Last year’s Class AA state hockey tournaments were a clean sweep for the Lake Conference. The Eden Prairie boys team won the state championship, and on the girls side Minnetonka edged Edina for the title.
It’s a trend within the conference for both boys and girls. Last year alone the Lake—comprised of Edina, Wayzata, Eden Prairie, Hopkins and Minnetonka—had six NHL draft picks, seven total Mr. and Ms. Hockey finalists and four state tournament participants.
The Trojans had two of those draft picks. Mario Lucia was selected by the Minnesota Wild, and Tony Cameranesi was taken by the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“You know you’re playing one of the best teams in the state every time you are playing a conference game,” Wayzata girls coach Becky Wacker said. “When it comes to playoff time, we all go our respective sections, but we’re ready. You’ve really had the battle test, and you’re not really shell-shocked when you’re going up against a great team.”
These five schools have 47 boys and 12 girls state appearances and 15 state titles. The secret is a mixture of tradition, coaching and youth hockey systems that keep the high school programs full of talent each year.
This season, the Lake has three teams in the girls’ Class AA preseason top 10.
“I really and firmly still believe that we are fortunate enough to play in the best high school hockey conference in the country,” Hopkins coach Rolf Ulvin said. “The whole conference is really, really competitive.”
Numbers don’t lie
Wayzata Youth Hockey Association President Greg Gibson’s son, Devon, played hockey throughout his youth. In 2006, after returning from a military tour in Iraq, Devon greeted his dad with a telling message about how the sport influenced his life.
“He gets back from Iraq and he says, ‘Dad, I had a lot of time to think over there, and I’m just so grateful I had the hockey experience I had,’” Greg Gibson said.
That passion for the sport runs through the Lake Conference communities. Edina Youth Hockey Association President Billy Klein said the EYHA’s 1,250 participants is the largest in North America. Wayzata has more than 1,100 hockey players in its boys and girls programs, and Minnetonka has 56 youth teams listed on its website for 2011-12.
Wayzata first-year coach Pat O’Leary said numbers are a critical part in the Lake’s success.
“You can’t lie with the number of kids in our schools,” O’Leary said. “But that being said those teams every year put out really good players and depth, and depth is a big thing, too.”
Wacker said not only are there numbers in Wayzata’s youth program, but the kids have an excitement toward the sport that translates into success.
“It’s a good family activity that they can stay involved in,” Greg Gibson said. “People in all talent levels can play it.”
Coaching the talent
Along with the talent and numbers, the Lake Conference is one of the deepest in the state when it comes to coaching. In Edina, boys coach Curt Giles played for the Minnesota North Stars in the NHL, and on the girls side Laura Slominski is a former Ms. Hockey Award winner and a standout for the University of Minnesota women’s hockey team.
Ulvin, Minnetonka girls coach Eric Johnson and Wayzata girls coach Becky Wacker all played college hockey.
“The coaches are outstanding,” Hopkins coach Vin Paolucci said. “We’ve done it for a long time. They’ve played at high levels. I can’t see another conference having five coaches in a conference that have those credentials. It’s an honor to coach with them and against them.”
O’Leary, who played for the Gophers, said Lake Conference meetings are a who’s who of talent.
“I was sitting there with Giles, Brian (Urick), Lee (Smith),” O’Leary said. “I’m sitting there looking around; it was exciting. They’re great guys, they’re so well respected.”
Each season brings its own level of unpredictability. Even a Lake team with the top regular season record could fall to a conference foe in the postseason.
It’s a unique situation to compete in this conference, one O’Leary takes very seriously.
“I’m very blessed with the opportunity,” he said. “Like I told my wife, it’s a challenge for me, but I think I was ready for something like that in my life.”