Going out together

After two decades of guiding the North High School boys hockey program, head coach Jerry Diebel, center, and assistant coaches Thom O’Neill and John “Andy” Anderson are hanging up their skates. (photos by Linda Baumeister/Review)

Retiring head coach Jerry Diebel, center, is surrounded by the Polars boys hockey team following a practice at Polar Arena in North St. Paul.

Head coach Jerry Diebel, center left, and assistant coach Nate Peasley confer during a North High boys hockey practice.

The lobby of Polar Arena is lined with photos of past North High hockey teams.

Diebel, Anderson and O’Neill hanging up their skates after two decades of coaching North High boys hockey program

When the North High School boys play their final hockey game this season, it will mark the end of 20 years of coaching for three stalwarts.

It will also be the conclusion of what has been a remarkably consistent coaching program established by head coach Jerry Diebel and assistants John “Andy” Anderson and Thom O’Neill.

North High’s boys hockey team began in the mid-1940s, and it’s unusual for a program which has been around for so many years to have had so few head coaches.

There were the Bauer brothers, first Wes and then Arne. Bill Halbrehder then took over for the next 21 years.

Denny Schueller was the head coach for two years, followed by John Humphrey, who was at the helm for five.

Then the present three-man crew – Diebel, Anderson and O’Neill – assumed the reins. Now, they say it’s time to hand the program over to a new group of coaches.

Diebel, a 30-year social studies teacher at North, and O’Neill, a physical education teacher for 20 years, will continue with their teaching duties. Anderson is a sales representative for Riedell Skates.

Diebel is also the boys tennis coach and expects to return to that position this spring.

A couple years ago, O’Neill took time off from coaching hockey. He called it a sabbatical “to spend more time with my girls, who are getting into sports.”

O’Neill said, “I heard (Diebel and Anderson) were going to step down at the end of this year, and they asked that I join them (for one last season) and I came back so we could ‘retire’ together.

“I realized what I had missed. The things I missed the most were the practices,” O’Neill said.

There have been changes

I sat down with Diebel and Anderson recently, and 20 years brought lots of memories to the table. (Actually, Anderson has been at it for 25 years. He coached in the youth program for five years before being brought on board by Diebel.)

It was more of an old-time hockey get-together than an interview. For this pair of old “hockey pucks,” there was a lot more laughter than remorse.

But the discussion began on a serious note when Diebel said, “It’s getting harder every year. There are people who just prey on the kids for their involvement in summer programs.

“There are guys in our community, as well as in every hockey community, who are out to convince the kids and their parents that this is the way to go. They create programs and promise all kinds of things from (college hockey) scholarships to possible pro careers.”

Diebel said the public doesn’t realize “the pressure being put on kids” to attend off-season hockey camps. He and Anderson characterized it as “pretty bad.” They expressed concern about the high fees charged for the camps, and the large incomes they generate for the organizers.

While some of the recent trends in youth hockey are worrisome, Diebel and Anderson said they’re leaving the high school coaching ranks with overall positive feelings.

“There have been so many changes, but the thing that is best is that I have so many good memories. I have made so many friends,” Anderson said. “When coach (Diebel) came in, he set rules and he has stuck to them.

“Our coaching staff is so close. The kids appreciate us, and we appreciate them. We know and appreciate the loyalty of the kids and the coaching staff.” Anderson continued, “We are very close to the kids. That is the most important thing we can have. The environment has changed over the years, but the consistency we have had is very important.”

Diebel added, “Overall, we have had some really good kids. And overall, our parents have been good.”

It’s the kids they will miss the most

All three coaches talked at length about the players and the locker-room chats after practices.

“We try to make it their place. Kids sometimes stay for hours after practice. They talk and exchange all kinds of things they don’t talk about with their parents.” Anderson said.

O’Neill summed it up by saying, “The thing I missed those two years I was away was the practices. The locker-room atmosphere and just being around the kids. It is a different setting. It is so much fun to interact with them.

“One can talk to the kids in that setting. They share their social issues.

“It is neat to be around and see the relationships they build. I know that is what I will miss. I realized it the last couple of years that I was gone,” O’Neill said.

The return of kids who have graduated or who left to follow their dreams in the juniors or some other program is what is so appreciated by the coaches.

One example was the return of some 50-plus former players to the annual alumni hockey game and festivities this season. It demonstrated the dedication to the North hockey traditions that has been created over the years.

Another thing that’s notable is the return of several players who left during their high school experience.

“They come back and wonder if they are welcome. We always appreciate their asking and always welcome the fact that they want to come back.

“Many of them realize they made a mistake in leaving,” Diebel said.

There was much to laugh about

As the stories kept prompting new recollections from first one and then the other, people around us began to wonder what all the hilarity was about.

Then perhaps the largest laughter came when Diebel recalled an incident in which he was involved.

“I think it was a game against Henry Sibley,” he offered. “I think we lost the game, but the kids played well for the whole game. They gave a full-game effort.

“I got on the bus and told the kids how well they played. I told them I was proud of them for the effort they had put out.

“Then I realized I was on the wrong bus!

“No wonder the kids couldn’t figure out why I was there. When I got on the right bus I told our kids, ‘I really had a good speech to give you, but I’m not going to repeat it, because I’ve already given it!’”

The three leave behind a tradition

O’Neill summed it up for all three when he said, “The people I have been associated with have been special. It has been a consistent program that has been established throughout the 20 years.

“The consequences for the top guys to the last guys on the roster are the same. That consistency to the program has been huge.”

He paused and then added, “Hopefully, whoever takes over will keep the program alive. To have worked with (former Polars and Olympians) Frank Sanders and Craig Sarner and to learn that they always respected and appreciated their experiences playing for the North hockey teams, has been very special.”

The trio said they would like to see former North player and now assistant coach Nate Peasley step into the head coaching position.

Peasley was a four-year letter-winner and an All-Conference defenseman. He went on to play hockey at Bethel University and lettered four times.

He is a reserve teacher and a permanent substitute teacher in the Special Services Department of the North St. Paul-Maplewood-Oakdale School District.

The decision on who will become the next boys hockey coach will be left up to the North High administration and ultimately made by Activities Director Jed Helwig.

The three retiring coaches emphasized that the program has not been about them; it’s been about the student athletes. Through the years, they’ve tried to teach the boys how to win, and to fail, gracefully. And, most importantly, to help them grow and become good citizens.

After 20 years of loyalty and countless games and even more practices given to the North boys hockey program by Diebel, Anderson and O’Neill, what does one say when they are behind the bench for the final game?

Someone once told me, “If there was a word more powerful than ‘Thanks’ I would use it.”

So, to the trio of dedicated of coaches, from all of the players you coached and more importantly guided into life, “Thank You!”

Wally Wakefield can be reached at wwakefield@lillienews.com.

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