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Prep boys hockey: Superior’s Kalin walks away

The Spartans won three Wisconsin state championships and appeared in the title game seven times during Kalin’s 21-year stint as head coach.

Superior head hockey coach Jason Kalin, center, talks with senior defensemen Trevor Durfee (5) and George Hansen (7)
Superior head hockey coach Jason Kalin, center, talks with senior defensemen Trevor Durfee (5) and George Hansen (7) in the second period of the Spartans' playoff game with Tomah/Sparta at Wessman Arena on Feb. 15, 2022. Kalin is stepping down as head coach of the Spartans.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Traditionally, the day before games, the Superior boys hockey team plays a game called “World League” that involves both coaches and players.

The game is a free-for-all hockey game where the first team to get three goals wins and one of the fiercest players on the ice is 47-year-old head coach Jason Kalin.

“There’s virtually no rules and he’s probably the most competitive guy out there,” senior Kell Piggott said. “He loves the game even though he hasn’t been in high school for a while.”

Piggott said he was “pretty shocked” when Kalin informed the team that he was stepping down as head coach after 21 years guiding the Spartans.

“He loves this program so much,” Piggott said. “He’s a guy who’s really sacrificed a lot of time and effort to really make us a dynasty in the state of Wisconsin and he’s an awesome guy who loves his players.”

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After notching his 300th career win against Wausau West in Jan. 2021, the Spartan boys hockey coach reflected on his career and how things have changed in two decades of coaching.

During his time coaching Superior, Kalin led the team to three state championships, most recently in 2015, and compiled a record of 317-201-15 — by far the most wins in program history. Kalin’s 317 wins is 208 more than second-place Gary Harker, who led the Spartans from 1970-77. Superior also played in seven state championship games and qualified for 14 Wisconsin state tournaments under Kalin.

There was no “definitive answer” to why he chose to walk away now, Kalin said, but the year-round nature — with off-season camps and training regimens — of coaching hockey today has become a bit of a “grind.”

“It’s continuous and if you’re not doing those things, you’re already behind the 8-ball, you’re behind other coaches that are putting that time in,” Kalin said. “I’ve done that, up until the COVID pandemic, I was consistently busy all year…The fact is, those things continue to need to be addressed and need to be done. I just feel like the program deserves that. I’m not sure I’m able to do that like I have in the past and I felt like this was the right time to step away for me personally and professionally.”

With all the games against Minnesota hockey teams on the Spartans schedule, Kalin’s teams consistently played “the toughest schedule in the state of Wisconsin,” according to Kalin. The team was always an underdog at the state tournament, but they were prepared for the level of competition they would face.

“We were resilient, we didn’t win all the games, but we got better as the season went on,” Kalin said. “It was a learning process, it was a growing process for us. We knew we were going to take licks from these Minnesota opponents or these tough Wisconsin teams. It was important to challenge ourselves with the toughest competition because we knew it would pay off in the long run.”

‘PHT’

Former players and assistants all talked about Kalin as a fiercely competitive coach but one that had his priorities in the right order.

“As far as priorities, it’s always family first, academics second and hockey third and he lived that throughout his entire career as head coach,” assistant Ryan Hendry said.

Superior head hockey coach Jason Kalin, center, pals around with long-time assistants Rob Downs, left, and Ryan Hendry
Superior head hockey coach Jason Kalin, center, pals around with long-time assistants Rob Downs, left, and Ryan Hendry before the Spartans' playoff game with Tomah/Sparta at Wessman Arena on Feb. 15, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Hendry was a player on the 2003 state championship team and an assistant with the 2015 squad.

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Brett Olson, a player on the 2003 and 2005 state title teams, now plays professional hockey for Dusseldorf EG in the Deustche Eishockey Liga, the top German professional league. Olson was cut from the junior varsity squad as a freshman and said Kalin really made him earn a spot on the varsity roster as a sophomore.

“He pushed me day-in and day-out with encouragement but also with tough love and allowed me no shortcuts, no participation medals,” Olson said in an email. “He felt the ups and downs of victories and defeats just as we did and the effort and time he put into us when I played was something we respected. He pushed all of us and instilled the concept of PHT (Pride, Heart, Tradition) that we unified around and drove us to perform at our best that year and the years to come.”

Olson went on to play four years at Michigan Tech, two of them as captain, and is currently in his 10th season as a professional.

Superior head hockey coach Jason Kalin, center, questions a call during the Spartans game
Superior head hockey coach Jason Kalin, center, questions a call during the Spartans' game with Duluth East at Wessman Arena on Feb. 2, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Piggott said he will remember the run the Spartans made to the 2021 title game and how Kalin played the “hot hand” but was understanding when his players made a mistake.

“He was a guy who if you come to the bench and you just made a mistake, he’s not going to harp on you,” Piggott said. “He’s going to lift you up and give you another shot. I can tell you he was so proud of us and it was awesome. Even not making it to the (state) tournament again, he was so unbelievably fired up about how good we did this year from where we started.”

Kalin, 47, said he’s planning to be at all the Spartan games next season as a fan, but he’s looking forward to a winter without playing or coaching hockey for the first time since he was 4 years old.

“I want to know what winter is like without hockey,” Kalin said. “I will be going to every game and I’m going to be watching the NHL. It’s a passion of mine — it’s the greatest sport in the world in my mind, but I think I wouldn’t mind ice fishing. I wouldn’t mind hopping on a snowmobile and taking a trip somewhere. I don’t know if I like it, I just would like to try it.”

Superior head hockey coach Jason Kalin, center, watches the Spartans play in the first period of their playoff game
Superior head hockey coach Jason Kalin, center, watches the Spartans play in the first period of their playoff game with Tomah/Sparta at Wessman Arena on Feb. 15, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Jamey Malcomb has a been high school sports reporter for the Duluth News Tribune since October 2021. He spent the previous six years covering news and sports for the Lake County News-Chronicle in Two Harbors and the Cloquet Pine Journal. He graduated from the George Washington University in 1999 with a bachelor's degree in history and literature and also holds a master's degree in secondary English education from George Mason University.
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