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Langenbrunner still feels at home on Cloquet ice

CLOQUET -- Jamie Langenbrunner didn't plan his retirement announcement for Jan. 15. He'd begrudgingly accepted retirement sometime before Christmas. The National Hockey League Players' Association, not wanting to interfere with the holidays or th...

Coach Langenbrunner
Jamie Langenbrunner gives instructions to Cloquet Pee Wee AA player Jon Baker during a game against Hermantown on Jan. 21 in Cloquet. (Dave Harwig / viewthroughmylens.net)
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CLOQUET -- Jamie Langenbrunner didn't plan his retirement announcement for Jan. 15. He'd begrudgingly accepted retirement sometime before Christmas. The National Hockey League Players' Association, not wanting to interfere with the holidays or the announcement of the Olympic team, held the cards. The symbolism of the day it chose was lost on Langenbrunner until his youngest son, Mason, came bounding into the room.

"He's the one who said, 'you realize it's the 15th?'" said Langenbrunner, who wore the number to iconic status for three NHL franchises and the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team, before wisecracking, "But I'm retired. We don't keep track of days like that. We either have hockey practice or we don't."

The practice Langenbrunner now refers to is no longer a pregame morning skate-around. Rather, it's for the Cloquet Peewee AA team. He's the head coach. After 18 years playing professional hockey, the Cloquet native finds himself back in the cradle of his youth. Only this time, the noted golfing fanatic is beginning the back nine of his life in hockey as dad, coach and association board member.

Langenbrunner and his wife, Elizabeth, made the tough decision to come home rather than remain in St. Louis, the last of his pro stops.

"I'd been away for basically 20 years," he said. "We always spent summers here --- we have a place south of here --- but it got toward the end of my career, and we were trying to decide what to do. We felt comfortable here. We have friends here, families here. When you're moving around a lot, it's nice to have someplace to settle down."

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Langenbrunner settled, but he didn't stagnate. He dove into the Cloquet hockey scene. He's coaching two of his three children, sons Landon and Mason, on the Peewee AA team. As difficult as retirement was (and we'll get to that), Langenbrunner found staying in the game was easy.

"I feel most comfortable in this atmosphere," he said, while perched along the mezzanine walking track at Northwoods Credit Union Arena, where a squirt game unfolded on the rink just below him. "I've done it for too long to not be a part of it. I can't imagine not being around it. It's what I know, and it's in my blood."

Later that night, Langenbrunner's Peewee AA team would best Hermantown. A day earlier, Langenbrunner's team beat a highly regarded Superior club. He wore a beanie cap on the bench. He crossed his arms. He uncrossed them. He clasped his hands behind his back. He grimaced when his team couldn't hold the blue line. He shouted "No way! No way!" at a penalty called on one of his players. He was coach-like, and the players were glued to his message between every period. The pinnacle of the team's season so far has been a championship haul at Roseau's Paul Broten Peewee A/AA Tournament. The team scored 36 goals across five unbeaten games against a who's who of powerhouse hockey programs.

"We can beat any team on the list - any team in the state of Minnesota," Cloquet Peewee AA defenseman Drake Nordin said. "When we're on the same page, working together, we're unstoppable."

For Nordin, the experience of playing for his idol has tempered of late, starting at surreal and settling into something approximating normalcy. In his mind, Langenbrunner has gone from being a goal-scoring hockey god to the guy who teaches Nordin not to overthink the first pass out of the defensive zone. "Jamie Langenbrunner" is now simply "coach." Except that when Nordin goes home after practice, Langenbrunner's Olympic jersey, -- the one with the "C," for captain -- hangs on his bedroom wall.

"He's been my favorite player since I've known how to watch TV," Nordin said. "He's one of my biggest idols, and I'd always wanted to meet him. Anybody in the USA would want him as their coach. Now, he's my coach."

The 38-year-old and graying Langenbrunner maintains he is toughest on his star players, including his oldest son, Landon, 13. Langenbrunner said it was his own high school coach, Tom McFarlane, who set the template for how he now approaches the hierarchy within the locker room.

"If your top players stay stagnant, everybody else stays stagnant," Langenbrunner said. "If your top players keep growing and changing, people keep chasing them and growing, and it makes everybody better. You need that top group pulling everybody along.

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"That's why I'm the hardest on them."

But he's fair, too, and conscientious to the individuality of each player on the team. Pam Baker is a mother with twin sons on the team, Jonathan and Nicholas. She said what impresses her about Langenbrunner as a coach is that he knows her twins as individuals. He's never mistook one for the other. Part of that are the team-building efforts he has fostered at the Langen­brunners' lake home. Part of that is Langenbrunner's oft-acknowledged humanity. In high school, he matriculated with the jocks, sure, but he was also in the chorus of "The Music Man."

"He's just - I don't want to say regular guy - but he's such a regular guy," Baker said. "He's an amazing coach. The boys all want to play hard for him. They all respect him. He's taken the time to get to know each one of them."

Langenbrunner differentiates his accomplishments on the ice from his person. He also knows that not everybody around him can do that. Thus, he's become gifted at putting people at ease with strong eye contact and a charmingly simple grin. His Cloquet buddies also do their part to keep him grounded. They give him as much ribbing now as they ever did.

"I've always felt like a regular guy around here," Langenbrunner said. "People here are really good about treating me as Jamie."

That Langenbrunner lived the dream is something that's not lost on him, either. His players see that, and they dream it, too. But Langenbrunner is sensitive to overstating the dream. He's grounded in the moment, and he wants his players to be grounded, too. He preaches to his players to control what they can control --- and that's how hard they work and how hard they compete. The "compete-level" as he calls it is something Langenbrunner, the player, was noted for. His were hard-charging shifts that could culminate in joyful double fist pumps after another legend-builder of a goal. He didn't simply live the dream, the dream was alive in him, and that's how he played. That's why you won't find another player wearing No. 15 on this year's Olympic team. He was special, especially for being great at doing the things any player can control.

"The dream is extremely important," Langenbrunner said. "That's a great thing to have, but there are steps along the way. There are great times and great memories from things that happen along the way.

"The dream is not the end-all-be-all. There are plenty of things to get out of this game and having that perspective is the most important thing."

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Perspective came to Langenbrunner hard this last NHL offseason, when he waited for a call to arms that never came. For the man who enjoyed two independently brilliant runs with two professional franchises (148 goals and a Stanley Cup for the New Jersey Devils, and 95 goals and a Stanley Cup for the Dallas Stars), the waiting bled into reality, and by the holidays he'd resigned himself to the end of the line. The finality hit him flush around the announcement of the Sochi Olympic team Jan. 1. He wasn't so naïve as to harbor thoughts of making the team a third time. Still, it was hard.

"That was, for me, the closure," he said. "When that dawned, watching that happen -- something you were a big part of and a great memory -- it was kind of a tough couple days for me, but it was also great.

"A lot of my good friends are getting the opportunity to go, and it's such a unique and awesome experience to be a part of the Olympics."

For Langenbrunner, he'll watch the NBC coverage. Just like a regular guy. Only, he's the sort of regular guy/hockey dad/hockey coach who still gets calls from the St. Louis Blues.

"My retirement is kind of short-lived," he said. "St. Louis asked me to come do some scouting for them. Just under the stipulation that I'm not missing a thing back home. So, I get to set my schedule, go see a few games. It's an opportunity to be a part of some things, but to have my cake and eat it, too."

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