Earlier this month, before departing on a two-week vacation to Florida, Bruce Plante said he was leaning toward stepping down as Hermantown’s boys hockey coach.
Plante, though, had to make sure he was all-in on retirement.
“It’s a really big decision for me,” he said then. “It’s tough. Once you do it, you’re out. You don’t get to get the team back. You never get to go back. You have to be ready. I knew when I was ready (to retire from) baseball and I knew when I was ready to retire from teaching, but I’m still a little iffy.”
The Florida sun provided some clarity.
After 28 seasons as the Hawks’ coach, which spawned 13 state tournament berths, three titles and 547 victories, Plante announced his resignation Thursday. He gathered his players in a classroom after school and delivered the news.
This was it.
Hermantown’s 4-3 win over Monticello-Annandale-Maple Lake in double overtime on March 11 at Xcel Energy Center, which sealed the program’s second straight state championship, marked Plante’s final game.
Not a bad exit.
Still, it wasn’t easy.
“It’s been very emotional for me, very hard for me,” the 68-year-old Plante said. “I’m kind of an emotional guy anyway. When I wrote the (resignation) letter, I was just bawling. I’ve done this for a long time, and it’s just kind of my identity.”
He started at Hermantown in 1983 and coached through 1989 before taking a six-year sabbatical to scout for the Minnesota North Stars and Dallas Stars. Upon returning in 1995, the Hawks took off. They went to state for the first time while Plante was away, in 1994, and that became a March tradition over the ensuing two decades.
The colorful coach, singlehandedly capable of filling reporters’ notebooks with his off-the-cuff quips and candid sound bites, developed a reputation as a tough yet compassionate leader. On the eve of Hermantown’s eighth consecutive trip to state, senior Ryan Sandelin said Plante allowed the Hawks to have fun, but when it was time to get serious, well, they got serious.
“These three years, I couldn’t have asked for a better high school coach,” Sandelin said at the time. “He’s demanding, but he likes to have fun, too. That’s the biggest thing - you can’t be serious all the time. It’s easy for people to think he’s serious all the time, but people don’t see this side of him when he’s at the rink. He’s always goofing around with us, making jokes, and we just love messing around with him.”
Said fellow senior Dawson Pietrusa: “At first he’s kind of intimidating, but once you settle in you realize he’s a great coach, great guy.”
Pietrusa added that he appreciated Plante’s straightforward style. There were no gray areas.
Also stepping down Thursday was Plante’s longtime assistant, Daryl Illikainen, also the school’s football coach. He was the goalie on Plante’s first team.
That was the hardest part about the decision - the relationships.
“I just love him (Illikainen). I think he’s the greatest guy in the world. Now I’m not going to be around him as much as I have been. That’s hard for me,” Plante said. “The most important part of coaching hasn’t been the championships. To me, it’s all about relationships.”
Plante graduated from Cloquet, where he played hockey for a pair of legends - Don Bourdeau and Bill Kennedy. He never thought he’d get an opportunity to follow in their footsteps. Coaching high school hockey was “beyond belief.” But that changed when the Hermantown gig came open. Plante says he was lucky to get it.
He was in the process of putting his life back together. Plante had lost his job as a project manager at Diamond International, which led him to get his teaching certificate. He was divorced in 1982, stopped drinking around the same time, and started subbing and coaching.
“I got lucky to get this job - they gave me a chance,” he said.
Back then, the Hawks were fluttering. But that first season brought newfound success, including a lengthy postseason run that Plante said energized the community.
“Ever since, I was just in the right place at the right time,” Plante said, expressing his gratitude to all the people who helped build the program into one of the state’s best.
Last winter, he became the ninth coach in Minnesota high school boys hockey history to win 500 career games. And Hermantown has become a breeding ground for future Division I players. Indeed, the Hawks have come a long ways since Plante’s first year.
Now, he’s ready to let someone else have a shot. That means figuring out what to do with his free time. He has some ideas. Traveling with his wife, Sandy, and spending more time ice fishing, for starters. And he’s anxious to watch his grandchildren grow up.
“It’s going to be all new,” Plante said. “I’ve been doing this (hockey) for 64 years, since I was 4 years old. I’m going to have to figure it out.”