With future in doubt, Hawks worry about the present

Robbinsdale Cooper boys hockey coach Bill Rooney (left) chats with goaltender Angel Hillstrom during practice Nov. 14 at the New Hope Ice Arena. The Hawks open the season Nov. 29 at St. Michael-Albertville. (Photo by Nick Clark – Sun Newspapers)

The Cooper boys hockey team had just completed its workout on the north rink inside the New Hope Ice Arena, finishing it with a ritualistic gathering repeated by almost any team, in almost any sport.

So in their own sort of way, the boys formed a circle, coming together for a few words before breaking after the traditional “1-2-3 Go Hawks!,” chant used to close every varsity hockey practice at Cooper.

It is a phrase, however, that may be in hospice care by the end of the winter.

The Cooper boys varsity hockey program is on its way to the deathbed. Whether it becomes official next year, or the year after – when as of now, only 14 players are currently slated to come out for the sport – the days of “1-2-3 Go Hawks!” reverberating throughout the rink are coming to an end.

That fact alone gives an immediate purpose for the players – all 16 of them – currently preparing to play varsity hockey this year for Cooper.

Not one is openly looking forward to the day of a possible cooperatively sponsored program with Armstrong, or anybody else. But it is becoming obvious by each passing winter that the inevitable is coming.

“It is, and we think about it a lot,” said senior captain Dylan Erickson. “I wanted my career to end as with me being a Cooper Hawk. Luckily, that will happen. But it doesn’t look like it will be that way for a lot of our players.”

Or what is left of them.

A year ago, there weren’t any goaltenders on the boys side qualified enough to handle the varsity cage, so head coach Bill Rooney went with a tandem of two females.

Both are back for a second season with the team.

There are just three seniors on the club to go with the mix of six juniors, five sophomores and ninth-grader Trey Rooney.

Together, they have already accepted that this may be it for varsity hockey made up of players from only their school, and they have forged a commitment to make something of what could be their last opportunity.

“There is something special about the Cooper kid, and I think this is part of that,” said head coach Bill Rooney. “You see it in a lot of our sports, but especially with this group of players. They understand what is happening here, and they know what might happen.”

They also know what might not transpire, and how that could very well include finding ways to consistently win hockey games this winter.

As of now, the plan is to go with three sets of forwards and five total defensemen. Most of their opponents will have the opportunity to roll four lines, and play as many as six defenders on any given night.

A year ago, with similar numbers on the roster, Cooper went about its business in a similar, play-like-there-is-no tomorrow, fashion.

Considering what the Hawks were up against, the results were encouraging. Cooper went 10-15-1, which included a three-win trip to a holiday tournament championship in Silver Bay, and three more victories in their final four games to get that win total to 10.

Any sort of repeat performance in 2012-13 will hinge directly on the seven returning skaters fitting into their respective roles, the all-female goaltending duo of Angel Hillstrom and Kelly Sandhofer holding their own, and Trey Rooney’s ability to adjust as a ninth-grader playing his first year as varsity hockey.

Rooney, the coach’s son, lit up the opposition in the youth ranks. But this, warns his father, will be different.

“Honestly, Trey scored more goals last year than some of these kids have scored in their career, maybe even combined,” said Bill Rooney. “But he’s 14-years old. I think he’ll do all right, but I also think it will be a little tougher than he thinks.”

Rooney will play on the Hawks first line with junior Hayden Gautsche (4 goals, 6 assists in 2011-12) and another player yet to be determined.

Sophomore Alex Stager, who had 11 points last year and is Cooper’s leading returning scorer, will center the second line.

Erickson, junior Nick Larson, junior Greg Nightingale and sophomore Nathan Linderholm will play defense.

The rest, much like Cooper’s future, is unknown.

“I’m sure the coaches will figure out a lineup, but the biggest thing will be everyone knowing their role and working together as a unit,” said Erickson. “We have a few really good goal scorers, and a few guys that can really pass the puck, and we have some grinders. So if everyone sticks to their role and performs how they should, we should be able to replicate last season, if not to better.”

They’ll find out more beginning Thursday, Nov. 29, when the team heads to St. Michael-Albertville to open the season. Cooper also plays Minneapolis, Legacy Christian Academy, Shakopee, Waconia, Irondale and St. Francis before heading back up to Silver Bay for a holiday tournament.

A year ago, Cooper was 2-2-1 after five games. The hope is another solid start gets the guys believing that in this, possibly the last season of Cooper varsity hockey, they can do some good.

“We don’t know what the future may hold, but that is good,” said Rooney. “That allows them to worry about what they need to do this year. That is what counts. These kids want to be here. They want to play for Cooper. This is their chance.”