Mark Strobel has coached at several different Division 1 colleges as an assistant, including Colorado College, UMD, Ohio State and Wisconsin. This is his first stint as a high school hockey head coach. PHOTO SUBMITTED

Former Hill-Murray Pioneer and Wisconsin Badger has coached at junior and college levels

by Bryan Zollman, Let’s Play Hockey

St. Thomas Academy will usher in a new era this week when Mark Strobel officially takes the helm as the new head coach of a storied program that once dominated Class A hockey and is now trying to make their mark in AA.

Strobel brings with him a wealth of experience both as a coach and as a player.

A former standout at Hill-Murray, he was the captain of the 1991 Pioneer squad that won the last single class tournament and led the tournament in scoring with seven points. He and his twin brother, Mike, both attended the University of Wisconsin where Mark played for four years, eventually serving as a captain for two of them and reaching the NCAA Frozen Four in 1992.

After college he signed with the New Jersey Devils and played two seasons in their farm system before turning his attention to coaching. In 1998 he served as an assistant coach for Colorado College before returning back to his metro area roots and coaching for the Twin Cities Vulcans as an assistant in 1999-2000 helping lead them to a national championship.

His next stop was at the University of Minnesota-Duluth where he was largely in charge of recruiting. UMD went from seven wins when he arrived to 28 four years later.

From 2002-2004 he served as an assistant at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and again was responsible for finding talent, helping triple the number of wins at the school as well as reaching the NCAA Tournament with recruits he helped bring into the program.

He took a hiatus from coaching in 2011 when he served as a rink side reporter for the Big Ten Network. But by 2015 he was back behind the bench, this time with former Hill-Murray alumni Steve Rohlik at Ohio State University.  Rohlik and Strobel helped turn the Ohio State program into a perennial contender in the Big Ten and led them to the NCAA Tournament in 2016-17.

Strobel returned to Madison where he served as Associate Head Coach alongside Tony Granato from 2017-2022, helping the Badgers to a Big Ten Championship in 2020-21 and a NCAA Tournament bid. He resigned at the end of the 2022 season.

“For me it was a refresher, to step back and be out of the game” he said. “It was a time to reanalyze things and ask myself where I wanted to go.”

Strobel, who worked in medical device sales for brief stints throughout his career, returned to the private sector and took some time to reflect on his hockey coaching future. He had offers to join Division 1 staffs as an assistant and was offered head coaching jobs at the junior level, but he turned them down. Then the St. Thomas Academy job became available.

“When this presented itself, it was quite a blessing and a good fit,” said Strobel.

He knew he still had the passion to coach, to teach, and to lead young men to not just be better hockey players, but better individuals, sons, siblings, husbands and fathers.

“My passion is coaching,” said Strobel, 50. “I have always had mentors…coaches, teachers in grade school up through high school and college that helped me. The impact coaches made on me in my youth was profound. They made you do things you didn’t think you were able to do. I want to give that back.”

Strobel takes over a program led by some big names in the past, including their most recent coach Mike Randolph. Randolph is just one win away from becoming the all-time wins leader in Minnesota High School Hockey history. His contract for the 2024-25 season was not renewed by the school, leaving the door open for a new coach.

Strobel, with his coaching pedigree, was at the top of the list.

“We are excited to welcome Coach Strobel to the Saint Thomas Academy community,” said Brian Ragatz, president of Saint Thomas Academy.  “He has a championship pedigree and next-level experience, which will bolster our hockey program and benefit our student-athletes, particularly those with aspirations to compete beyond high school.”

Strobel understands the importance of the hockey player in a state that is rabid about the sport. But he also emphasizes the importance of the student-athlete. A hard-nosed player with a tireless work ethic and refuse-to-lose mentality, Strobel grew up on the east side of St. Paul where toughness was a prerequisite for advancing up the athletic ladder. He will bring a little bit of old-school coaching with him along with an understanding of today’s hockey landscape.

“What I look forward to is having accountability and discipline, the old assets of hard work and talent and maximizing your talent through skill development,” he said. “I always felt my skill set as a coach, as a leader, is someone who can organize people, bring their talents together and making sure we are the best we can possibly be as a group.”

