When the puck drops, Sally Guentzel is ready.
Although a stick is not in her grip, and the faceoff is not hers to win, her men are coaching or playing hockey, and there is nowhere else to be. With games in Woodbury, Colorado or Germany, Sally has been either watching in the bleachers, monitoring on a TV or laptop, checking scores on her phone or awaiting a postgame call.
Sally is the matriarch of one of Minnesota’s top hockey families. Her husband, Mike, is the associate head coach at the University of Minnesota. Ryan, her eldest/forward, played last season on a professional team in Germany. Gabe, her middle son/defenseman, skated at Colorado College last year. Jake, her youngest/forward, starred as a junior at Hill-Murray School.
“Without her, I don’t think any one of us would be to the point we are at,” says Ryan, 26. “It’s remarkable the amount of hockey she has watched over the years.”
On Minnesota’s Iron Range, Sally started as a cheerleader in a green and white sweater at Greenway-Coleraine High School; Mike, in the same colors, was a standout defenseman for the Raiders. He then captained the Gophers; she was a volleyball setter at Hibbing Community College. They married in 1985 and started a family. Sally’s desire to be ever-present increased when Ryan was born in 1986.
“It kills her to miss anything with her boys,” Mike says.
The Guentzels settled in Woodbury in 1995. At city rinks, Bo Nickoloff, who at Hibbing High School played against Mike, as well as other parents and coaches made the easy assumption that the boys inherited the competitive spirit from Mike, who played 143 games for the Gophers and was drafted by the NHL’s New York Rangers.
“I always thought it came from Mike, but I think it’s Sally,” says Nickoloff, a coach and former board member of the Woodbury Hockey Association. “She really gets going. It’s fun to sit by her at a game or watch her at a game, she gets pretty excited.”
But it’s more than just the rah-rah.
“She gives us tips with what she doesn’t like,” says Jake, 18. “She will tell us to move our feet when we aren’t playing good.”
The expectations are rooted in a formula of hard work, intelligent play and competitive drive.
“(Mike) wants to get the best out of you; he wants everyone to work their hardest,” Sally says.
The importance of hard work is evident as Mike describes the fondest memories of his boys on the ice.
“Jake won a state bantam championship, but I don’t know if that was any more rewarding than watching Ryan make a play at some point or Gabe showing up for a practice and being first in line and setting the leadership role for the other guys,” Mike says. “It’s being there at the rink, seeing the look in their eye or the smile on their face and the sweat on their cheeks, knowing that they are working hard and are enjoying the game and putting a lot into it.”
After hard work, the next ingredient is smart play.
“We would be in the car,” Sally says of a postgame routine, “and (Mike) would make it a question: ‘Well, why did you do that?’ They would have to answer and would have to think about it.”
Then, add some competitive drive, which is seen during a game of cards or on the golf course.
“I could send all four of them up to the golf course, and you never knew who was going to come home upset or pouting or what happened,” Sally says.
“We always want to be winners,” says Jake, the Guentzel deemed most competitive. “No one wants to lose.”
As the boys have grown, the winner golfer has changed.
“It’s usually Dad is losing now,” Sally says. “The boys usually beat him up.”
But Mike will always have more experience. The coach offers these scouting reports on whom he calls “our guys.”
“Ryan is truly the big brother,” Mike says. “He is mature in his own ways.”
After Hill-Murray, Ryan played two years in junior hockey leagues before earning a scholarship to the University of Notre Dame.
“He started at the bottom of the totem pole and worked his way up to playing 130 games in his career, going from the lower levels of the lineup to being a 40-point impact guy as a senior,” Mike says.
After graduation with a finance degree in 2011, Ryan played in Germany last winter. He had shoulder surgery after the season and decided to xxx this year.
“Gabe is the most focused and dialed in of the three,” Mike says. “He is man- made. He has worked hard in the off-ice conditioning to make himself a player.”
Like Ryan, Gabe played at Hill-Murray and for two years in junior leagues. He then landed at Colorado College. After graduation in May 2012, Gabe will play this winter in the American League, a lower-level professional league, with the goal of making it to the NHL.
“I want to play hockey as long as I can,” says Gabe, 24.
“It comes a little easier and natural for Jake,” Mike says. “What I’m hoping here is he points himself in the direction of Gabe with the work ethic off the ice and develops his skills both physically and mentally as his brothers have.”
After graduating from Hill-Murray this spring, Jake plans to play Division I hockey next winter.
“We are always trying to help the other get better and try to get to the NHL,” Jake says.