Every kid that has laced up skates to play hockey dreams of playing for an NHL team. Sure, it's not realistic, but a kid can dream, right? Willmar WarHawks goaltender Luke Fry got to live that dream last Wednesday when he suited up to play in a modified pick-up game with the Toronto Maple Leafs in St. Paul.
The Maple Leafs arrived at their hotel the night before playing the Minnesota Wild and needed a couple of goaltenders to help out for a pick-up game at the Wells Fargo WinterSkate, an outdoor rink just outside the Landmark Center in downtown St. Paul. Steve Briere, the goaltending coach for the Maple Leafs, called his old friend and current WarHawks interim head coach Steve Yurichuk, for some help.
"I knew it would be a great experience for him," Yurichuk said. "He carried himself very well, it was a pretty special opportunity."
Yurichuk says it was a no-brainer to get Fry involved in the day. So, Fry suited up with his gear and a WarHawks practice sweater and hit the ice with some of the world's best players.
"They're massive guys," said Fry, who occupied the goal opposite Lakeville South goaltender Henry Welsch. "They are taller than I expected, and they're so crisp and so smooth. It's just so easy for them."
Most of the Maple Leafs broke up into smaller teams to play shortened games, switching in and out for about an hour as Fry and Welsch manned their respective nets. The lighthearted nature of the event brought out the best in some players. On his first shift, winger Mitch Marner, who happens to be just seven months older than Fry, skated behind Fry's net and tried to lift the puck up and sneak it past the Willmar goaltender. It didn't work, but it proved right off the jump the sort of hour Fry was in for.
"You're asked if you want to skate with an NHL team and the answer is obvious," Fry said, still smiling days later. "It's not an opportunity most people get so I was really happy to do it."
Yuro-stepping to Willmar
Steve Yurichuk took over as the Willmar WarHawks interim head coach Nov. 18 after the dismissal of previous head coach Chris Blaisuis. Through eight games, the WarHawks have sported a 3-5 record and Yurichuk, known as "Yuro" by most, says the transition couldn't have been easier.
"The reception has been fantastic," Yurichuk said. "This is a good (locker) room, a great group of kids."
Yurichuk is a mainstay in the national hockey community. Born in Toronto, the 41-year-old grew up near NHL Hall of Famer Eric Lindros and grew up with Wes McCauley, current NHL referee and son of former referee and Director of Officiating, John McCauley.
He played college hockey at Elmira College before playing professionally in Germany. He now operates Yuro Sk8 Systems and Skills Development, an elite hockey development program based out of Stillwater. He's worked with players of all levels, including current San Jose Sharks defenseman Brent Burns.
In recent years, Yurichuk has worked extensively with WarHawks owner Chris Canavati. Canavati, who also owns the Alexandria Blizzard and the Brookings Blizzard of the North American Hockey League, said Yurichuk was an obvious choice to help out.
Yurichuk has worked as a player development coach and consultant for the Blizzard organization since 2015.
"I was glad to help out," Yurichuk. "I just wanted to help make things easier with Chris (Canavati) as he helps look for a new person. I've worked with a lot of these kids. Cameron Pries, Jonathan Koester, so many of these guys have been in my camps or worked with me before so it was a great fit."
Originally, Yurichuk expected to stay for the three games over Thanksgiving weekend but has quickly embraced a slightly more long term spot in Willmar. With the longer stay, though, came a change in style.
"I thought, you know, if I'm going to do this I'm going all in," Yurichuk said. "The system that was in place, that's just not the way I want to play. When I played, and I'm not a tall guy, I was quick and I could hit like a freight train. It may not look like it but I could. So we finish our checks. We skate hard and we won't be pushed around. I want our guys to play with some jam, take pride in their game."
Even though Yurichuk expects a new coach to take over the bench in the new year, he said it was important to get a mentality in place.
"The key is to start building the program," Yurichuk said. "So we can go, 'Okay, this is how we want to play.' At the end of the day hockey is a business, but we're here to give opportunities to these guys to play hockey at a high level and eventually go and play college hockey."
When Canavati hires a new permanent coach, Yurichuk expects to stay on as a consultant to help those players reach that next level, as well as ease the transition. He knows it isn't always easy but he can feel the tide shifting.
"I always say it's like turning around a cruise ship," Yurichuk said. "It takes time, it won't happen right away. But it's happening, we've seen it in games. The games we've lost are not because of effort. These guys are playing hard in games and there's plenty of energy in practice. If we keep this up, we're going to win a lot of hockey games."