This Week in the NCHA/MCHA

Everyone in the MCHA now has had a week of league play in and the results aren’t too surprising. Adrian, Finlandia and Marian are all 2-0, though something must give this week as the Lions travel to face the Bulldogs. MSOE and Crookston are both 1-1 following a split in Crookston, while Lawrence, Northland and Concordia-WI are all 0-2.

The NCHA regular season kicks off this week with a plethora of games that could go either way.

On the national scene, the NCHA has flooded the first regular season edition of the poll, landing an astounding six teams in the top 15. Undefeated St. Norbert maintains its grip on the top spot, and is surprisingly followed at No. 6 by likewise unblemished Stevens Point. Naturally, the two face off this Friday.

5-1 Superior and 5-2 Stout check in at No. 8 and No. 10, respectively, and also square off on Friday. Meanwhile, unbeaten Eau Claire (5-0) makes its entrance into the poll at No. 12 and, like Stevens Point, gets a crack at St. Norbert this weekend.

St. Scholastica squeaks in at the No. 15 spot following a 3-1-1 start.

Adrian is now the lone MCHA team receiving votes, and moves one spot up to No. 9 after beginning the season 4-1-1.

Lake Forest’s Last Call

While a freshman at UW-Stevens Point, the 1997-98 season was my first exposure to Division III hockey. I, along with the rest of the Stevens Point community, witnessed a fine season that culminated with the Pointers losing a 2-1 heartbreaker to Middlebury in the national championship game.

Despite that memorable run, it might have been the Pointers’ NCHA quarterfinal series that remains most ingrained in many memories. As heavy favorites over Lake Forest the Pointers swept the series, but along the way the Stevens Point student section developed a bit of a rapport with Lake Forest — junior goaltender Aaron Vickar in particular. Aside from Vickar, several players of somewhat diminutive stature earned nicknames from the Point faithful. There was “Pee Wee”, “Dinky”, and of course “Twinkletoes”, who had inexplicably fallen over during a stoppage in play.

The next season Lake Forest returned to Stevens Point for a weekend set. The week of the game a Point student took it upon himself to send a friendly e-mail to Vickar just to remind him that the Point students had not forgotten him or any of the other players from the year before, and that they were anxious to reacquaint come Friday.

Upon arriving at the game, this student was told by his friends:

“Vickar was up here. He wants to talk to the guy who sent the e-mail.”

Now this student was truly worried. It was all done in jest, but tangling with a hockey player was not something he was interested in. Vickar returned to once again inquire, and when said student fessed up to the e-mail, Vickar’s comment was a bit of a surprise.

“That was awesome,” he said. “We talked and laughed about it the whole way up here on the bus. We couldn’t believe you guys remembered all that stuff!”

Vickar started the game that night and Lake Forest defeated the Pointers 4-3. At the final whistle, the Point students received a smile and a glove wave from Vickar. He had won his final game in Stevens Point.

Vickar didn’t even suit up for the Saturday game but actually sat with the Stevens Point students for two periods. Despite shutting the Pointers down on Friday, he had won over a typically hostile crowd.

Also on Saturday, between periods, a man a bit older than Vickar stopped and took a few steps up toward the student section.

Jokingly, he asked, “Hey, can you guys come down to Lake Forest and cheer for us against St. Norbert next weekend? I’ll even charter you a bus!”

It was a lighthearted moment for sure but to the surprise of many, the man then took a spot on the Forester’s bench. It had been none other than Forester head coach Tony Fritz.

The actions of him and Vickar that weekend eternally endeared the Foresters to some of the Point faithful.

Almost 10 years have gone by since that happened, and in the time since it has become clear that what happened in Stevens Point that weekend was not an isolated incident.

Now let’s not kid ourselves: college hockey and the coaching world can unfortunately sometimes fall victims to the same rivalries and personal clashes one can observe in many facets of life. But Tony Fritz has elevated himself above any of that fray, and he’s done it in most remarkable fashion.

Whether one speaks with fans, opposing players, opposing coaches, or even Lake Forest recruits who eventually chose to play somewhere else, the name Tony Fritz comes up and the word “class” is never far behind.

This phenomenon exists everywhere, but perhaps no one has a better perspective on it than Tim Coghlin, head coach of defending national champion St. Norbert.

“I think I do have a unique perspective,” said Coghlin. “I was a player at Stevens Point in the 80s and played against Lake Forest, then I was an assistant coach there and coached against him, now I’ve been a head coach here for 15 years.”

“He is one of the purest and nicest people you’ll ever meet. He’s absolutely genuine. You can see it in his coaching style, and I talk to him on a weekly basis and you can hear it in his voice. He’s very passionate for what he does.”

Fritz has been coaching for a long time, but many might not be aware of his activities prior to getting into coaching, particularly the time he spent playing in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization.

“I was in the Maple Leafs organization and played in the OHA Junior A at age 17,” Fritz humbly explained. “I didn’t know it at the time but I later found out I was considered one of the top five NHL prospects in Canada.”

Sadly, Fritz’ career was cut short due to an injury suffered in the Memorial Cup Playoffs, but a life without hockey was not one he was prepared to lead.

“I was still in high school when that happened, so I had to finish high school,” he said. “Then I went to teacher’s college in Saskatoon and decided I still wanted to stay in the game so I got word back to the Maple Leafs that if anything came up anywhere that would help me get back into the game as a coach to let me know.”

