ST. PAUL — “The true meaning of life is to plant trees under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” — Nelson Henderson

As the new era of college hockey at the University of St. Thomas gets closer and closer, the current Tommies’ coaching staff is doing something equivalent to that kind of tree-planting, recruiting the players that will help lead the program into Division I, all the while not knowing if they will play a role in coaching those players next season or beyond.

In the fall, current Tommies head coach Jeff “Duke” Boeser announced he will retire at the end of the 2020-21 season, and St. Thomas is expected to hire its next head coach sometime in the spring. It is a coveted position, with a chance to build a program at a renowned school, in the heart of a metro area rich in hockey talent.

With their final season as a Division III program on hold due to the pandemic, Boeser and his top assistant coach/recruiting coordinator Nick Bydal are working hard to find the Tommies of the future, with an interesting twist:

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Bydal has no guarantee that he will be on the program’s coaching staff next season, and at least two players have recently committed to play for the Tommies in the future without knowing who their head coach will be.

“Yeah, that’s different, not knowing who the coach is going to be, but I trust the staff,” said Tim Piechowski, a forward with the NAHL’s Bismarck Bobcats who announced his commitment to St. Thomas via Twitter last week. “Coach Bydal is a really good coach and a really good guy, and he makes you feel very confident about the future there.”

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Piechowski, who is originally from Eden Prairie, was first contacted by the St. Thomas coaches more than a year ago, before the school announced it was moving up to the D-I level and was joining the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association. He admitted that going from D-III competition to the top level of college hockey will not be easy, but he relishes the idea.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but St. Thomas is such a good school that a lot of great players will land there and I think we’ll rise to the challenge,” Piechowski said. “It’s going to be an adjustment, but they’re going to get guys that have played the game, who know what to do and are ready to work.”

A few days before Piechowski announced his intent to play for St. Thomas, the Tommies also got a commitment from Jordon Halverson, currently skating for the NAHL’s Janesville Jets. Halverson, who is a sizable defenseman from Hudson, Wis., has been with the Jets for the past two seasons.

Facing uncertainty on a few fronts — the delayed MIAC season and the future direction of the program after Boeser’s retirement — St. Thomas athletic department officials have not made their coaches available for interviews. It is unknown whether Bydal, who joined Boeser’s staff in 2017, will seek the head coaching position once it is posted or will be kept on board as a kind of transition person if someone else is picked as the Tommies’ first D-I coach.

For now, Bydal has a product to sell, and plenty of players who are interested in St. Thomas as a hockey and education destination.

“When they offered me, I talked to my parents and my coaching staff and everyone decided it was the perfect place for me to land,” said Piechowski about his choice of the Tommies. “It has everything I’m looking for — close to home, good school and it’s going to be really fun to play with a new program. It checked all the boxes.”

With all of the unknowns that the hockey world has faced in 2020, not knowing who your coach will be in 2021 is seemingly just another mystery to be solved.

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