LITTLE FALLS — If you look at the career leaders in points for the Little Falls boys hockey team, you'll find three Hanowski brothers: Ben, Beau and Joey.

If you look further back into the history of the program, you will find a relative of theirs.

"My grandpa (Doug Hanowski) was one of the guys who got Little Falls hockey going," Joey Hanowski said. "Back in the '70s and early '80s, he helped get high school hockey going and that was when they were still playing outdoors."

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The Flyers have come quite a long ways since then. Tony Couture was the team's head coach for the last 28 seasons, but announced his decision to retire after the 2020-21 season and leading the Flyers to their seventh Class A state tournament since 2005.

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One of the people Couture called to see if he was interested in applying to be his replacement was Joey Hanowski, who was a four-year letterwinner for Little Falls and played on the Flyers' 2009 and 2012 state tournament teams. Hanowski spent last season as the junior varsity head coach for the Brainerd/Little Falls girls hockey team.

"I was also helping out on the varsity side wherever I could and, honestly, when our season got done and Tony announced he was going to be done, I didn't really think about taking it," he said. "We had just lost a triple overtime loss (in the Section 8AA semifinals) to Alexandria and we were kind of sulking about our own season.

"But after the season got over, I really started contemplating it after I talked to Tony about it."

Couture had announced that he was going to retire before the Flyers' Section 6A semifinals game against Sartell-St. Stephen. He decided to retire to focus on teaching and to watch his daughter play for the Brainerd/Little Falls.

"The next day, we were kind of texting back and forth and he kind of reached out to me," Hanowski said. "He told me to think about it. The more I thought about it, my wife (Erica) gave me the push (saying), 'If you don't do this now, you're going to regret you passed up the opportunity.'"

At the same time, leaving the Brainerd/Little Falls staff was not an easy decision.

"It's your alma mater and everyone thinks you jump at it, but it was actually a hard decision to leave because of the coaching staff I was with," Hanowski said. "(Head coach) Jack Freeman, (assistants) Alex Hirsch and Landon Snider — we had a great group up here in Brainerd.

"I've learned a lot from Jack Freeman. He's a great guy, one of those guys you can really lean on. Since I've taken the job at Little Falls, I've still been able to lean on him with questions. It was an unbelievable experience. I've always had a passion to coach. After this year, I knew I really wanted to be a head (coach) The reason I jumped at this job is because it's Little Falls."

Bemidji State’s Joey Hanowski starts leading off second base as St. Cloud State’s shortstop Travis Cariveau looks on in the fourth inning Wednesday. Jason Wachter | St. Cloud Times
Bemidji State’s Joey Hanowski starts leading off second base as St. Cloud State’s shortstop Travis Cariveau looks on in the fourth inning Wednesday. Jason Wachter | St. Cloud Times

Former Flyers, Beavers baseball standout

Hanowski's father, John, was the head baseball coach for the Flyers for a number of years. While Hanowski played hockey in high school, he also played baseball for Little Falls and played college baseball for Bemidji State (2013-16) and graduated with his name all over that program's career record books.

"I've always joked with people that hockey has always been my love, but I was just a little bit better at baseball," he said. "Coaching baseball would have been great. But this is a stamp of approval and hockey has always been my love and passion. I've had some great opportunities to coach and this is the best opportunity I could have asked for."

Little Falls activities director Kevin Jordan said that he wanted to replace Couture with an alum of the program and Hanowski filled a lot of the other qualifications he was looking for.

"There's great tradition in our Flyer hockey program and there's a lot of alumni in the area and our first thought was we don't really want a whole lot of things to change," Jordan said. "We want somebody who knows of that tradition and (Hanowski) played for Tony and Tony's been around for a long time and you can't replicate exactly what Tony does. But knowing the tradition, Joey is going to have the opportunity to come in and carry the things he wants forward.

"Joey's his own man. He's going to do a great job and he's got a great mind with hockey and he'll take some of the good things and also make some changes here and there wherever he wants to tweak the program," Jordan said. "The biggest thing is he relates well to people. He's going to carry on a tradition. Tony got to know every one of our players before they even entered the high school building. I feel that Joey's going to do the work with the youth program to know all of our athletes before they get to high school.

"He's going to have the best interest of every one of our hockey players in mind and he's going to make the right decision. We're confident that those things are going to continue."

Looking for assistants

One of the first tasks that Hanowski is tackling is to fill the two assistant coaching positions. When Couture retired, assistant coaches Robert Stark and Wesley Waytashek also resigned.

"We'll have our staff put together in the next couple of weeks and we have some interviews coming up," Hanowski said. "June 7 is when we can start working with our guys. By then, we want to have our staff so we can get on the ice and the kids can get familiar with us and what our expectations are on the ice."

One person who may chip in with some volunteer coaching is Joey's brother, Ben, who recently retired from pro hockey after playing the last five seasons in Germany.

"Ben's made comments that he'll be my biggest critic and has said that if we lose, it will likely be because we got out-coached," Joey said of his brother poking some fun at him. "Ben will be there in a volunteer way if I ever need him to look at some film or come to a morning practice on a weekend. There's always an open door there to come in and help out in any way he wants."

Little Falls finished 14-5-1 and reached the Class A state semifinals last season. The Flyers had 10 seniors graduate from last season's roster. Some of their top returners will be forwards Hayden Johnson (30 points) and Matt Filippi (28) and defensemen George Moore Coltin Johnson and Collin Kray.

Hanowski has taken a job working as a project coordinator for a business in Little Falls and he said that the job will allow him the time to coach.

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