St. Thomas Academy went 17-9-2 last season, losing in the Section 3AA finals to Cretin-Derham Hall. The Cadets have made six Class AA tournaments since moving to AA in 2013-14. Their last state tournament appearance was 2021. Pictured above is STA goaltender Cody Niesen in action last season. LPH PHOTO BY Jackson Boline

Strobel has been a part of talented teams who didn’t win as much as they should, and part of teams not as talented who were able to win when it mattered most. As a player and as a coach, he has experienced it all, and knows the right formula for producing success.

“No one player is bigger than the group,” he said. “We are going to have kids who are more talented. But every kid is going to feel like he is a part of it whether he is the sixth defenseman, back-up goalie or first line center. Whether you get two shifts a night or 29 minutes, everyone on the team is important.”

Strobel said he will instill a high-tempo game, physical game.

“My style will be to play fast and make sure we are physical without the penalties,” he said. “We want to grow day to day, week to week and year to year as an organization.”

Strobel understands today’s player and today’s high school hockey landscape is light years from what it was when he played in the early 1990s. Hockey programs such as St. Thomas Academy are run more like small college programs. Players are coming to the elite hockey schools mainly because of the hockey program. Strobel understands the importance of providing these kids and their families with a great experience, and also as a building block to what many players hope is a future beyond high school hockey.

“Like anything else in life, things evolve and grow,” said Strobel. “Today players have that instant feedback – the MAP programs, fitness coaches, nutrition coaches. The goal is to have them focus and be in the moment when they need to be through hard work and listening and learning. Sometimes you have to go through the individual to make the team work.”

Making the team work through teamwork is Strobel’s goal. In order to do that he plans to build a culture that will foster development. He understands as individuals learn, grow and get better, so does the unit. He also emphasizes growth not just as a hockey player, but as a person.

“These kids are young and impressionable,” he said. “The faster they can mature, the better the team will be.”

Because Strobel attended a Catholic High School he understands the importance of the Catholic education, the rigors of academics and the day-to-day established routines of attending a military school. While hockey is a big part of the student-athlete’s day, they are a student first.

“There are challenges every day outside of sports,” he said. “They already have a lot on their plate. I want to make sure they are taking a deep breath and helping each other and getting away at times to reset the mind.”

Make no mistake, Strobel wants to win a state championship. After 13 years coaching at the college and juniors level, this is his first stint as a high school coach. For kids who want to play college hockey, Strobel knows better than just about anyone what it takes. He wants to help those kids reach their ultimate goal in hockey through building a successful program that will put them all on the biggest stage in Minnesota hockey – the state tournament. Strobel has been there. He’s done it. He’s won it.

But he knows he didn’t do it alone. It took a group of individuals working toward a common goal, not relying on one or two players, but the entire unit to work in concert together to make positive things occur.

“Our kids have to buy in to the culture,” he said. “How are we going to be successful together?”

Strobel said he will set high standards for his players, both on the ice and off of it. A student-athlete who exhibits a strong work ethic in the classroom and has positive social interactions, supports his classmates and teammates, respects his teachers and coaches, will translate well into the locker room and onto the ice.

“I like high standards,” said Strobel. “If you reach for the stars, even when you fall a little short, you can still touch the moon.”

Strobel hopes to extend the legacy of St. Thomas Academy hockey, one that was formed by former coaches Pat and Mike Funk, Bill McCarthy, Jeff Poeschl,  Tom and Greg Vanelli, Trent Eigner and most recently Randolph.

The Vanellis coached from 2003 to 2019 and led the program to five Class A state titles. Eigner took over and coached for three years until Randolph replaced him and also coached three years.

“There have been some great coaches who have paved the road and made this an elite program,” said Strobel. “I am honored to have the opportunity to build on the legacy that is St. Thomas Academy hockey.”

In addition to being the team’s head coach, Strobel will also serve in a full-time capacity at the school assisting in development, admissions and advancement, alumni relations and other areas.

“I can’t thank the academy enough for this opportunity, and putting faith in me to lead this program” he said. “I look forward to doing the best job I can  and giving it everything I’ve got.”

He is looking forward to getting to work and begin working with players and setting standards and development strategies he thinks will breed success for the team, and for the players on that team. He said he doesn’t feel pressure about his new role and players shouldn’t either.

“To me, it shouldn’t be pressure,” he said. “It should be hard work and fun. It’s about learning and development and making sure they are having a great experience. Let’s build a great hockey team together.”