By Eric Erickson,
For eight students who spend their days learning at Como Park High School, their after-school athletic education continues across town at Johnson High School.
Como’s hockey boys include seniors Steven Rein, Adam Gaudio, Jack Wagner, Max Nathanson, Ollie Hanson and Sam Boyt, junior Matthew Corniea, and freshman Elijah Towle.
They are part of the Johnson Governors cooperative program that has 20 players in total. With those numbers, Johnson is only running a varsity team. Some upperclassmen have been skating since they could stand, while others are in their first year of competitive hockey.
The unique mixture of experience, age, skill and schools blend seamlessly into a tight-knit squad. The team knows they need every single contribution to stay on the ice and play games. Each individual is part of the family — a band of brothers who are proud to carry on the tradition of representing St. Paul in high school hockey.
The declining participation rate for hockey in city schools has been chronicled before. Como’s program dissolved after the 2016 season. Demographic changes over decades have reduced St. Paul teams down to two boys cooperative programs, and Minneapolis to just one.
Despite the challenges, legendary Johnson coach Steve “Moose” Younghans works tirelessly to produce fun, first-class experiences for his teams, regardless of their size and talent. The current players know and appreciate how much their coach and the community support them.
“There’s a lot of pride. We can see it and feel it when people turn out for our fundraisers and at games. It means a lot,” Hanson said.
“We get to do special things like he’s taken us to Wild games. We went to the Winter Classic as a team last year at Target Field,” Wagner said.
Asked about attending one school and playing for another, the Como boys all agree that it’s no big deal.
“It’s normal,” Corniea said. “We all hang out and we’ve become really close starting with our workouts and camp in the summer.”
Beyond the bonding, special events and training led by the coaching staff, the team chooses to hang out on their own. They spent New Year’s Eve skating on the outdoor rink at North Dale Rec Center before eating and playing video games at the home of a teammate.
Another form of team bonding occurs on the long bus trips that the boys frequently find themselves taking. Playing as an independent team without a conference, the Governors go to many corners of the state and beyond to find competition.
In mid-January, the team traveled to the Northwest Angle where they stayed for the weekend. They played International Falls one day and Lake of the Woods the next day with ice fishing in between.
Other significant road trips include Ely up north, La Crescent down south, plus Amery and Spooner over in Wisconsin. Bus rides to those locations and others involve quality conversations, laughs, movies, sleep and homework.
“We definitely have plenty of bus time together,” Corniea said with a smile.
As for suburban opponents, matchups against schools such as Bloomington Jefferson, Hopkins, Simley and Two Rivers have been tough but the commitment to compete and improve never wavers.
Against the other remaining city rival Highland Park (who co-ops with Central) Johnson lost a close 2-0 game.
The results from this year are not the story. The Governors have experienced victory, but even when enduring a long losing streak, there is joy. Kids are playing a game they love, and they’re playing it while still attending their neighborhood school. And the neighborhood is where the skating first happened.
Five of the Como seniors learned to skate at Langford Park and played on the rec center’s team as squirts (under 10 team). Two others who grew up in the Midway neighborhood played squirts for Edgecumbe Rec Center. They remember playing against each other.
Outside. Seeing their breath. Blades cutting through the ice. The simple sound of stick meeting puck.
Across town on the East Side, their mutual opponents invoked the same senses on the Phalen rink. Eventually, these boys from the neighborhoods north of Interstate 94 ended up as high school teammates.
Coach Younghans uses the game they love as a tool for teaching. Lessons include being grateful, enjoying hard work, making the most of your opportunity and developing character.
As the Como boys explained their coach’s philosophy, “it’s about making us good people, not just good hockey players.”
That’s happening. Friends from two separate city schools have formed one resilient team that’s happy to be playing hockey. At the same time, their commitment and cooperation are creating a foundation that will serve them well in the rest of their lives.
Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park High School and a longtime coach of school and youth sports in St. Paul.