By Mick Hatten
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Steve Macdonald did not start out as a coach with a long-term goal of being a head coach.
Macdonald has spent the last five seasons as an assistant coach for the St. Cloud State University women’s hockey team and spent three seasons before that as an assistant coach for the University of Minnesota Duluth women’s hockey team.
But as his career has progressed, it sounds like the desire to be a head coach began to increase.
“Most coaches go through a natural progression of learning the game, learning themselves and learning where they fit in certain programs and in the coaching community,” Macdonald said. “You grow to wanting to run a program one day to instill a lot of your beliefs and a lot of your values and work with players on a different level.
“It’s something you definitely think about. I remember thinking about this (first) about 10 years ago. ‘That would fun one day and a great opportunity, so you start working toward it.’ ”
Macdonald, 39, is getting that opportunity. He was named the St. Cloud State head women’s hockey coach on Friday, June 21, at a press conference at the Husky Den at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
Macdonald replaces Eric Rud, who was the Huskies’ head coach for the past five seasons and hired him to be one of his assistant coaches. Rud, 46, left St. Cloud State after leading the Huskies to a 48-114-16 record in his tenure. St. Cloud State was 10-25-2 in 2019-20, which included going 5-19-0 in the WCHA and finishing last in the seven-team conference.
Going with internal candidate
St. Cloud State athletic director Heather Weems said that the university had “15-20” candidates for the job and then narrowed it down to four people, who were interviewed on campus for the position. She would not name any of the other finalists.
So why go with an internal candidate?
“We get some continuity, but with the opportunity to advance some things,” Weems said. “As I talked to the young women (on the team), the part that I love is that they really feel like they’re poised and got the talent in the locker room and have the pieces coming together. I think we need to increase expectations, we need to increase confidence and we need to make sure that we’re communicating with them. Steve has the ability to do that.”
Macdonald has not been a head coach for a program since he was the director of hockey and head coach for the Balmoral Hall School for Girls hockey team in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2010-11. The Huskies had their best season under Rud in 2015-16 when they finished fifth in the WCHA and 13-18-4 overall.
St. Cloud State’s best finish in the WCHA was third in 2009-10, the last season the team finished with an overall record above .500 (15-14-8) and that was when Jeff Giesen was the head coach. The Huskies have had two other seasons (18-15-5 in 2007-08 under Giesen, 17-16-2 under Kerry Brodt Wethington in 2000-01) since the program started in 1998.
So what is it about Macdonald that convinced Weems that he could help the program improve?
“What I’ve seen in the last five years that our play and our talent has increased,” Weems said of the team, which lost eight games by one goal last season. “I think last year, we had a bit of a hiccup and had a lot of one-goal games (13) that could have gone either way. What I’ve seen over the last five years, I really like the trajectory of where we’re going.
“We know that women’s hockey in Minnesota is heavily recruited by eastern schools and in the (Midwest), so we know that we have to continue to be present and get some diamonds in the rough. Minnesota and Wisconsin, historically, take the top level of talent and the eastern schools and Ivy League schools are recruiting heavily in the state.
“We’ve got to continue to be competitive there, but that’s where the recruiting piece that Steve brings with the international recruiting and his connections in western Canada — really are helpful to us and are connections that we need.”
Last season, St. Cloud State had two players from Finland (forwards Jennina Nylund and Suvi Ollikainen), one from Switzerland (goalie Janine Alder), one from Germany (forward Laura Kluge) and two from Canada (forward Kayla Friesen and defenseman Abby Thiessen), 10 players from Minnesota, three from Michigan, three from Wisconsin, two from Illinois and one each from Nebraska, California, North Dakota and South Dakota on its 28-player roster.
Alder and goalie Emma Polusny (Mound, Minn.) represent the two highest-profile players on the team. Alder has been on the last two Swiss teams that played in the Winter Olympics. Polusny was on the Team USA roster for the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championships.
Macdonald helped recruit Polusny when she was in high school.
“Steve was on the bench when I was in high school for a weekend (offseason) tournament and he’s got an energy to him and you know that’s a great person and you want to have a coach like that,” Polusny said. “He’s going to give you the respect you want as a player. He’s got really great relationships with people from all over the world and I’ve got a roommate from Germany and she was recruited by him, too.
“He’s able to connect with people no matter where they are in a way that a lot of people aren’t able to.”
The Huskies have four players signed to national letters of intent to play for them this fall in Olivia Cvar (Gimli, Manitoba), Courtney Hall (South Lyon, Mich.), Claire Hickey (Dyer, Ind.) and Klara Hymlarova (Opava, Czech Republic). Hymlarova, 20, played for the Czech national team that reached the quarterfinals of the 2019 IIHF Women’s World Championships.
“We’re extremely excited about that group,” Macdonald said. “We have international experience, some age with that experience and some offensive talent and really good all-around players coming in.”
Macdonald said he anticipates announcing in the coming weeks that two more players have signed national letters of intent to play for the Huskies this fall.
The University of Wisconsin defeated the University of Minnesota for the 2019 NCAA Division I women’s championship. Since 2001, Wisconsin has won five national titles and played in three other national championship games and Minnesota has won six national titles and played in three other national championship games.
Those are the two powers of the WCHA. So is Macdonald expected to challenge the Badgers and Gophers for the national title?
“You’ve got your Minnesotas and Wisconsins and, when I look at expectations, where I want to be is in that middle part of the WCHA,” Weems said. “If you’re in that middle part of the WCHA, once you get to the playoffs, anybody can win on any given day. My goal is to be in the WCHA tournament pretty consistently.”
Weems and Macdonald said that St. Cloud State assistant coach Jinelle Siergiej, a former Olympian and All-American at Wisconsin, will return as one of Macdonald’s assistant coaches. Weems said that the university has begun a search for an assistant coach to replace Macdonald.