“By coincidence,” he continued, “a parent from University School, a private high school in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, came to the Maple Leafs and asked if they knew anybody who could coach in their program. They had ice, they had everything, but they didn’t have anyone knowledgeable in coaching.”

“(The Leafs) told him they had this young guy out in Western Canada, he got hurt, and he’s looking.”

Fritz accepted the University School position in 1965, and actually coached the soccer team as well. He built the hockey program into a Wisconsin high school power, posting a 159-90-7 record during his tenure. In fact, the school remains a player in Wisconsin prep hockey to this day, winning a state title as recently as 2006.

In 1978, Fritz moved into his current position at Lake Forest, and it was his dual-sport experience that landed the job.

“I had been looking for a coaching job and finally this one here opened up. The funny thing is that it required someone to be both the hockey coach and soccer coach. I had also been very successful as a soccer coach at University School, and there weren’t many people with those credentials so I got it and the rest was history.”

Fritz’ final season as soccer coach at Lake Forest was in 1993, but in 15 years he guided the soccer team to eight Midwest Conference crowns. Success didn’t come solely on the pitch however, as the hockey team won the 1986-87 American College Hockey Association national title. The Forester hockey team also made the 1991 NCAA tournament, but fell in the quarterfinals.

Lake Forest landed its current spot in the NCHA prior to the 1992-93 season as it replaced Mankato State who had just made the jump to the WCHA. It was a natural fit.

“We had been playing as an independent all but two years. We were in with Notre Dame, Kent State and Michigan-Dearborn. We won it one of the years but it disbanded as Kent State went back into the CCHA and Notre Dame went back into big-time hockey.”

“We stayed independent until Mankato went to the WCHA and the NCHA needed a team,” Fritz continued. “We were invited to come in. We had a good reputation and we had been playing a lot of those teams for a long time. They knew of us and thought we would do well.”

All told, Fritz has won 339 games as head hockey coach at Lake Forest and 482 when his soccer ledger is included. With regards to the respect and admiration he has earned from his peers, however, those numbers are just the tip of the iceberg.

“I think what it comes to is respect for other people,” said Fritz. “That includes coaches, other players and the game itself. I’ve always had the highest respect for that and try to conduct myself that way. I also try to always remember that it’s a game; a tool for me to teach my players how to be a man.”

Continuing: “I hope it doesn’t sound pompous or corny, but I want my guys to be a better person having known me, having played for me or having worked for me. Somehow, that when it’s all over, win or lose, they will remember me. I’m hard on them, but I just want them to be better people.”

Simply put, “it comes down to respect. Life is just too short to be angry, be vindictive, and hold a grudge and all of that stuff. I find it’s much easier to just choose to be happy.”

Though Fritz’s grasp of the big picture is quite evident, he firmly believes athletics in particular can be used to achieve a greater goal.

“There are so many life lessons you can learn from sports. It’s the toughest classroom of all and the reason I say that is because of the high emotion that’s involved. You have to learn to control yourself under a variety of circumstances.”

Perhaps Fritz could be described as the consummate life teacher, as St. Norbert’s Coghlin explains:

“Over the years I’ve been able to get to know him on a personal level as well as a professional one. I just think when guys have been around the game as long as he has been around and have the opportunity to positively impact as many young people as he has in his career you have to take your hat off to someone like that.”

“You know,” he added, “he does a lot of the things we try to tell the young men within our program to do: take care of your body, take care of yourself, stay focused, and all of those things that are important in life.”

Fritz is now in his 45th year of coaching and his 31st at Lake Forest. This season also marks the 16th — and final — season in the NCHA for the Foresters as next year they move to the MCHA.

Looking back on his time in the NCHA, Fritz did point to some rather memorable moments.

“The night I got my 300th victory,” he said.

Interestingly enough, however, that’s not the reason he finds it memorable.

“The thing is that even though it was a milestone game, it was an important game,” Fritz remembered. “It was the game we beat Stevens Point and clinched home ice for the playoffs which we hadn’t done in a long time. It was a game of significance and it was just a really joyful game.”

Another he points to is a 2006 road win over St. Norbert.

“To see the joy on the player’s faces when they realized they had the game won was just…a real thrill.”

And finally, true to form, the success of others around the league has been a notable achievement to Fritz.

“It’s been amazing to see the strength of the league every year. Most years two of our teams are in the top five or six at the end of the season. It’s pretty amazing when you see how many championships have come out of here. It’s been fun to be part of something that prestigious and that successful.”

As mentioned, this is the final season in the NCHA for the Foresters, but the NCHA’s loss is the MCHA’s gain. Though Fritz and his Foresters will be gone from the NCHA they will not have gone far, and largely due to Fritz himself they will most certainly not be forgotten by NCHA administrators, coaches, players and fans alike.

Perhaps the Foresters will make some noise in the league this season, but whether they do or not, matters little when compared to the indelible mark they have left on innumerable people around the league.

A mark, perhaps, best expressed by Coghlin:

“I have a two and a half year-old son at home and I hope that when he is old enough to play there are coaches around that have the personal integrity, professionalism, attitude and approach that coach Fritz does. I would love to have my son play for a man like Tony Fritz.”