Veteran men’s hockey coach Steve Freeman looks to rebuild Falcons program
Head men’s hockey coach Steve Freeman is in his 22nd year as leader of the Falcons. He is the program leader in total games won and led UW-River Falls to a WIAC championship as recently as 2016. He has won over 350 games and 11 WIAC titles in his time at UWRF. Freeman was named to the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame in 2016, with 10 WIAC coach of the year awards to his name. Freeman was also an assistant coach when UWRF won the national championship in 1994, and has been a part of all five appearances in the NCAA Frozen Four.
The Student Voice sat down with Freeman to discuss his history of success at UWRF and the growing pains his young team has faced in 2017.
Q: What first interested you in becoming an assistant coach for the Falcons?
A: I knew there was going to be an opening over here and Dean Talafous was the head coach. It was the next logical step into college hockey and worked out well. It was a really good experience right off the bat and I had a lot of responsibility. I did a lot of the recruiting and eventually had lots and lots of success.
Q: What was it like stepping back into an assistant role after being a head coach for high school and junior’s teams?
It was different. I had a good relationship with the players. As an assistant you understand your role as more of a support position with the players and you become closer to the players. It’s working more with individuals than when you’re a head coach, where you do everything for what’s best for the team.
Q: What has been your most memorable moment as head coach at UWRF?
A: I’ve been involved with fourteen championships, but the highlight is seeing players excel and seeing the joy and the happiness of players having success and being rewarded for their work.
Q: Why do you think so many head coaches at the university have stuck around for 15 plus years?
A: It’s a great place to work. It’s a university you can really take pride in, not only the way it’s set up or looks, but the academic standards and mostly the people. It’s a terrific location and great place to live and work.
Q: What is the most rewarding part about coaching at the Division III level?
A: At the college level you’re working with a higher-level athlete that can do more things with their talent ability. The difference is working with athletes who are striving to get an education and set up their future while being high level athletes. It’s a balancing act, and I have great respect for how they excel on the ice and in the classroom.
Q: What helped make the program a national powerhouse?
A: You need quality athletes and players that have a competitive edge. It’s changed a lot over the years with so many programs going after the same players. It’s a lot of determination to build a program with the right kind of people and the right kind of talent level. Developing a process in how we prepare our teams and the style that we play, which is unique from other teams. The structure of our game and the positioning of our players is different, so sometimes there is a longer learning curve to understand that structure.
Q: What has been your initial impressions of this year’s team?
A: It’s been a complete rebuild. We have 16 new players in the program, and that much turnover creates a huge learning curve. Looking at the new players, there’s some outstanding players that will be cornerstones and help us hang banners. We’re going through the growing pains. The transition may not look like it on the scoreboard, but transitioning through returning players is really making it better. They’re building a strong culture for the future.
Q: What needs to improve to step out from the 3-7-1 start?
A: There are a lot of areas that need to improve. They come from junior hockey where it’s more wide open. It’s a lot more physical in college, and you’re still a freshman compared to a senior no matter how old you are. You have to go through it to understand the intensity and dedication it takes to be a top-level player and contribute to a top-level team.
Q: What happened differently during the recent three-game win streak?
A: In the third win in that streak, we saw some flashes of guys understanding our style of play. It was easy to see on film that they were moving into position and moving into spots. No matter what the structure, it’s about that compete level and competing on a continuous basis.
Q: How tough is it to play in the WIAC with a young team?
A: It’s very tough. We’re by far the youngest team in the league. I think some of our players were pretty shocked by the level and style of play of some of the older teams. Players are able to adjust to that, but there are so many factors that go into it. We’ve suffered a great deal of injuries, and because of our talent level, we’re not able to absorb some of those injuries as easy in the past.
Q: What has been the team’s strongest aspect of the game this year?
A: It’s been our veteran players. I think their leadership is really taking us in the right direction, and they’re doing things the right way. We’re hoping it will pay off in the second half of the season, but it will definitely pay off in the future. We’re not used to going through this where we’re not having success, so we have to stick with the process. We know what it takes to compete effectively, but it’s about dealing with the ups and downs.
Q: What are you looking forward to in your battle against Lawrence University in a doubleheader this weekend?
A: We’re excited just to play again. We’re putting together a lineup and see who is back from injury. There’s a shortness of depth in our lineup, and we’ve lost some players that we might not get back for the rest of the season. The trick is putting it together, and it’s another chance to see where we’re at. It’s as simple as trying to improve on a weekly basis and take steps to see how it plays out.