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Hockey coach stays humble despite success

April 5, 2007

NCHA regular season championship, 21 wins, an NCAA tournament berth, and a WIAC Coach of the Year award: Just another season in the illustrious career of Falcons men’s hockey coach Steve Freeman.

After beating Lawrence in the second game of the season, Freeman also reached a career milestone by notching win number 200. Despite being celebrated by fans for this achievement, Freeman humbly downplayed the importance of the number.

“It was an important milestone, only because it was brought up the year before,” Freeman said. “I was stuck on 199, and we got beat a few times at the end of the season.”

The end to last season and the beginning of this season did cause a bit of a headache. After reaching win 199 at Stout in the last regular season weekend last year, Freeman and the Falcons lost three straight to Stout to end the season and then dropped this year’s season opener against Eau Claire. It matched Freeman’s longest losing streak as head coach of the Falcons, and was the team’s longest home losing streak during his tenure. But after Freeman won game 200, the team took off, amassing 21 wins and earning Freeman his fifth straight WIAC Coach of the Year Award.

“It’s more of a team award. Your name may be on it, but it’s a team award,” Freeman said. “Your hockey team has to have success, and to do that you need to have good athletes and good players.”

Freeman began his career at UWRF as an assistant coach under head coach Dean Talafous. As an assistant, Freeman did a lot of recruiting. It paid off with an NCAA National Championship in 1994, in the middle of four consecutive NCAA Frozen Four appearances between 1993 and 1996.

“The responsibilities of recruiting can be overwhelming at times, and it’s very, very time-consuming,” Freeman said. “But I enjoyed it and there were a lot of rewards. You could see that if you could bring in the right players, you could win.”

Talafous became the head coach for the University of Alaska Anchorage after the 1995-96 season. Freeman had a choice to follow Talafous and continue as an assistant at the Division I level, or stay put and become the head coach for the Falcons. The allure of a head coaching spot kept Freeman in River Falls.

“There have been opportunities [to move on], but the head coaching position is when you’re running your own show, and that’s a good place to be,” Freeman said. “As a younger coach, you get consumed with trying to make that next step, and going on and on.”

In his eleven years as Falcons head coach, Freeman has become the winningest coach in Falcons history. In fact, with his 220 wins, he has double the amount of wins of Talafous, the next winningest coach on the list.

Not one to take all the credit for the team’s success, Freeman makes sure to pass on some of the credit to his own assistant coach.

“Bob Ritzer has been very instrumental the whole time we’ve been here,” Freeman said. “Bob, right now, does a lot of the recruiting and helps bring in the players. He’s done just a tremendous job for us, helping this program be successful.”

Freeman has won WIAC Coach of the Year honors, NCHA Coach of the Year honors, and is respected nationally. Yet, he does not seem to have any aspirations of moving up the ranks.

“That’s part of the coaching life. You’re always looking, but it would have to be a pretty good position,” Freeman said. “Obviously, there are some high profile jobs, big salary jobs that are very attractive, but it would have to be a pretty nice offer to pull up roots here after being here for so long.”

Athletic Director Rick Bowen coached the men’s basketball team from 1986-2006. He understands, from a coaching standpoint, why Freeman may have decided to stick around instead of continue trying to move up the ranks.

“Steve maybe is recognizing some of the same things that I did when I was coaching,” Bowen said. “This is a pretty nice University and a pretty nice town to live in.”
It doesn’t look like Freeman is headed anywhere anytime soon. With all of his attention on the Falcons program, he continues to try to make the team better each season. Sometimes that means dealing with issues that come up suddenly, like the recent departure of goaltender A.J. Bucchino. Bucchino recently went pro, signing a contract with the Augusta Lynx.

“The disappointing part is that he only had one year of school left,” Freeman said. “He could have played on a very good hockey team that has a chance to win a lot of games and have great success, and then go on. I do understand the draw and pull of being a professional athlete for him. Right now, it’s just a part of life dealing with college athletes.”

Even though Bucchino’s departure is an early season bump in the road, Freeman will still have his main core of players returning. The players seem to support their coach and are appreciative of his directness with them.

“If you’re not doing your job, he’ll let you know about it,” Falcons defenseman Jim Jensen said. “He lets me know about it, whether it’s in school or on the rink, and that’s what a good coach does. He’s strict when he needs to be, but he’s laid back when he needs to be, too.”

While the players may not be certain who their teammates are going to be from year to year, Freeman has been the one constant and that looks like it will continue into the future. Bowen said he has never had to worry about the hockey program.

“It’s very nice to know that you’ve got a good person running a program, keeping it at a high level, keeping it clean and not having to worry about it,” said Bowen.

Though a national championship is still the main goal year in and year out, Freeman doesn’t measure the team’s success in the number of banners they hang.

“If you can put yourself in that position year after year, where you are right at the top and considered one of the top teams in the nation,” Freeman said. “That’s real success.”