MINNEAPOLIS — Waking through the heart of Beijing, China, at the height of the annual Chinese New Year celebrations earlier this year, Whitney Colbert didn’t feel the crush of humanity for which this country, home to 1.4 billion people, is famous.
That was her first inkling that the coronavirus was a big deal.
“Streets are typically packed and it’s shoulder to shoulder, and (instead) there really wasn’t anyone there,” said Colbert, who was named the new girls’ hockey coach at The Blake School in Minneapolis this week. “The virus had just come out and it was pretty quiet there.”
Originally from Upstate New York, Colbert took a long and winding road, first to Minnesota and then to China, where she spent most of January, as part of her work as an assistant coach with the Chinese women’s national team.
Whenever high school sports return to some kind of normalcy in Minnesota, Colbert will embark on her first head coaching job with the Bears, and will bring a wealth of hockey experience to the gig. All the way back to her days at a high schooler at the Berkshire School in western Massachusetts, Colbert would spend summers working as an intern for Cornell University’s renowned men’s program in her hometown of Ithaca, N.Y.
As a player at Trinity College in Connecticut, she had Blake alumni as teammates. As an assistant coach both at Connecticut College and Union College, she recruited Blake players. So even though the stay-at-home orders have prevented her from being at the school and at the Bears’ rink since getting the job, Colbert brings a familiarity to the challenge of coaching Minnesota high school hockey.
“It’s one of the premiere programs in Minnesota and I’m fortunate to be a part of it. I like going into a program where there are high expectations,” said Colbert, who said she likes players with the confidence to carry the puck, and the knowledge to know when to pass it off. “I’m definitely more of a possession-type coach. It’s really hard to possess the puck and it’s even harder to go win it back when you don’t have it. So I want to create offensive opportunities off the rush, play fast and play with confidence.”
Blake athletic director Nick Rathmann started making phone calls about the job in early March, not long after former Bears coach Shawn Reid stepped down from the position. With schools and sports shut down as of March 12, the task of hiring a new coach became a notable challenge. But Rathmann did interviews via teleconference, hiring Colbert without meeting her face-to-face, and without Colbert getting to visit the school or the arena.
“When you get hired, the first thing you want to do is get to work. Right now she can’t get to anything but virtual work,” Rathman said. “It’s a different time and everyone is in the same boat, so I’m sure she’ll pick up Blake really well.”
After extensive experience with USA Hockey, Colbert first moved to Minnesota in September 2019 to work with the Chinese team, which trains at the St. Louis Park Rec Center. There she found that the language barrier was an obstacle to be cleared.
“It was very challenging for me to communicate with them because there were just a couple that spoke English, so I had to really learn to simplify what I was saying,” said Colbert, who will continue working with the Chinese team when travel restrictions are lifted and they can return to the United States. “It helped me as a coach to break down those skills and the importance of demonstrating rather than just speaking. I learned a few different ways to coach players which has been super valuable.”
Rathmann also hired former Gopher and current Minnesota Whitecaps defender Kelsey Cline as an assistant head coach, with Cline ready to run the show for the Bears when Colbert travels with Team China.
“To have Whitney and Kelsey as our coaches, the girls can have good role models and see themselves in someone else,” Rathmann said. “The Xs and Os and the hockey is really great, but the mentorship is just as important as well.”