If you’re only going to win one game in the season, all players involved would prefer it be this one. And White Bear Lake was losing it.
Two third-period goals by the Pioneers had Hill-Murray leading 2-1 late in the mid-December contest, yet panic was nowhere to be found on the Bears’ bench.
“Our bench was pretty calm,” White Bear Lake coach Tim Sager recalled. “It was steady as she’ll go, ‘Keep working, keep grinding.’ ”
Eventually, the thought is, the Bears will succeed — as they did that night.
Senior winger Sam Newpower tied the game with 16 seconds to play in regulation, then Billy Rose netted the game-winner in overtime.
“If we just keep grinding, keep our nose down, keep going, we always know we’ll find our way in the end,” Newpower said. “That’s kind of what happened in the end.”
Coaches preach that type of mentality, but not every team has the poise and confidence to bring it to fruition. Armed with 12 seniors and a championship pedigree, these Bears (9-1-1) — currently ranked No. 1 in the state by Let’s Play Hockey — White Bear Lake was built for moments like that, and seasons like this.
White Bear Lake won the Class 2A Bantam state title in 2017, a monumental achievement in the youth hockey realm, and usually a sign of things to come. The coach of that team, Sean Padden — a varsity assistant coach — told Sager he was about to receive a crew of talented players who loved to compete.
When those kids were sophomores, Sager tossed them into action. Many of them played on varsity and were part of the Bears’ penalty-killing and power-play units. “They got thrown into the fire, not even the frying pan, right away,” Sager said.
And they responded.
“There’s something in that group that can’t be taught. They compete all the time. They’re not afraid to compete,” Sager said. “And that’s why I think a lot of them jumped right in. They weren’t afraid to compete. They may not have been big enough and strong enough right away, but now they are.”
As seniors, those guys have muscles and “whiskers on their chins,” their coach noted. Pair that with a wealth of experience from the past couple of seasons and the Bears are ready to roar.
Newpower remembers watching the varsity team play when he was little. His primary takeaway: “It just looked so fast.” It didn’t slow down too much when he skated as a sophomore.
“But you’ve just got to tell yourself to slow the game down to your speed,” he said. “(That season) helped me a lot, because last year, and going into this year, I feel way better, way more calm, and know what to do and what to expect.”
That’s the case for all of the seniors. Sager noted they know the system like the backs of their hands. He said it’s like having 12 assistant coaches out on the ice. And they know each other, too. Senior goalie Tyler Steffens said when you see a hockey player around town, 90 percent of the time he’ll be accompanied by another.
“We’re always with each other, we’re always good in the locker room,” Steffens said. “We don’t ever fight. There aren’t really any cliques or anything. We all get along really well.”
That doesn’t mean they aren’t willing to get at one another on the ice. Padden said he has coached teams that may have been “too nice” to one another in practice. Not this group.
“Out here, it’s a battle. They’re competing all the time because they want to raise their game and raise that bar,” Padden said. “And then the whistle blows and practice is over, and then they’re thick as thieves in the locker room.”
That commitment to one another has developed a resilience the team can hang its hat on. Early in the year, White Bear Lake’s roster was ravaged by illness. Nowhere near 100 percent, the Bears managed to stay unbeaten through their first nine games.
Stunned by Irondale last week for their first loss of the year last week, they responded quickly with a win over Forest Lake.
“It’s a group that doesn’t make any excuses, no matter what it is,” Sager said. “They’re accountable to themselves, and to their teammates.”
Newpower said winning the Bantam state title three years ago was a nice “feather in the cap” for players on that team, but they’ve since been told that doesn’t matter now. “Because it’s over,” he said. “This is a whole new setting. It’s a lot to expect, it’s a big jump from bantams to here.”
White Bear Lake got back to state last season for the first time since 2011 before it was bounced in the quarterfinals, but this has long been the season this year’s seniors have had circled.
“I’ve been looking forward to it ever since that bantam season ended,” Steffens said. “I just always thought this was going to be our best shot at maybe seeing another title or something again.”
It’s certainly within the realm of possibility, though Newpower noted White Bear Lake isn’t looking that far ahead. The Bears are currently focused on taking everything as it comes, one day at a time, knowing they’re prepared for whatever it is.
“They’ve been in every situation. … And every year it seems like you can’t recreate those situations. They have to play out. And they’re not afraid of them,” Sager said. “Our recipe has been very successful, and they know that if they push themselves to perfect the systems and what we’re doing, they’re going to be right there at the very end.”