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Prep boys hockey: North Shore coach Guzzo set to put career on ice

Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com North Shore boys hockey coach Mike Guzzo celebrates after his team scored a goal against Eveleth-Gilbert during Thursday's game at Rukavina Arena in Silver Bay. Guzzo is retiring as coach at the end of the season.1 / 2
Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com North Shore boys hockey coach Mike Guzzo cheers on his players as they leave the locker room for the second period against Eveleth-Gilbert during Thursday's game at Rukavina Arena in Silver Bay. Guzzo is retiring as coach at the end of the season.2 / 2

SILVER BAY — A job lured Mike Guzzo back to his hometown of Silver Bay. Specifically, it was an 18-month trial as the city's recreation director. Guzzo and his wife, Mary, planned to ride out the 18 months, then reassess and possibly look elsewhere for employment.

That was in 1984.

Thirty-five years later, Guzzo still heads Silver Bay's parks and rec department.

Who says you can't go home again?

Guzzo has carved out a pretty good niche for himself. Almost as soon as he returned, Guzzo began coaching hockey, first as an assistant, then 21 seasons as bench boss of the Mariners. After which, he was recruited to coach the Silver Bay Area girls squad for five years. Guzzo is now in his fifth and final winter leading the North Shore Storm boys.

At 61 and with retirement from the city looming next December, he's ready to pass the whistle.

"Like everybody else, when your time comes, your time comes," Guzzo said from his office at Rukavina Arena prior to North Shore's regular-season finale vs. Eveleth-Gilbert on Thursday night. "And my time's coming."

Bolstered by a strong effort Thursday, which yielded a 4-1 victory over the Golden Bears, the Storm nabbed the No. 6 seed for the Section 7A playoffs and open Tuesday at Greenway.

After getting things ready for the junior varsity game, Guzzo retreated to the arena's mezzanine, where he enjoyed a snack from the concession stand while socializing with parents and fans. Ahead of the varsity contest, he stood solo on the Storm bench as his career accomplishments were read by the public-address announcer, whose voice turned emotional while concluding with a personal note about Guzzo's role coaching her own sons.

Guzzo walked over and gave her a hug.

As he spoke earlier in the day, Guzzo was asked what he's going to miss most once that final horn sounds.

"That right there," he said, motioning toward the locker room, where players were doing what teenagers do in the hours leading up to puck drop.

Guzzo is nothing if not competitive. He played football, hockey, tennis and, as a senior, baseball in high school, before continuing his athletic career at Bemidji State. In 1981, he nearly made the Minnesota Vikings as a kicker.

Coaching allowed Guzzo, a 1976 Silver Bay graduate who also has guided the school's softball team the past two decades, to fill that competitive void.

Still, it's always been about the players, he says.

"I think he spends more time stressing about the kids than people realize," Storm assistant Dan Thewis said.

Guzzo played high school hockey and got his coaching start when Minnesota was still a one-class state. If you want to get the colorful Guzzo into a rant — which doesn't take much doing — ask him about the changes he's observed in the sport. Time was, the North Shore teams could compete with the likes of Duluth East, Grand Rapids and other large schools.

In fact, as people have asked Guzzo recently of his biggest coaching win in hockey, he jokingly says "flip a coin" between Silver Bay's upset of Duluth East in 1990 — "We were shocking everybody that year," he says — or the Mariners' defeat of International Falls in the 1999 section final.

He eventually conceded that advancing to state trumped toppling the mighty Greyhounds.

But those days have faded, with talented players concentrated among fewer and fewer programs. The gulf between the haves and have-nots only widens.

"That's been probably the toughest part for me to see," Guzzo said.

Guzzo is proud of what he's helped build with the Storm, a Silver Bay-Two Harbors co-op. He has about 35 players between the varsity and JV this season, a healthy number and one that means Guzzo is accomplishing one of his chief objectives — keeping kids engaged and excited about playing hockey.

"I think the program is in really good shape, and I feel good about that," he said.

Whether Guzzo's final hockey game occurs Tuesday or deeper into the playoffs, the ending won't be easy.

"This has been my life," he said. "I don't know what it'll be like to not have a game to go to."

Playoff notes

If nothing else, Duluth East — seeded second behind Andover — enters the Section 7AA playoffs with fresh legs. Thanks to woeful winter weather, the Greyhounds have only played once since their 2-0 win at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton on Feb. 4 — a 10-0 rout of Superior earlier this week. Games against Lakeville South and Maple Grove were snowed out.

• Duluth Marshall faces East at Essentia Heritage Center in the 7AA quarterfinals Tuesday, meaning for the first time since they moved up to Class AA in 2015-16 the Hilltoppers won't open the playoffs at Northwoods Arena in Cloquet. Instead, the Lumberjacks welcome Grand Rapids exactly one week after falling to the Thunderhawks 5-3. Resurgent Grand Rapids was 4-14 following a 6-0 loss to CEC in the teams' first meeting, on Jan. 15, before winning five of seven, including 3-2 at powerful Wayzata.

• In 7A, everyone is gunning for top-seeded Hermantown, which has won the section every year since coming over from Section 5A in 2013-14. The Hawks haven't lost since Dec. 29 — 3-2 to Rosemount in the final of the Hilltopper Holiday Classic. The rest of the field is muddled, with just about every team capable of reaching the Feb. 27 title tilt.

Second-seeded Duluth Denfeld is enjoying a bounce-back campaign and is 7-1-1 vs. 7A opponents, losing to Hermantown and tying No. 4 Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl. Third-seeded Greenway boasts the requisite firepower to challenge Hermantown. The Raiders, runners-up to the Hawks each of the past two years, enter the postseason on a six-game winning streak.

And the Blue Devils, seeded fourth, gave Hermantown its closest contest of any section foe, falling 5-3 on Monday.

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