Robby Grendahl takes over as Wadena-Deer Creek Head Coach

By Jackson Boline

Photo courtesy TCHC

The Wadena-Deer Creek boy’s hockey team has a new leader behind the bench after Scott Woods decided to step down after seven years as the Wolverine’s head coach. Robby Grendahl is stepping in after being alongside Woods for his tenure as an assistant coach.

Being in the State of Hockey, there is always a spotlight on a new head coach, but this new hire may be more unique than in most situations. Robby’s father Bob Grendahl played an integral role in starting the hockey program in Wadena.

Bob grew up in the southern part of the state where at that time, not much hockey was played, but his future wife and Robby’s mother Lori had her childhood in Thief River Falls. Lori’s brother played for the Prowlers in the late 1960s where he played in great battles between Roseau, TRF, and Warroad.

“I grew up as a child watching 8-millimeter home movies with my dad of those games, seeing Henry Boucha play, and hearing his stories,” said Robby.

It was at that point when Robby’s dad, Bob Grendahl got bit by the hockey bug and fell in love.

“He bootlegged filmed the first North Stars game at the met, so we have that which is fun to watch,” said Robby.

When Bob first came to Wadena he worked for a natural gas company out of Texas, which gave him a lot of freedom to work within the Wadena community. The office that Bob worked out of in Wadena, virtually became known as the ‘hockey office’.

“Dad along with a friend of his named Dick Halverson, laid the groundwork to get hockey in Wadena.”

Wadena had begun organized hockey activities in 1973, which were nothing more than just practices with a team.

“They had to go through city council, and got together, creating a club which was named Wadena Hockey Club then, got it incorporated, then they got enough kids to sign up and ran practices for that season,” said Robby.

In the fall of 1974, they opened up with a regular schedule, which included levels from mites all the way up to what at that time was called ‘midgets’. 

“Dad was involved as a coach, and referee, through the freedom of his job he was able to be involved a lot within the hockey operations.”

Wadena was later than other schools jumping into high school hockey.

“We didn’t get that marriage until the fall of 1988, which was late compared to other programs like Little Falls, Alexandria, and Brainerd,” said Robby.

Wadena first started at the A level of hockey, where they were getting kicked around by other teams.

“At that time, what would have been MAHA, or Minnesota Amateur Hockey Association told them to move to B-level hockey, and so they did that but my dad was concerned the competitive level wasn’t where it should be. After that he went around to other teams who had success and checked out their schedule and realized they practiced nearly every day,” Robby said.

After Bob saw what the successful team was doing, he started to mimic how much practice they had.

“We went from a couple of days a week to a pretty hard and fast, five-days-a-week schedule. That made a huge difference.”

It’s been a year short of 50 years since Bob Grendahl helped create Wadena hockey and during the 50th anniversary in 2024, it will be his son, Robby in the midst of his rookie head coaching season.

“I may be the oldest rookie head coach in the state, and the only one with grey in my beard,” Grendahl said with a smile on his face.

This may be Grendahl’s first head coaching job, but he is very adaptable to coaching a high school team. Grendahl’s time with Woods was not his only assistant coaching gig with WDC, he spent two years on a coaching staff with legendary Minnesota hockey goalie Brad Shelstad, who coached Wadena for over a decade. During that time, Grendahl was juggling many responsibilities with not only coaching hockey but also baseball, teaching, and being present with his family.

“We were starting a family, I was teaching, along with coaching hockey and baseball; so it was almost like you kiss your wife goodbye at the end of October, and because we expected to make state in baseball, we would play deep into the calendar. So I remember having a doubleheader in Crosby, and our son Ryan was in his crib the morning before I left where he was sleeping; then I came home that night and he was sleeping, so at that point, I knew that’s not how I want to see him grow up,” said Grendahl.

Grendahl took a step back from coaching hockey to focus on teaching and being a dad.

“It was becoming hard to be the best coach, teacher, and dad at the same time,” said Grendahl.

Grendahl took a break from coaching until 2007 when he joined Scott Woods, who was the Wadena head coach before leaving to coach Alexandria. This was the first time Woods and Grendahl teamed up on a coaching staff before rejoining each other again in the 2017-18 season.

With Woods stepping down as head coach for the Wolverines, and the number of kids playing high school hockey looking to be lower than usual, there were reasons looming for Grendahl to step in.

“With having my dad starting this, there was a lot of pressure, from myself too to make sure we kept this thing going.”

