New North coach Rick Hill (far left) and member of the Polar team cleaned and painted the locker room at Polar Arena. Photo: Christine Wisch
When Rick Hill was approached to coach the North (St. Paul) High School boys’ hockey team, it did not take the former alumni much time to consider applying and eventually accepting the job. Hill inherited a team that currently has 22 players in the entire program. That is enough to field a little more than a varsity roster and not enough for a JV team. He observed a culture that will require plenty of work. Hill plans to return to North High School back to its glory days through passion, integrity, motivation and discipline.
New beginnings, old home
Hill returned to the locker room that he once sat in and was shocked by what he saw. The walls were painted in black with a dark maroon color of which was not the red and white that he had remembered as a Polar.
“I hate to say it, but I was actually disappointed,” Hill said of his first impression of the Polar locker room. “There were jerseys on the floor and trash. It was depressing. I played here, this is my homeland, my team that I grew up to play high school hockey. Everything was red and white. They had black on the walls, they had maroon for the colors on the wood. I stood in that room looking at how much in disarray it looked, no pride because of jerseys on the floor.”
He had a vision of what would brighten the mood and bring back the pride of North Polar hockey. “All I could see was white walls, red racks – clean it up and move forward,” Hill said. He enlisted current players to assist in cleaning and painting the room the familiar red and white.
“I feel like everyone is looking at it as kind of a cleanse,” junior center Joey Keran said. “Wipe out the past and start a new beginning. I am just excited to have a new beginning.”
Experienced skill-based leader
Hill has run hockey camps for boys and girls’ players at the youth, high school and college levels for 35 years. When meeting Hill, it is obvious to feel the passion he has for the game and the ability to cultivate it in the players with which he works.
Hill’s coaching career began in 1980 where he took his first team, an in-house team, to the conference and playoff championship. He went on to coach the PeeWee A team that included Bret Hedican who played in the NHL and Olympics. Hill continued to coach in the North St. Paul youth program, including the Bantam level, and was still playing hockey. He eventually moved to Colorado in the early 1980s where he played in the International Hockey League.
He returned to Minnesota in 1987 and made the switch from boys’ to girls’ coaching as a result of having two daughters in the White Bear Lake program. His 2006 12U girls' team captured the state championship. “I have been fortunate to be successful with great hockey players around me who bought into my systems, “ Hill said. “I certainly push girls the same way I coached the boys.”
Being well-known for his work with hockey camps, Hill looked back on the evolution of them: “Just recently, over the last five to six years, I’ve had the girls and boys in my camps at the same time. Also, I have college, high school and youth players on the ice at the same time.”
Since his camps are skill based, he is able to blend players of different levels. “The reason is, I was teaching skills,” Hill said. “I wasn’t working on battles so much, it was all about skills. Everyone got along, everyone worked. When we did one-on-one battles, we made sure the college players were together, the high school players were together and the young kids were playing against the young players.”
Effort and attitude pays off
Hill’s expectations as a coach are simple and clear: for his teams to bring their best effort and work hard every day. While many coaches preach accountability and discipline, it is easier said than done in terms of drawing that from teams to reach their highest potential. He focuses on things a player can control.
“My teams from day one have been all about discipline, responsibility and accountability,” Hill said. “I held every player to that point, every day. This locker room is probably cleaner than it has ever been, and it’s going to be that clean after every practice and after every game. You have to have discipline. I have been there with kids who have turned around and became who they should be, with love and a little harder push to bring them around.”
Deflecting praise to his players is easy for Hill to do in regard to his coaching success. He acknowledges that they work hard and do what is expected from them by Hill and his staff. The players’ success contributes to his success. “I feel I learn more from the kids than they do from me,” Hill said. “I give them all the credit for what they have done. Fortunately, I have coached and won championships.”
The North St. Paul youth program was robust with players and teams in the late 1960s and early 1970s. All high school sports rely on a youth program to cultivate young talent. The North youth program is in a co-op with St. Paul Como Park and St. Paul Johnson, allowing for players to develop at their current level. That provides many positives, yet brings on a number of challenges as well.
“The youth program is your foundation,” Hill said. “It’s huge that we get to be part of it. I don’t think the right people were involved with it. This wasn’t being taken care of like it should be. It’s not how I would envision it and kids were moving away from the North St. Paul area.”
