Welcome back, Cotter: High school hockey returns to a southeastern Minnesota private school
After a 40-year absence, the program offers a new place to play for kids in one corner of the State of Hockey.
WINONA, Minn. – It was a cold Tuesday night in December, and the home team had just gotten blanked 5-0. But the sounds wafting out from their open locker room door were mostly happy.
Sure, a pessimist could point out that Winona Cotter had hung on for three periods and had given up 55 shots in a loss to Simley. The optimist could note, truthfully, that it was the first time the Ramblers had lost a home game in more than 40 years.
Cotter, Winona’s private Catholic school that is more than a century old, stopped sponsoring its own hockey team in 1977, although some in the community’s small but passionate hockey crowd can still recount rivalry games between the Ramblers and Rochester Lourdes or St. Thomas Academy back in an era when private schools did not compete in the Minnesota State High School League.
For the next four decades, Cotter kids who wanted to play hockey were part of a co-op program with Winona’s public high school. When budget constraints led to talk that high school hockey might be on the chopping block, some folks at Cotter pushed for the school to have a team of its own for the first time since disco ruled the airwaves.
Which is how they found themselves at St. Mary’s University’s ice rink before an audience that was not large but could get loud on this particular Tuesday. To say that getting a team on the ice had been a challenge would be an understatement, with weather and health issues delaying their revival a few times.
When the Ramblers finally took the ice in Winona for real, looking just a little like the Tampa Bay Lightning in their sharp combo of black and blue, there were a dozen players, total, in uniform. One of them was the backup goalie. And the Ramblers’ short bench got a little shorter almost immediately, courtesy of a five-minute major penalty, which meant it took 40-plus years and more than 12 minutes for Cotter to register a shot on goal in a home game.
After the final horn and a round of handshakes, it was clear that none of those details mattered among the 12 tired but happy boys filing out of the locker room.
“We saw a lot of good things coming, people having fun, enjoying it more, seeing the ice and developing as we go,” said Ramblers captain Ashur Rouleau, a defenseman, and the team’s lone senior. “It was definitely nice to get on the ice after mother nature and COVID holding us back, so it felt really good. We’ve been waiting for this. We’re just happy to be playing.”
Even in the era of open enrollment, public school team rosters are usually dominated by kids from the home community, while private schools draw from a larger geographic footprint. That is true of the Ramblers, both on the roster and the coaching staff. Assistant coach Bob Anacabe is from Warroad, where he was a member of two state title teams. Head coach Marty Raymond is originally from Quebec, and coached pro hockey in Arizona and California before his wife, missing the change of seasons, took an accounting job just down the river in LaCrosse, Wis.
There are two Cotter players from Slovakia, including hulking sophomore goalie Josef Zilinec, who used his 6-foot-6 frame wisely and often versus Simley, stopping 50 Spartans shots.
“The best place for him to be is here,” Raymond said of his goalie. “If you see 50 shots a game, you’re going to get better quick.”
“Quick” is not a word often heard among the Cotter folks in year one of their re-introduction to high school hockey in a state where this sport is everything. The roster is small, and several factors can make it smaller over the course of a season. Due to positive COVID tests, Raymond took just nine players to the Ramblers’ first game of the season, a 9-1 loss to Waconia in a tournament in Marshall, Minn. But they have done their homework and note a number of Winona bantams and peewees that attend Cotter, so the numbers are likely to improve.
Cotter is a school with a top-notch academic reputation and a notable history, and they have dormitories that can accommodate students from literally all over the world, so some see a day where Winona could become a prep hockey destination.
“Kids from all over the State of Hockey either get cut from other teams or they move here from other places because their parents get a job. Cotter is a very academic-heavy school and a lot of parents want their kids to get that good education and look for other avenues,” said Anacabe, who has coached peewees and bantams in the Winona youth hockey system as well. “We’ve got a bright future, it’s just we’ve got to get through two or three years where the numbers are going to be low, but we’re all staying committed.”
That commitment was reflected on the ice in home game number one. Down 2-0 early to Simley, which is ranked in the top 10 statewide, the Ramblers did not sag, just missing an open net in the first period and repeatedly pelting the Spartans’ goalie.
“They brought a lot more than I think we were even expecting. They’re coming off some COVID and some injuries. They have a big goalie who takes up a lot of the net, so it was a lot closer than the score indicated,” said Simley coach Austyn Kryzer. “They didn’t quit and played hard for 51 minutes. You can see that they’re well-coached and I think that they’re going to be a program that we’re talking about differently in a few years.”
Changing the culture
Few would argue that hockey is the “big game” in Winona, but Rouleau will point out that while the scenic bluff country of southeastern Minnesota is a long way from the Iron Range and from hockey-crazed town like Warroad and Roseau, the Ramblers are still part of the State of Hockey, and he has gotten plenty of compliments while wearing his new Cotter Hockey jacket.
“It’s always a conversation piece around town,” Rouleau said. “And at school people want to know about the team and when the next game is. It’s growing, for sure. Everyone is excited and wants the program to succeed.”
The coaches want to develop the program and also the culture in the community, to get more Winona kids interested in the game, no matter where they choose to play high school hockey, as long as that is in their town. Anacabe said they want an end to the days when a talented peewee or bantam from Winona would find their way to Rochester or to the Twin Cities to play high school hockey in a program considered more competitive.
The new Cotter hockey program has not been universally welcomed in the community, with some expressing concern that splitting the local talent among two high school programs will be bad for the region’s youth hockey. Others have opined that the Ramblers should follow the lead of Shattuck-St. Mary’s and play outside the MSHSL.
“It’s a small town and there’s always a rivalry between the public and private schools, so some people are excited and some probably not so much,” Raymond admitted. “I’m not from here so I don’t get too engulfed in that. I think the only way to go about it is to be positive with the other program and work to get everybody involved. We hope that hockey is embraced from all sides.”
In the losing locker room after that first home game, there were still laughs and jokes and the sounds of teenagers having fun, secure in the knowledge that this humble restart is just the beginning of something good.
“The scoreboard doesn’t reflect what you guys did today,” Raymond said, followed by quiet applause, and smiles as the Ramblers headed out of the rink.