The Grendahls has a rich history in the Wadena hockey community, from Bob starting the program in 1973 and becoming the first head coach in the organization’s history and now coming full circle with Robby Grendahl being the head coach 50 years later.

“All of a sudden I figured out that at some point in life, you go from being young and trying to connect the dots forward to now being able to connect the dots backward,” said Grendahl.

Grendahl value’s all the people, including his father, who have paved the way for Wadena hockey, and he didn’t want to see it not succeed.

“It’s something that my family and I want to see do well, and see it continue.”

The Wolverine’s last trip to St. Paul was in 2004, so this season, it will have been 20 years since they last got over the hump.

“We’ve been in a little bit of a dip since 2004 when we hit that high point, and really it was a quick high from 1984 to 2004, and you know we have two or three section final runs too,” said Grendahl.

Grendahl remains optimistic that Wadena-Deer Creek’s time will come.

“Sometimes in order to progress you have to take a step back…you just can’t go too far back.”

Bob Grendahl was very vocal to Robby about where he stood on if his son should take the job or not.

“I initially told him, Dad, I just don’t know if that job is for me, and he got a little upset…he definitely had a strong opinion about it. I wanted to respect and honor him in the best way that I can.”

Bob is currently battling stage four bladder cancer, which he has been battling through.

“He’s extremely resilient, that whole mindset attitude is contagious. He’s finished up, hopefully, a final round of radiation, but he still looks good and has a good spirit.”

Bob is extremely excited about this opportunity for his son and Robby knows that he’ll be at every game he can get to or find it online or on the radio.

The resiliency is in the Grendahl genetics; Robby, as a child overcame something near catastrophic.

“It was June 15th, Father’s Day and I was playing a summer hockey league for Wadena against much older and bigger competition. I was playing right defense, and I remember going around the back of the net and picking the puck up. I felt really lightheaded and my legs were giving out,” said Grendahl.

After his shift, he skated over to the bench and told his coach at the time what he was experiencing.

“He looked at me and pointed to the locker room and said go take your stuff off…even though he didn’t say stuff.”

Grendahl knew something was off, but didn’t quite know for sure what it was. He went back to the hospital and got an x-ray, which is where the doctor noticed his heart was grossly enlarged.

Grendahl went down to a cardiologist in the Twin Cities, spending a week in the hospital.

“I was playing VFW Baseball, and summer hockey before that, but that summer quickly changed to being in and out of the hospital.”

It was found that Robby had nearly all-out heart failure, and the only option was to get a heart transplant.

“ I was told I really only had a week or so to get this transplant or I could die, so they moved me to the top of the transplant list.”

There was never a pediatric heart transplant that had been done at that time in 1986, so it was a lot of unknowns. Thankfully, the procedure went well and Robby had successfully gone through a heart transplant, but the difficulties were not over. 

“I went down to the cafeteria a few days later and I had my trey and just felt like I forgot how to walk. I kind of had to relearn how to do everything, and of course, my dad asked; when will he be able to play hockey again?”

The team of doctors talked with Bob Grendahl, and they came to the conclusion that Robby would be able to play hockey again, but they did say absolutely no football.

There was an opportunity later that year in December of 1986, for Robby to play a scrimmage at the MET Center. The scrimmage was between Long Prairie and Wadena where they were able to play a game before the North Stars game.

“I ended up getting into that game for a shift or two, and somehow Channel 5 got ahold of the story and so we were playing on the news. My doctor actually tuned in to watch the news and saw me playing in a hockey game and of course, I get hit very hard into the boards.”

Grendahl laughed as he mentioned how his family received a phone call from the doctor later that evening.

“He called and said I thought we had this agreement to take things slow, and of course they used me getting hit hard as a clip on the evening news,” said Grendahl.

The Grendahls are the embodiment of what hockey is about. They are resilient and they won’t stop until they have made a difference. That is exactly how Robby is going to coach and how he wants every one of his players to play.

“We will face adversity this year with the lower numbers, but that is nothing that hockey players in Wadena have faced before after playing outside when the rink was torn down in 2012.”

The Wadena-Deer Creek boy’s high school hockey roster could face its lowest numbers in quite some time, but there is reason to be optimistic about the future.

“The numbers are good with our youth teams, we have 128 kids in the program this year having one Bantam team, a peewee team, two squirt, two mite, and two mitey-mite teams,” said Grendahl.

The Wolverines went 15-10-2 last season and lost to Alexandria in the Section 6A semifinal. WDC had 10 seniors on the team last year.