By: Rick Weegman, Duluth News Tribune
Wherever Robb Stauber’s hockey career has taken him, success hasn’t been far behind.The former Duluth Denfeld and University of Minnesota goaltender hopes the same holds true at the 2014 Winter Olympics.
Stauber, 46, led the Hunters to their first state tournament, won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player, played in three successive NCAA Frozen Fours and for an NHL Stanley Cup finalist that featured Wayne Gretzky, coached on two NCAA Division I men’s champions and one women’s champion and now has a chance at a gold medal as the Team USA women’s goaltending coach.
“The only thing I haven’t done yet is coach a pro team — that would be the last check on the box,” he said via phone last week before the U.S. team left its Boston training base for Sochi, Russia.
The United States and Canada are overwhelming favorites to battle for gold, and a hot goaltender usually is the key to success. The U.S. returns all three of its netminders from the 2010 Games: Jessie Vetter, who started four games in Vancouver, Molly Schaus and Brianne McLaughlin. Head coach Katey Stone and Stauber have not revealed who will start vs. Finland in Saturday’s opener, but Stauber says all three are ready.
“My job is to make sure our three goalies are mentally and physically prepared to be their best,” he said. “On any given night, anything could happen — somebody could get hurt at the Olympics — so my focus is that I’m just as hard on Jessie Vetter as I am on Molly Schauss or Brianna McLaughlin.”
Canada won the first three exhibition meetings and the U.S. took the last four in the run-up to the Olympics. The Canadians have won the past three gold medals after losing to the Americans in 1998 at Nagano, Japan, the first Olympics to feature women’s hockey.
“Our team is trending in a very positive direction. I don’t think we’ve peaked yet, but it sure is looking good,” said Stauber, who is more concerned how the players have adapted to the team’s game plan than any pre-Olympics results. “That plan is continually reinforced and becoming stronger, so we feel really good about our team’s preparation.”
From Denfeld to NHL
Stauber’s path to the Olympics began as the fifth of six brothers born to a hockey family in the Piedmont neighborhood in Duluth.
He started every game as a sophomore, junior and senior, backstopping Denfeld to its inaugural state appearance in 1986. He was ranked No. 63 by mnhockeyhub.com on a list of the state’s top 100 all-time players.
Those moments are still foremost in his memory.
“There was a dream that mattered more than any other, and that was the state tournament,” Stauber said. “It’s almost as if the other stuff was so far-fetched, but the state tournament was something attainable. That was an incredible time.”
Stauber went on to Minnesota, guiding the Gophers to three straight Frozen Fours. He became the first goalie in NCAA history to win the Hobey Baker Award as a sophomore in 1988 (the same season his older brother, Pete, won an NCAA title at Lake Superior State) and was runner-up the following season. The two-time Western Collegiate Hockey Association player of the year then signed with the Kings and played in a couple of games before being sent down to their American Hockey League affiliate.
In 1992, he finally reached the pinnacle with the Kings — a moment he’ll never forget.
“When you are sitting at your stall (in the locker room) and you hear your name (make the final cut), then it hits you,” he recalled. “I’ll never forget the gray carpet, the lockers, where I was sitting and looking around the room and seeing the players I was surrounded with: Wayne Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Charlie Huddy, Thomas Sandstrom, Tony Granato … the list goes on.
“In some ways, you just can’t believe where you’re at. It’s like it happened yesterday.”
After a 62-game NHL career and several years tending goal in the AHL, Stauber retired in 1999.
Though he went to work that fall as goaltending coach of his alma mater, his teaching days began many years earlier. Stauber worked with one of the original goaltending gurus, Warren Strelow, and former Gophers goalie Paul Ostby at summer camps while still in college. Camps with Ostby became a yearly venture as a professional, though Stauber recalls he always was the understudy.
“Had I believed I knew more than I did, I’d never be where I’m at,” he said. “Because I was willing to learn and listen and be exposed to other people’s opinions — and be humble about the process —that has led me to so many opportunities.”
UMD position led to Olympics
In 2002, Stauber started his Goalcrease training center in Edina, Minn., allowing him more hands-on teaching for goalie wannabes and professional clients.