Hill plans on working closer with the youth program to maintain the North St. Paul area players and grow the numbers as well.
“Talking to Moose Younghans at Johnson, he’s involved with the youth program that is co-oping and he’s invited to be there and be a part of it. I need to be there and I want to be there, and that didn’t happen here previously. We need to take care of that foundation.”
There are plans to reach back to the alumni and regenerate pride in the North High School boys’ hockey program. For anyone in North St. Paul wishing to get their young kids involved in youth sports, the program will have a home for every player. They will not let economics get in the way. That includes finding equipment for players that may need it.According to Hill, he will do anything he can to get a player on the ice. He has done that for 35 years with his camps and will do it at North High School.
“I don’t want to tell a kid he can’t skate, Hill said. “We need to open this up to kids so parents can be a part of the program to bring it back to life. To breathe more passion into it. We need the alumni to come in and start helping.”
Hill plans on contacting alumni and has events set up for the upcoming season. They will be having a veterans game with invitations to veterans, an alumni night, and they will be having a letter-writing campaign for players asking for donations after the team is selected. “I want this to explode into a big positive thing where young kids are coming in here and we are going to have our players skate with them and sign autographs,” Hill said. “We did that when I was young and I looked up to the Polars.”
“It’s just something you look forward to since you were young,” Keran said. “Skating at Polar (Arena) and then we do a Polar Pals thing. When we were young, we came in the locker room and saw what the culture was like being around the guys.”
The Polars finished with an 11-12-2 record and fell to Stillwater 6-0 in the Section 4AA quarterfinals last season. Hill has plenty to work with as the team has posted a 25-25-2 record over the last two seasons and advanced to the section semi-final in 2016-17. Numbers are an issue for the team, however, and Hill is working to increase participation with the Polar program.
With a new face to the program comes a new attitude. Time will also dictate the direction of the program under their new coach.
“Right now it’s hanging if we are going to have a JV team,” Hill said. “If we don’t have a JV team this year, we certainly will next year. People see that this guy has come in, he’s changing things, he’s got a background, he’s been successful and is bringing a new light to it.”
Junior center Jake McClennahan suggested that Hill will bring a new perspective to the program and in its own organic way help the numbers increase. “Just looking at the past, maybe some kids didn’t like the previous coach or previous systems that were run here at North St. Paul,” McClennahan said. “With this new coach, the creativity level and the skill level is just going to be way more changed. We are going to work harder and the atmosphere here never goes down. We are all brothers and the atmosphere in the locker room is just to keep each other up and no one is going to yell at you or anything; it is all just a positive attitude.”
Hill is donating his salary for coaching back to the booster club to help build the program. He is not in it for the money and is dedicated to building the program he loves, including drawing on his professional experience in communication as a realtor.
“Anyone can come in and be called a coach and coach,” Hill said. “People that really do this job are teachers of the game and become teachers. In every situation, I turn it into a positive and it comes from experience. I can teach skills and I can correct skills with kids instantly. I can’t always make them a better player in one day, but I can make them a smarter player. They are going to get the whole concept of how to play the game with reality, tricks and confidence. They have to play with confidence and I am always going to have their back. This has to be a team thing across the board.”
When asked what it would be like to get out on the ice with coach Hill senior right wing Nick Feist said, “It’s going to be a whole different style of play. It’s going to be nice to go out there and actually play real hockey.”
The players are excited to move forward with this upcoming season and say they have an environment at Polar Arena that is great to play in. “I would say just come watch a few games and look at the area around us and how happy the fans are whether we are winning or losing,” Keran said. “Everyone is just excited for you to be on the ice. Look at the tempo of the game. Last year we played at a higher speed and I think Rick is going to improve that this year and it is going to make kids want to be at that level of hockey.”
Hill knows his team can take the appropriate steps to move forward but admits it will not be just about the coaching staff.
“North St. Paul can move forward and I think it takes a group of people, not just one person,” Hill said. He noted the booster club, Athletic Director Jed Helwig and the arena manager are all providing invaluable support.
“We need to bring it back where it was and that is a proud Polar hockey. I know it can be done and you can see it just with how the kids are helping,” Hill said with pride as he looked on at the work being done with the Polars home in the locker room.