When Dave Snuggerud took over the bench at Chaska High for the first time 20 years ago, it wasn’t because he was desperate to coach high school hockey. In fact, the former NHLer’s priority was that of a schoolteacher focusing on kids who needed extra help in the classroom. But the suburban Minnesota school’s program was in trouble after neighboring Chanhassen High split off into its own team. Chaska was left with a small base of students to pick from, some of whom were only junior varsity age.
“The program was down to 20 skaters,” Snuggerud said. “They asked me to coach because no one applied for the job.”
This past season, the Chaska Hawks had their best campaign ever, winning their conference for the first time and making it to the sectional semi-final before falling to perennial playoff dancers Eden Prairie. Two big reasons for the success were defenseman Mike Koster and left winger Rhett Pitlick, both of whom would go on to be drafted this summer. And both were graduates of another Snuggerud project called Breakaway Academy, a private school for grades 5-8 which combines small academic class sizes and a schedule that allows for plenty of hockey training.
The 2019 draft was a watershed for Breakaway, which opened its doors in 2013. Five Breakaway alums were selected in Vancouver: Bobby Brink (PHI, 34th overall), Jackson LaCombe (ANA, 39th), Drew Helleson (COL, 47th), Pitlick (MTL, 131st) and Koster (TOR, 146th). Also coming up the future draft pipeline are Casey Mittelstadt’s two younger brothers, John and Luke, both of whom now play for Eden Prairie.
Koster, who moved across state from Marshall to Chaska in 2010, had to convince his parents to let him attend Breakaway, as they initially said no.
“The biggest thing that sold them was the traditional classrooms,” he said. “And the three pillars are high character, education and athletics, with athletics being third. That’s why they let me go there and I became a really good person – they teach you what adversity is like.”
Academically, Koster and his cohort had real-life teachers and real-life homework. On the ice, they got a competitive philosophy designed to push them.
“We want them to think like Canadian players,” Snuggerud said. “In order to be really good, you have to practise and think differently: it’s high repetition, higher thinking and conducting yourself highly away from the rink as well as on the rink.”
While high school hockey is venerated in Minnesota, Snuggerud doesn’t want the kids at Breakaway to have tunnel vision: major junior is a perfectly viable option to consider in his mind (to that end, defenseman Clay Hanus has spent the past two seasons with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks). And Snuggerud doesn’t like the idea of kids settling for less when it comes to their dreams.
“It doesn’t matter what level you’re at as a 12-year-old,” he said. “It matters what you think when you’re confronted with failure: what do you do then, do you keep at it?”
Now here’s where it gets tricky: While Snuggerud is the director of education at Breakaway and the varsity coach at Chaska, the two schools aren’t connected. But Chaska has certainly benefited from that Breakaway pipeline: Pitlick led the Hawks in scoring this past season, while blueliner Koster was a close second. The pair both ended their seasons in the USHL once their run with Chaska finished.
Koster will play all of next season in the USHL with the Tri-City Storm before heading off the University of Minnesota after that, but he’ll never forget Chaska’s best season ever.
“We had been dreaming it since eighth grade,” he said. “That’s when we started watching them and they were struggling. Freshman and sophomore year we weren’t as good, but we knew junior and senior year was our chance to do it. We brought in the first conference championship in school history, which was pretty special. Now there’s a great young core of freshmen and sophomores coming up and hopefully they can keep it rolling.”
Maple Leafs fans should be hoping that Koster keeps things rolling at the next level himself and he has the tools to do so thanks to his hands and vision.
“Mike makes the right play every time,” Snuggerud said. “He sees things at ice level that most players don’t.”
Koster’s mobility should also be on the mend, as he has healed from a hip adductor problem that nagged him during the past season. He’s been doing mobility yoga and adding muscle to his 5-foot-9, 176 pound frame, which has already helped his first three strides. He put up solid numbers in his most recent stint with Tri-City, but also learned some valuable lessons that will help him next season.
“Everything gets bigger, faster and stronger,” he said. “I did well because I think the game fast, but this year the big takeaway was learning the defensive side of the game. Now it’s about rounding that out.”
He’ll also have a few run-ins with his buddy Pitlick, who will be playing for the USHL’s Omaha Lancers again. Maybe they can sing the Chaska fight song before the game.