“He’s an outstanding teacher,” said older brother Jamie, assistant coach on the Wisconsin-Superior women’s team. “That Goalcrease — the developmental goalie program that he started — really jump-started his (desire) for coaching. Goaltenders, in particular, look up to Robb.”
Stauber spent nine seasons as goaltending coach at Minnesota, winning back-to-back NCAA championships in 2002 and 2003, and moonlighted as UMD’s goalie coach from 2004-08, culminating in the Bulldogs’ fourth of five titles.
“We wouldn’t even be having this conversation about the Olympics, if I didn’t make that decision,” Stauber said of coming to UMD. “Had I not done that, I don’t think the Olympic team would have considered me because I didn’t have the experience (with a women’s team).”
UMD coach Shannon Miller, who coached the Canadian Olympic team to silver in 1998, called Stauber to gauge his interest.
“I reached out to him and I thought, ‘I’m going to get the best goalie coach I can,’” Miller recalled. “Obviously it was difficult because he didn’t live here, but he made several trips and he was an asset to our staff. I’m happy that through that opportunity with us, it opened up some doors in women’s hockey for him. He’s a great human being.”
Stauber helped train goalies such as Kim Martin and Riita Schaublin while in Duluth. Schaublin, in particular, improved during his stay.
“He really transformed her,” Miller said. “She was fairly average when she came and he turned her into a pretty good goalie.”
Ironically, Martin is Sweden’s goaltender and could stand in the way of the U.S. reaching the gold-medal game.
Coaching kids most satisfying
Stauber’s favorite coaching moments, however, don’t involve college athletes or Olympians.
He coached his daughter, Ruby, and son, Jaxson, on their youth teams. Ruby’s U-12 team won a Minnesota state title and Jaxson won state championships at the Peewee and Bantam B levels.
But, oddly enough, Ruby was not the team’s goalie. Stauber molded another girl into a goalie when he could tell the position was not for his daughter.
Ruby suited up only once in goal during a game. Robb was with the UMD women’s team at the time, but when he returned to practice he put his daughter in pads again.
“I wanted to see how badly she wanted to do it so I poked and prodded her that day,” he said. “I was more curious to see how she responded to my coaching than anything else. She didn’t respond very well. The next day, I wanted to see where she was at emotionally so we had another girl try. Every time I was coaching that girl, I could see Ruby watching me. And I was giving this girl a ton of praise and encouraging her, and I could tell Ruby was getting frustrated watching that interaction.
“I just wanted to see if she would say, ‘Dad, let me try again.’ But she never did, so I knew it wasn’t for her.”
Ruby, now 16, gave up hockey and plays soccer and runs track at Wayzata High School.
Jaxson, 15, is a goalie, however. He plays on Wayzata’s Bantam squad and is a freshman at Benilde-St. Margaret’s High School.
Chu back in Olympics
Stauber is not the only ex-UMD coach with ties to the U.S. Olympic team.
Veteran forward Julie Chu, who is in her fourth Winter Games and has become the face of the women’s team at age 31, was a UMD assistant on the 2007-08 NCAA championship team.
“She got lucky, eh?” Miller said about Chu’s one-year stint.
Chu was unavailable for comment as the U.S. team was in self-imposed “lockdown” shortly before departing Boston, however Stauber says it’s remarkable that the oldest U.S. player still can compete with women a decade younger.
“It’s amazing. If you asked her, she would say these girls are getting bigger, faster and stronger. She would tell you how good these players are — they are getting better and better,” Stauber said. “We’re going to count on her veteran leadership.”
The NCAA’s all-time leading scorer while at Harvard University (284 points in 129 games) and a former winner of the Patty Kazmaier Award as the nation’s top player, Chu came to UMD and made a difference, Miller said. She went on to become an assistant coach at Union (N.Y.) College, but is taking a sabbatical to play in the Olympics.
“I’m not even sure if she wants to coach, but she’s a really good coach,” Miller said. “She’s just a good role model for young women because of her nutritional habits and her work habits. She’s a very upbeat, positive person, and that’s infectious. Those are good personality traits as a coach.”