Grand Rapids players entered the 2019-20 hockey season in the most chaotic way imaginable.
Coach Chris Marinucci resigned a month before the start of the season began after an episode that led to him pleading guilty to driving while intoxicated.
Enter Wade Chiodo.
A former Bemidji head coach, Chiodo took the reins three days before practice commenced.
With such little time to institute his offensive systems, Chiodo knew his team needed to be defensive oriented.
“Our message from day one when I took the job was that we’re going to play from our net out,” Chiodo said before a recent game. “That’s how you win games. Offense will be created off defense, and they’ve really bought in (to the system).
“It’s taken some time to get used to my systems and how we play, but obviously it works wonders when everybody does their job and plays their role.”
Grand Rapids (17-7-1) earned the No. 2 seed in the Section 7AA playoffs and will open the second season at home against No. 7 Anoka (6-18-1) in Tuesday’s quarterfinals.
Senior goaltender Carter Clafton has keyed the Thunderhawks’ rise after a four-game losing streak early in the season.
Clafton, who has played all but two periods this season, allowed just six goals in a 10-game stretch — posting five shutouts in the process — and then beat Class A second-ranked Hermantown 4-2 to finish the regular season on a seven-game win streak.
“He’s locked in and playing outstanding,” Chiodo said. “He’s been on his ‘A’ game since Christmas time. He’s fun to watch, and when we do have a breakdown he’s there. Trust me, it’s nice having him in the blue paint for us because he’s a big-time goalie.”
Star defenseman Jack Peart concurs with his coach.
“Having a good goalie can save you some games, and we’ve seen that this year,” Peart said of Clafton, who enters the playoffs with a 1.63 goals-against average and a .934 save percentage.
Clafton has been so dominant he probably could make a save while standing on his head.
“I just have to keep it going and play the best that I can,” Clafton said, downplaying his role.
The goalie is quick to credit his defensemen, especially Peart, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound junior who committed to St. Cloud State more than a year and a half ago.
“I’d say he’s the best defenseman in the state,” Clafton said. “When he’s out on the ice, I’m not panicking at all and I know that he’s going to help me out.”
You won’t get any argument from Chiodo.
“He’s an absolute stud back there,” the coach said. “He commands the game and controls it. He’s a breakout artist who understands the game. He’s a special player in the sense that you don’t get those types of players around very often.”
Peart, a noted offensive defenseman, leads the team in goals (13) and points (27), numbers that are likely down due to the Thunderhawks’ defensive style. Unworried about statistics, Peart believes this style of play is the best for him in the long run.
“It’s going to set me up for my future career,” he said. “Learning my ‘D’ zone is good for me. I don’t want to sound cocky but I guess I do have decent offensive skills, so working on the back end is good.”
Still, Chiodo says he doesn’t rein in a player as talented as Peart.
“When you have a player that good, you let him go. I’m a firm believer in that,” Chiodo said. “He thinks the game better than anybody I’ve ever coached. You let him be an athlete and do what he wants to do.”
One thing that made the transition to Chiodo’s brand of play easier was that he coached seven Thunderhawks in the Fall Elite League, including Peart and Clafton, so he had a good rapport with several players.
“It was pretty easy for us,” Peart said. “We knew who he was, it was just getting the rest of the team to know his systems and buy into them. It’s all been good.”
Outside of the rough patch early on in one-goal losses to Roseau and Warroad and shutouts at the hands of Edina and Elk River, Grand Rapids has been in a groove, albeit a defensive one.
“I knew it would be a roller-coaster ride, at least the first month into it,” Chiodo said. “Now we’re hitting our stride with understanding their responsibilities. Playoff hockey you need to be strong defensively.”
Top-ranked Andover (20-3-1) is the No. 1 seed in 7AA and stands in the Thunderhawks’ way. During a season in which neither Duluth East (10-12-2) nor Cloquet-Esko-Carlton (13-11-1) stood out, the Huskies are now the team to beat.
“If we get the opportunity to face them, you want to play the best,” Chiodo said. “If we get that opportunity, we’ll be prepared and ready to go.”
Peart took a more succinct approach.
“We want to bump them off,” he said.