VICTORIA, Minn. — Coaching knowledge and tactics are commonly passed down from one generation to the next. A coach working with youth hockey players or a high school team or on the college level incorporates things they learned from their time as a player, and what the previous person with the whistle and the whiteboard taught.
For Erik Westrum, the former Minnesota Gopher and Minnesota Wild player recently named the new boys hockey head coach at Holy Family Catholic, there is plenty of inherited coaching knowledge to pick from when he puts together a practice plan or devises a forecheck to counter an opponent.
As a high schooler at Apple Valley, the combo of Larry Hendrickson and Erik’s father, Pat, led the Eagles to the 1996 state title (which included Erik's hat trick in that renowned five-overtime marathon win over Duluth East). Recruited to the U of M (where his father played in the late 1960s), Erik played first for Doug Woog and then for Don Lucia.
Playing at the international level and as a professional (Westrum played 27 games in the NHL and spent parts of five seasons playing professionally in Switzerland), he worked under men like Peter Laviolette, Paul Maurice, Jacques Lemaire, John Harrington, Kevin Constantine and Rob Daum.
On the ice at practice and behind the bench during games, Westrum admits he uses things he learned from all of them.
“As you dig into it a little deeper, there’s the tactical stuff that I learned from Larry (Hendrickson) and my dad and how they operated a kind of free-flow game,” said Westrum, who is 41 and lives in Prior Lake with his family. “Playing for Peter Laviolette, his biggest thing was he made you feel like you were the most important player on the team. So from a sports psychology standpoint and a team building standpoint, that taught me a lot. In between them, there was Wooger and Don (Lucia) and others who brought it all together.”
While coaching the Fire, who play at the Class AA level, will be a new challenge, Westrum has cut his teeth in the Class A high school ranks for the past five years, as head coach of the Richfield/Southwest Christian co-op program. He was named the Section 2A Coach of the Year in 2020. Not long ago, Westrum started looking at Holy Family as a potential school for his children.
With the Fire looking for a coach, friends encouraged Westrum to apply, and he landed the job in early May. The Fire went 11-5-1 last season, falling to eventual state champion Eden Prairie in their section playoffs.
“I couldn’t be more excited to welcome Erik and his family into the Holy Family community,” said Nick Tibesar, the Holy Family activities director, in a statement released by the school. “His experience playing and teaching the game at an extremely high level brings tremendous value to our hockey program, making him an ideal fit to lead our program into the future. However, what really sets him apart is his commitment to developing young men and helping them grow in character and in faith. Those traits will be truly invaluable to the program, school, and community moving forward.”
With 11 seniors departing last season’s team, it is an opportunity for Westrum to build the program around his tactics and system.
“That’s actually not a bad thing for a program when a new coach comes in,” Westrum said of the roster turnover. “You have that fresh foundation, with a couple kids returning and a couple kids put into a leadership role, but at the same time there are a lot of kids who want to come and to build things. The way I operate as a coach is it’s all about development and building each individual kid and finding their potential.”
As a Gopher, Westrum was also well-known for building his body, and for playing with some bite to his game.
“He played on the edge. Give Erik credit, when the puck dropped and the game started, he was a warrior and really good,” Lucia said. “To his credit, he’s really grown up, he’s a great family man, and that’s nice to see. Erik has been involved in hockey and in training kids for a number of years. He’ll do a good job there.”
Lucia recalls Westrum essentially living in the weight room when he wasn’t on the ice for the Gophers. While some hockey people quickly get out of shape when they are done playing, Westrum is not one of them. When he has to challenge his players and make them skate in practice, he offers them an opportunity to cut the grueling “Herbies” short.
“I work out with the team and during the season, I put my full gear on for practice,” Westrum said. “The only time we’ll bag skate is if they disrespect the rink, the locker room or the school, and then I skate with them. And I say if someone can beat me doing Herbies, we’re done. Usually I can get to three or four before someone’s had enough and will beat me.”
As members of the Wright County Conference, the Fire have been competitive on the rink despite being a relatively new school. Located in Victoria, Minn., Holy Family opened in 2000 and has proven to be a popular destination for up-and-coming hockey players. Under former coach Noel Rahn, the Fire played in three consecutive section title games, in 2017, 2018 and 2019, suffering a one-goal loss each time.