by Dan Bauer

When you are a coach, motivation can come from seemingly anywhere.

After the Wisconsin Selects second game at the recent USA National Tournament, a game we won, there were some disappointed faces and droopy body language following the game. It was one of those penalty filled games with lots of special teams play where some players ice times come up short of their expectations.

At our team meeting the next morning we cued up UCONN women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma video on the importance of role players. The man with a record eleven NCAA titles and a .882 winning percentage draws a great analogy. “I’d like to see what a concert would sound like if the guy who was supposed to bring Billy Joel’s piano, doesn’t bring it out.”

From that moment on, we went from being a very good team, to one that would put aside individual agendas and go on to win the Tier II 2A USA Hockey Girl’s National Championship with a 3-0 shutout of the number one ranked East Coast Wizards. It became one of our themes as we won five straight elimination games after losing the opening game of the tournament. We asked everyone to help push the piano out and when it was your turn to sing—score a goal, make a big save, block a shot, step up and do it. And from that point on they did just that. The depth of our four lines wore down teams physically and emotionally.

Together this team didn’t just push the piano out, they pushed it to the top of the mountain.

We just packaged one of the cornerstones of any successful team in a new wrapper. Every team member must find their role and accept it. As Auriemma notes, “Everybody’s role is really, really important and you just got to play it to the best of your ability.”

Going into the tournament our mantra was TEAM over me. That acceptance and ability for each player to excel at their role doesn’t happen by accident. When players and, very importantly parents, understand and accept that the team experience is not about the individual, teams can accomplish great things. When parents mirror the messaging of the coaches, players experience accountability, sacrifice and being a part of something bigger than themselves—like winning a National Championship!

There is a long list of unsung heroes and role players on this team. From the defenseman who played forward, to our #2 goalie who started only one game, but brought a contagious attitude and enthusiasm to the rink every day, to the relentless effort of our checking lines and the huge goal they scored in the championship game, to our powerplay that mimicked the NHL videos Coach Kirley showed them each morning and scored a tournament high nine times; everyone truly played their role.

The chief architect of this championship program is former Badger Mike Cowan. If you are over the age of fifty, the Superior native will remind you of Lieutenant Colombo without the cigar. At 76 years old, Cowan’s fiber is intricately woven into the history of Wisconsin hockey. After playing under Bob Johnson at the University of Wisconsin, he went on to coach at Waupun High School for twenty years, leading the Warriors to four state tournament appearances. After a year in Blaine, Minnesota he went on to become head coach at Lawrence and Marian Universities for seven years.

Cowan created the Selects eight years ago as an alternative to the highly sought out Team Wisconsin program. In Colombo-like fashion, Cowan has uncovered a team of under-the-radar players with the ability to compete at a national level. On the eve of the final game I overheard one player remark, “I’ve never played for a championship in anything.” The Selects program Cowan created is low key and blue collar much like the man himself.  A 2000 inductee to the Wisconsin Hockey Hall of Fame, the iconic coach is most comfortable in the shadows, and he won’t be happy that I mentioned him, but none of this would have happened without his dedication to Wisconsin hockey.

Watching this Selects team collectively push that piano restored my faith in the statement “it is amazing what can be accomplished when nobody cares who gets the credit.” They played the game the right way and they trusted each teammate to do their job. In the end they got rewarded with the ultimate prize, and as a coaching staff we couldn’t be prouder.

For me the reward was standing on the bench with my daughter Emily as the final seconds ticked off the clock at Munn Arena in East Lansing. I had always dreamed of winning a state championship together with one of my children. It was a special journey watching her lead this team with poise and confidence right through the championship game. It was also a poignant reminder for me of how much I missed coaching this past season. Waking up each morning with a hockey list in my head was once again a wonderful feeling.

Thank you to Mike Cowan for having the vision to see a place in the Wisconsin landscape for this team and for allowing me to be a part of it. Thanks to the parents for believing in the coaching staff and teaching your kids it isn’t just about them, it’s about the team. You have given your children a crucial gift that will serve them the rest of their lives. The heaviest dose of gratitude goes to the players for becoming a team that wasn’t focused on individual stats or counting ice time minutes. You did the heavy pushing and you deserve the credit for reaching the championship ceiling.

Lastly, thanks to the great coaches I got to work with each day in Steve Kirley, Greg Slupe and my daughter Emily. Tapping into the knowledge and experience of this staff was like attending a coach’s clinic every day.

Congratulations Wisconsin Selects, you are 2024 National Champions!

The piano arrived on time and together you put on a beautiful concert.

Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & coach in Wausau, WI.  You can follow him on Facebook at Lockeroom Logic or contact him at  drbauer13@gmail.com