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Challenges, opportunities abound as D-I era for St. Thomas hockey gets closer each day

In less than a year, the University of St. Thomas will have Division I college hockey's newest program. Between now and then they need to find a coach, explore their long-term options for a home rink, and put together a roster of players who can compete against foes like Bemidji State, Minnesota State Mankato, Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan. Those are just the latest challenges, with a pandemic still raging, facing Tommies athletic director Phil Esten.

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Athletic director Phil Esten in his office at the University of St. Thomas. Mark Brown / St. Thomas Athletics
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ST. PAUL — From his office inside the sports complex at the University of St. Thomas, athletic director Phil Esten gave a polite warning before the interview began: he would be eating his lunch while we talked. That kind of multi-tasking is pretty common these days for the person leading the Tommies’ unprecedented move from the NCAA Division III to Division I level for 22 varsity sports.

This being Minnesota in the dead of a mild winter, we would be talking hockey.

After they were tossed out of the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, where the Tommies had competed for a century (they were charter members when the MIAC was formed in 1920), the move to D-I sports was an opportunity amid the crisis, and Esten has already helped find conference homes for his teams in football (Pioneer League) women’s hockey (WCHA), men’s hockey (CCHA) and the Summit League for most other sports.

Still, there are a few outstanding questions about the Tommies’ men’s hockey program, most notably surrounding their next coach, their recruiting for the future and their home ice. Esten, 48, who played baseball for the Tommies as an undergraduate, returned to St. Thomas two years ago as their athletic director after getting administrative experience at four D-I schools: Minnesota, Ohio State, California and Penn State.

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These are busy and challenging times for most college athletic directors, navigating the challenges of the pandemic. Add the jump from D-III to D-I to everything else happening in the world of the Tommies, and the need for Esten to have some lunch while conducting an interview is understandable.

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Head coach Jeff Boeser led the Tommies men's program to a 15-10-3 record in his 10th season behind the St. Tomas bench. Liam Doyle / University of St. Thomas.

The next coaching staff

The Tommies are hiring, or will be, after Jeff Boeser announced he is hanging up the whistle at this season’s end. Esten said realistically he hopes to have a new men’s hockey coach in place by sometime in April.

There has already been much speculation about what man ( or woman ) would be right for the post. It is a highly sought-after job, with a D-I program located in the heart of one of the top three hockey metro areas (alongside Detroit and Boston) in the nation. As such, Esten’s phone has been ringing.

“The interest in the hockey position has been really fantastic, and I’m really excited about the level of the candidates that have expressed interest,” Esten said. “And I think we’re going to be able to hire somebody who steps in and can really start with a sprint, not a walk. I’m excited about where some of those who have expressed interest could potentially take the program. So the pool of candidates is very strong.”

Next season's roster

In a unique arrangement, the current St. Thomas hockey coaches are recruiting players, and have gotten a few who announced their commitment to the future D-I program. None of that is official and under NCAA rules, the school cannot talk about them until a National Letter of Intent is signed. But future Tommies are committing to a school without knowing who their coach will be, and the current staff is recruiting with no guarantee that they will be part of the program after April.

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“Coach Boeser and (assistant) coach (Nick) Bydal are respected in the hockey world and they’ve historically done a nice job of assessing talent and individuals who would be a good fit at St. Thomas, athletically and academically,” Esten said. “They’re having conversations with those that are expressing interest and they’ve got the ability to sign a couple of kids if they think they’re really difference-makers ... But we’re also holding onto a couple of scholarships for the new coach to allocate when he gets here as well.”

Esten noted that any coach coming into a new job is going to inherit at least part of a roster, so the arrangement is not all that extraordinary.

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Currently the Tommies men's and women's programs share St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights with St. Thomas Academy. The arena has permanent bench seating for around 900 and can accommodate up to 1,100 with standing room. Mark Brown / University of St. Thomas.

Home ice, now and down the road

For more than a decade, the Tommies have played home games in Mendota Heights at St. Thomas Ice Arena, adjacent to St. Thomas Academy. It is roughly 8 miles from the college campus, and has seating for around 1,000. There has been much speculation about a future facility on the St. Thomas campus, with more seats and premium seating which is an important revenue stream in modern collegiate athletics.

It has also been noted that chair of the St. Thomas Board of Trustees (Patrick Ryan) is the president and CEO for a major Twin Cities construction company (Ryan Companies US, Inc.). For now, the Tommies are staying put, but are admittedly looking around.

“We’ve got a long, positive relationship with St. Thomas Academy and that will be our home for now, while continuing to assess options for the future,” Esten said. “That’s our home for now.”

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St. Thomas Ice Arena in Mendota Heights has permanent locker room facilities for the Tommies men's and women's programs. University of St. Thomas photo.

Learning from the Lions

Penn State won the Big Ten hockey regular season title last season, less than a decade removed from being a club program. Esten was in the athletic department in State College from 2014-2018 and got to see first-hand the rapid rise of a new D-I hockey program. A new state-of-the-art arena, donated by Penn State alum and Buffalo Bills/Buffalo Sabres owner Terry Pegula, was a key component to the success.

Esten said there are lessons learned from what the Nittany Lions built and how quickly they built it.

“Obviously the facility helped a lot, the resources they had helped a lot, and Penn State’s brand helped tremendously, but I really watched coach (Guy) Gadowsky more than anything care deeply about the culture,” Esten said. “As he recruited individuals and built his team, he doubled down on and really leaned into the importance of culture, sometimes even more than talent, and I think that really carried the day for him.”

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The Tommies opened their final D-III hockey season on Jan. 30 with a 5-1 nonconference win over St. Scholastica. They will face Gustavus Adolphus in a home-and-home series on Feb. 5-6, with the opener in St. Peter.

For more hockey news: The Rink Live is your top-shelf destination for regional hockey coverage. Situated in the country's premiere hockey footprint, skate on over for exclusive content and the latest in college, USHL and high school hockey. Subscribers to Forum Communications' network of newspapers also enjoy access to The Rink Live as part of their membership.

Related Topics: HOCKEYTHE RINK LIVECCHA
Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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