Head Coach Curt Giles emerges from his team’s locker room, slowly crosses the hallway and leans back against the wall. By the somber look on his face, you can’t tell if his team had just won or lost by a score of 6-1.
But, stoic exterior aside, the former Minnesota North Star defenseman is feeling pretty good about his squad a month away from the state tournament.
“The kids are playing well,” says Giles. “They’re working hard and you know what? That’s all you can ask of them.”
You couldn’t have blamed the Edina Hornets for being sluggish. The trip from the southwest metro to White Bear Lake had been complicated by freezing rain covered by six inches of freshly fallen snow, turning the team's bus trip into a two-plus hour excursion.
Heading into the game the Bears were unbeaten on their home ice at the Vadnais Heights Sports Center this season, but Giles was confident his team would be up to the task.
“We’re looking for a team effort more than anything, in all aspects of the game,” says Giles. “We expect our defensemen to move the puck up to the forwards, get the forwards moving... a quick, fast game. And the game’s made with sped and the game’s made with contact a little bit, but most of the game is speed now, so we look for a speed game.”
Read more McNiff's Riffs here: https://www.kare11.com/mcniffsriffs
They clearly found it against the 7th ranked Bears. The Hornets, ranked #1 in Class AA, are arguably the state’s highest profile program in the premier prep sport. And Giles, in his 20th year as head coach says, the job is everything you would expect it to be and more.
“Love it, it’s been great. It’s been great from the start, good kids, they work extremely hard,” says Giles. “Anything we ask they do and they’re respectful and a hard-working bunch of kids and I couldn’t be in a better spot.”
It wasn’t always that way. At one point, Giles, who coached for six years in Edina’s youth hockey association before getting the high school job, had to survive a petition to remove him as the Hornets head coach.
“It’s not about me,” says Giles. “It’s not about anybody else. It’s all about these kids who go through the program. They work extremely hard from when they’re squirts to when they’re pee-wees to when they’re bantams. They work extremely hard in the youth program to get an opportunity to play high school hockey.“
To even get that opportunity players must survive perhaps the most daunting tryout process in the state. If there is a downside to being the head coach at the state’s legacy program, for Giles it’s definitely telling a high school boy his dream of suiting up for the Hornets is not going to happen.
“There’s no question about it. They’re all really good kids and they’re all good players, so it makes for tough decisions." says Giles. "We probably have 85 to 90 kids try out and we pick 40. So we have to go through the process and we individually sit down with each and every one of those kids and have a discussion with them. It’s an Individual thing and it’s important, so we make sure that we sit down and talk to them.”
For the kids that do make the team the destination is St. Paul and the state high school hockey tournament.
Legendary coach Willard Ikola, in his trademark houndstooth hat, guided the Hornets to eight state titles.
Under Giles, the Hornets won three state championship in five years, but have since gone five years without hoisting the hardware. Still, if Giles is feeling any pressure he doesn’t show it.
“Edina has created a real great history and a great place to play hockey. I mean, there are a lot of proud kids here, a lot of proud families here. We’re a proud community. All I want them to be recognized for is these kids are working hard, they’re learning something and they’re playing at a high level.”
Four Hornets have already committed to Division I programs and three headed for the University of Minnesota. But. If you’re expecting Giles to demand year-round devotion to the program, or even year-round hockey, think again.
“We promote these kids playing other sports. It’s important that they play other sports. Hockey is a great sport, obviously I love it and it’s been a part of my life the whole time, but I played different sports, too," says Giles. "You know, we’ve had kids who’ve played in band, played different instruments... we just want them to enjoy the school atmosphere. And their parents should sit back and relax because they’re good kids, they’re skilled kids, they do a nice job, and it goes by in a hurry.”
Giles played two stints for the North Stars in an NHL career that spanned 16 seasons. The absolute master of the hip check, Giles became a hockey legend when he had part of his left ring finger amputated so he could play in the 1986 NHL playoffs. When asked if his players were aware of any of this Giles just laughs.
“We don’t talk about that,” says Giles. “They talk about Ovechkin, they talk about Parise, they talk about Suter, McKinnon and all those guys so it’s been really fun to watch. It’s fun to watch these kids, how much they love the game, how much they enjoy the game and you know? This game is a lot of fun."
So much fun that win or lose, Giles has no intention of stepping aside anytime soon.
“What else are you going to do in the middle of winter when the snow’s flying? You might as well drive on a bus for four hours to White Bear Lake to coach a hockey game, so why not?" says Giles, “There’s nothing else I’d rather be doing.”
More McNiff's Riffs