For the first time in 37 years, the high school hockey season will not include a team wearing the black and gold representing the Como Park Cougars.
While the local hockey community comes to terms with this new reality, the boys at Como Park Senior High School who play hockey are participating in a cooperative program with Johnson High School. The merger of these two rivals has changed the landscape of city hockey once again.
During the 2015-16 season the Como Park Cougars hosted a varsity and a junior varsity team that included about 20 students from Como and another eight from Central. That cooperative partnership with Como serving as the host school had been in effect since 2006.
Highland Park hockey players also opted into Como’s program for a few years before resurrecting their own program in 2010. With declining numbers on the Como roster entering this season, a decision was made in late October to have the Como boys partner with Johnson and the Central skaters join Highland.
Three fully operational boys hockey programs in St. Paul Public Schools (SPPS) are no longer sustainable. Ask around and you’ll get the same answers: There aren’t as many kids playing youth hockey in the city these days. The city and school district’s demographics are changing. Hockey has become a year-round sport that requires significant resources to secure ice time.
Shifts in population, participation and reorganization of school buildings and teams aren’t unique to the present. There has been considerable change since Murray High School and Johnson both qualified for the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament in 1963.
Washington High School was also a hockey powerhouse in the 1950s and was the state runner-up in 1960. Washington and Murray rivalries were part of the ultra-competitive 10-team St. Paul City Conference that flourished for decades.
Then they merged to become Como Park Senior High School in 1979. Murray and Washington converted to junior high schools.
Those early days of Como hockey at the new high school brought together former foes from the northwest quadrant of the city. From St. Anthony Park to the North End, new relationships were formed, traditions were carried onward, and continuity in the coaching was a blessing that created a common culture.
SPPS school board director John Brodrick was Como’s first hockey coach and founding father. Along with teaching social studies in St. Paul, Brodrick had previously coached varsity hockey at Mechanic Arts and Washington before leading the Como Cougars for 18 seasons.
Coach Brodrick’s leadership at Como helped create lifelong friendships in the community. While putting competitive teams on the ice was always a team goal the Cougars worked to achieve, having fun was Brodrick’s motto.
He made sure the team knew it and helped.
“During the season, if I forgot that we were supposed to be having fun, the players were allowed to remind me. That’s what I tried to do. The bottom line is what we’re supposed to get out of athletics is fun, and then the ability to be a team and cooperate,” said Brodrick.
Brodrick’s players still get together at alumni games. The large reunions provide evidence of the tight bonds that exist in the community centered around the fun of the game. Como hockey alumni also frequently cross paths as they play pick-up games, watch their own kids and nephews play, and even coach them.
There are also Como hockey reunions anytime the Paitich family gathers.
Neil Paitich was Brodrick’s longtime assistant coach who was the obvious choice to take over the reins in 1997, when Brodrick stepped down. Neil played at Washington and his brothers, Dean and John, played for Brodrick, who were described as “outstanding” by their former coach.
The sons and nephews of the Paitich boys all developed into the next generation of leaders for the Cougars. In total, 11 from the extended family played at Como during the 1990s and 2000s, and Coach Paitich was honored to coach them all.
Overall, there were typically about 30 to 35 players per season, enough to keep a junior varsity and varsity running with a little creativity. Coach Paitich led the program for 13 years up until 2010.
Consistent philosophy and themes emerge when Coach Paitich discusses the tradition of Como Hockey.
“We worked hard and raised funds to get the kids fun experiences. If you’re not in it for the kids, then what’s the point?” said Paitich.
Dave Zschokke was a captain for Paitich and a four-year varsity skater at Como. “We had kids that worked hard and had a lot of fun,” said Zschokke. He went on to explain that it was common for alumni to come back and skate with the team, welcomed with a warm motto: “Once a Cougar, always a Cougar”
The motto was coined by the legendary Rod Magnuson, who connected both Como coaches and multiple generations of hockey players in the area. A high school star at Murray who graduated in 1953, a hockey and baseball stand-out at the U of M, and an art teacher in St. Paul, Magnuson served as a volunteer assistant to both Brodrick and Paitich, giving back to his community and educating hundreds of hockey players about the game— and life.
Ryan Paitich (class of 2001) played for his dad, Neil, at Como, on teams that were assisted by Magnuson. Ryan remembers Magnuson’s influence, emphasizing his urging to represent the name on the front of the jersey by giving 110 percent when the puck drops.
Ryan is now the head coach of the St. Paul Blades, which is the cooperative team for girls’ hockey in the city. He’s grateful for the opportunity to share what he’s learned and help foster growth of the game across gender lines.
The Como boys’ last six years of hockey were coached by Dave Bakken, who quickly learned to appreciate the pride his players felt playing for Como. While numbers remained a challenge, he saw a work ethic and joy in playing the game that he hadn’t witnessed at previous coaching stops.
Ian Tully was Como’s leading scorer during his junior and senior seasons and a captain on Bakken’s 2015-16 team.
“I took away more than just better hockey skills,” Tully said of his experience on the team. “The coaching staff, my friends and the adults involved pushed me to be the best individual I could on and off the ice.”
Murray, Washington, Central, Como and others—the number of St. Paul teams has dropped because there aren’t enough players to field a team. Gone are the days when every high school had its team.
This season, some of the high school players in the city are sporting a different jersey than they did last season. Como boys will be teammates with their former rivals at Johnson.
Yet some things remain constant. The kids still play a game they love with the support of the city and its schools.
They’re having fun, cooperating as teammates and building relationships on the ice that will carry over into the community and help build character for the rest of their lives.
Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park Senior High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul.