WILLMAR -- This may be a basketball town, but Willmar is producing its share of hockey coaches.
When Willmar and River Lakes played in the first round of the Bus Cup there were five ex-Cardinals on the two benches.
Dan Tollefson (1988) is the current Cardinals' head coach, while Jeff Boonstra ('80) is head coach of the Stars.
His top assistant is Greg Hedman ('83). Jon Olson ('86) and Jeff Melby ('88) also assist.
The staff works with skaters from seven high schools: Rocori, Paynesville, New London-Spicer, Albany, Eden Valley-Watkins, St. John's Prep and Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa.
While River Lakes and Willmar are both around .500, several other ex-Cardinals are off to red-hot starts.
Tim Hanson ('92) is head coach at North Wright County, a co-op of Annandale, Monticello and St. Michael-Albertville. The River Hawks are 13-1 (5-0 versus Central Lakes Conference teams). The only loss was to Buffalo, a former member of the co-op.
One of the Hawks' wins came against Faribault by a 4-1 score. Faribault is coached by Steve Gravgaard ('85). His Big Nine team is 7-6-1.
Lee Smith ('84), long time coach at Eden Prairie, has the Eagles off to a 7-2 start playing the Eagles' typically tough schedule. They're ranked No. 4 in Class AA with a loss to No. 1 Bloomington Jefferson. At Blaine, Dave Aus ('87) looks like he has another state-tournament contender with the Bengals 10-1 out of the chute. The loss was 8-4 to No. 2 Edina. Assistants include his father, Pete, former head coach at Bethel College, Willmar and Litchfield in a hockey coaching career spanning five decades.
Pete Stahnke ('82) is in his sixth year guiding the Park Rapids/Menahga/ Nevis co-op. A businessman during the day, Stahnke's Panthers are a modest 5-5 after heavy gradation losses from a team that posted over 20 wins last year.
Former Gopher Tracy Engstrom ('98), assisted by her brother Lee ('01), holds the helm at Rosemount, where the Irish girls are 7-9. Doug Runke ('01) is head boys coach at Mound-Westonka (5-5) and Matt Breen ('01) is coaching the Minnetonka junior varsity boys.
A recent addition to the high-school hockey coaching list is Gretchen Dahl ('02), who is assisting with the girls program at Superior, Wis. Kelsey Ochsendorf ('03) is working with the Willmar girls junior varsity.