-16. One year later, and after Eaves was dismissed as Badgers head coach, Lucia came calling and all of a sudden the former Gopher was back in the land of 10,000 rinks. One year in, Lucia retired. 

Enter Motzko, the first-year head coach for the maroon and gold and Hamre’s new boss. How things change yet remain the same. The location might change and at times the title does too, but no matter where he lands, it all comes back to a few simple, yet critical, things – passion, dependability, experience and perspective.

“The last four seasons, I worked with three exceptional coaches,” Hamre said. “Each one is a different person with a different personality and a different emphasis as coaches. It’s a great way to see that there are a lot of different ways to get to the same outcome. I think as you start out, you might not know where you are headed, but you have a vision. You gain those experiences and you move along. Then a lot more years down the road, you recognize and appreciate the experiences that you had and then you apply them. 

“You hope that in the end those experiences can help make it the best possible situation for our student-athletes and our team. How do we support our team and make sure that each day we are working towards helping make the team the very best it can be? How do we make every day a special day for our players here at the University of Minnesota, playing Gopher hockey? This is a special place and we want to support that mission and goal. I am so very proud to be here and be a part of it. It’s been a fun ride.”

For anyone who knows Hamre, it shouldn’t be a surprise that as his career grows, his focus continues to be on the program and the kids who play in it as opposed to his road map and resume. Despite the fact that his phone rolodex includes the who’s who of hockey royalty, no matter the question or the person asking it, Hamre stops dead in his tracks and gives you the best answer he can give, no matter how long it takes. And at some point within that answer, he will usually add perspective – and maybe a story.

“John’s nature is to be a teacher and share information, and I think that is one of great things about him,” Bell said. “He’s so open to sharing with anyone at any level. It doesn’t matter if it’s a Mite coach or an NHL coach who calls him, he is equally as enthusiastic. That’s one of his gifts. No question is too small and no question is too big. He’s definitely a teacher and I think he loves being a teacher. Some people with his intelligence and background might pursue money or material things. John is the opposite. He’s never chased dollar signs. He’s always chased knowledge and experiences. He’s a guy who has always remained true to who he is and he has a strong understanding of that and what he values. He puts learning and relationships over some of the other things that often get lost in today’s world.”

“I have always tried to emphasize being the best person you can be at that moment and giving an honest and thorough effort – to take care of today the best way you can,” Hamre said. “If you do that consistently over time, good things are going happen. Don’t cut corners. Do things the right way and do things thoroughly. That’s a pretty consistent theme I have always tried to live by, and I hope that sets a good example for others.”

The one-time student has become the teacher. Fitting when you think about it, after all, teaching seems to be the Hamre way.

 

Andrew Vitalis can be reached at lphprep@yahoo.com.

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