The Northland Pines boys hockey team and first-year head coach Patrick Schmidt opened practice for the 2022-’23 season recently. With two weeks of practice and a scrimmage with Great Northern Conference (GNC) opponent Antigo under their belt, the team heads into the regular season this week.

Schmidt takes the head job after coaching the Pines girls hockey team from 2010 until he stepped down after the 2020-’21 season. He replaces Dave Cox who prior to stepping down last season had coached the Pines squad to many successful seasons from 1990-’97, advancing to State quarterfinals in 1994.

Cox most recently coached the Eagles the past six seasons, leading them to a runner-up State finish inside Division 2 in 2020.

Schmidt said he really missed coaching, and his return is going well so far.

“I’m extremely happy to be back. I think it’s part of giving back to a sport that’s given me quite a bit in my life,” he said. “The one thing about hockey is it teaches so many quality life lessons about having a ‘hard work’ ethic, perseverance and being part of a team, yet still having to develop yourself.”

The Eagles dropped 18 of 22 games last season and finished in last place in the GNC. They lost leading scorer Matt Szafranski to graduation, but welcome back six seniors which means according to Schmidt there is work to be done.

“We’ve moved some people around into positions I think they’re going to excel at,” said Schmidt. “From what we’ve seen in practice it looks very promising. I think there is more confidence going into this year than we initially felt.”

Schmidt said with a new season and new head coach there is expected to be some adjusting from both players and staff. But so far that transition has been a smooth one which Schmidt attributes to his players ability and maturity, especially.

“Most of the kids have had the same coaching staff for a long time, so for us to come in and for them to accept us and trust us in what we’re doing shows a lot of maturity on their part,” said Schmidt.

Schmidt said first and foremost, the challenge of replacing starting goalie Eli Kerner, who started as a freshman last season but broke his foot while playing football this fall, takes center stage.

“The preliminary report was that Eli would miss the hockey season, so we went and found Dominic Dahlquist who used to play youth hockey but was never a goalie,” said Schmidt. “He’s been training for the last month to step into that role and actually it’s going very, very well.”

Schmidt said part of what has assisted in bringing Dalhquist up to speed has been the addition of goalies coach Graydon Skok.

“He was an assistant coach at Eau Claire Memorial last year,” said Schmidt. “He moved here, got a job and jumped on board our program.”

Another familiar face next to Schmidt will be Darren Rubo, who worked with Schmidt as an assistant coach for Pines girls hockey.

“He is taking time to help when he can this season,” said Schmidt. “Darren and I definitely hold the same values and vision for the program. I value his experience and opinions.”

As a coaching staff Schmidt said he recognizes the role he and his assistants serve not just from an on-ice standpoint, but also in preparing his team for other aspects of life.

“And one of our positions is that we need to prepare these kids for the real world and do our part to make sure they’re ready,” he said.

Schmidt said he holds to the philosophy that it’s not where you start but it’s where you finish.

“We don’t want to set our expectations too high right off the bat,” said Schmidt. “We want our kids to try different things we’re practicing. So, we expect failure in spots. But we also expect to learn from that failure and get better because that’s how most people learn.”

After accepting the job last year, Schmidt made a couple of bold statements. One is that two seasons from now the Eagles would once again challenge for the conference title. The other is they would be a State championship contender.

“We have some development to do, but we also know what’s down below (in the youth program),” he said. “We know what is going on in the conference because you get to see those programs at the youth level.

“Hands down, without a doubt, with so many kids in our program and the quality of the coaches, it’s going to be exciting to see what’s coming up in Eagle River hockey.”

The Eagles traveled to Antigo for their first scrimmage on Tuesday of last week where Schmidt and his team got their first taste of competition.

“They were moving very well. We had puck possession quite a bit of the time,” said Schmidt. “We outshot them in the second half of the scrimmage. We were pleased with how things turned out.”

Schmidt said in his first real game action Dahlquist let a couple soft goals go by, but was pleased in what was his first time in goal in a game situation.

“I’m fine with that in a scrimmage (overall),” he said. “There were mistakes that he’ll fix in the future.”

The Northland Pines boys hockey team was scheduled to open the new season Tuesday, Nov. 22 in a nonconference game at D.C. Everest High School in Schofield. Following that the team will head to Stevens Point Pacelli, next Tuesday.

Road games then against Waupaca and another in Waupun will chase the team into December where they will open their home schedule Dec. 6 against Shawano. Game time at the Dome is set for 7 p.m.