New coach, new home, new look for Armstrong

Players from the Armstrong boys hockey team head up ice during a drill Nov. 23 at the New Hope Ice Arena. The team will open its season this week. (Photo by Nick Clark – Sun Newspapers)

Their locker room inside the New Hope Ice Arena isn’t new, but everything inside of it has that feel for the Armstrong boys hockey team.

For starters, it’s permanent.

There will be no more moving back and forth between New Hope and Plymouth for the Falcons, an idea finalized in the wake of a roller-coaster end to the 2011-12 season.

It started with arguably the biggest victory in program history when the Falcons upset defending state champion Eden Prairie in the opening round of last year’s section playoffs.

A few weeks later, their coach was gone.

Danny Charleston was hired to replace Todd Weisjahn, and after helping oversee the deal to move the team back to New Hope on a permanent basis, he went to work on giving the rest of the program a revision.

“We wanted everything to feel new,” Charleston said last week inside the Falcons locker room, where he was surrounded by the new uniforms, helmets, breezers and sparkling new flat-screen television he’s added to aid the implementation of new he alluded to.

“This is a fresh start,” Charleston continued. “It is a fresh image, in the locker room, and on the ice, where we want the kids to be creative and have free reign to just play, and to play fast.”

That last part might be most telling when games begin this week. Through the first two weeks of practice, the team has yet to spend hardly a minute working on power plays, penalty kills, forechecks, and the rest of the nuances that will eventually shape their style of play.

For now, the onus has been on getting faster, stronger and free to move up the ice at any given moment.

“That’s been the biggest change,” said junior forward Cole Goergen, who had 16 points last year and is the team’s leading returning scorer. “We are going to play really fast. He wants us to spread the ice and score goals. He won’t confine us. He wants us to be creative and do what we can do.”

As the Falcons proved late last year, that is win at a level rarely experienced before.

The victory over Eden Prairie was a monumental upset in high school hockey circles, and it reverberated as such with the team.

They understood what they did, and how. More importantly, they’ve been led to believe they can do it again.

“These kids beat Eden Prairie,” Charleston said. “Coaches can only do so much. They made the decision to go out and work for it. They did it. Nobody did it for them.”

Ten players from that team are back this year.

The list includes Goergen, Kristian Evans, Tommy Wood, Brady Johnson, Nick Malmgren, Ben Hansen and Blake Babineau up front, Eric Udelhoven, Brady Anderson and Chris Haugen on defense, and back-up goaltender Grant Mathiason, who watched that night as incumbent Michael Greenberg made 49 saves in upsetting Eden Prairie.

Much of what this year’s lineup will look like has yet to be determined, as Charleston said he has juggled his forward lines and defensemen pairings almost daily so far.

But the goaltending responsibilities can only go one of two ways, with Mathiason and sophomore Brendan Murphy dueling for what Greenberg proved late year could be the most important job on the ice.

“We saw last year that a goaltender can steal a game for you,” said Goergen. “But these guys both have the capability of being solid. We just need a guy to stop pucks, and they’ve both shown they can do it.”

Regardless of how Armstrong performs, whichever one lands the job will likely still see plenty pucks.

The Northwest Suburban Conference is expected to be one of high school hockey’s best leagues once again this season.

Armstrong won’t play its first league game until Dec. 6 when Andover plays a visit to the New Hope Ice Arena, but that will start a string of 16 games in which 14 come in the NWSC.

The team opens with three non-conference road games. The season started Nov. 27 at Legacy Christian Academy. The Falcons also play at Hopkins at 3 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 1 and at St. Michael-Albertville Dec. 4.

“We can’t wait,” said Udelhoven. “A lot has happened since last year, but we are looking forward to getting everything started the way we ended last season, where we are working hard and getting the emotion back and wanting to play how we did at the end last year. We proved a lot. Now it is time to build off of it.”