Soft-spoken hockey coach racks up wins

Ex-Gophers player Roy Nystrom has coached high school hockey for 47 years.

Albert Lea High School head coach and former Gopher hockey player Roy Nystrom coaches his team during practice on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Albert Lea, Minn. After playing for the Gophers, Nystrom began coaching the Albert Lea boys hockey team in 1973 and has earned more than 600 wins over his career.

Amanda Snyder

Albert Lea High School head coach and former Gopher hockey player Roy Nystrom coaches his team during practice on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, in Albert Lea, Minn. After playing for the Gophers, Nystrom began coaching the Albert Lea boys hockey team in 1973 and has earned more than 600 wins over his career.

Drew Claussen

Former Gophers hockey player Roy Nystrom is one of the most successful high school coaches in the country, but he won’t tell you that.

The soft-spoken boys’ hockey coach at Albert Lea High School has shown a passion for the game and his craft in his 47 years of coaching.

He’s coached generations of families, and former players, including his son, have made a habit of returning to serve as his assistants.

Nystrom’s 653 wins are the third-most in the history of U.S. high school hockey. He also has the most wins in Minnesota high school hockey history.

Before coaching, the Eveleth, Minn., native played for the Gophers under legendary coach John Mariucci

Like Mariucci, Nystrom now has a building named after him. The Red Rink at Albert Lea’s City Arena was renamed Roy Nystrom Arena last year.

In 2010, Roy passed fellow Eveleth native Willard Ikola on the wins list.

“[Ikola] is definitely an icon in Minnesota, and I certainly don’t put myself in that class,” Nystrom said. “I’ve just been around for a long time.”

“[If] you’ve been around for a long time, you’re going to win a lot of games.”

Nystrom’s position on the list isn’t set in stone, however. Lorne Grosso, the boys’ hockey coach at Rochester Mayo High School, is right behind him. Grosso, who played at the University of Minnesota with Nystrom, also passed Ikola in 2011.

Passionate coach

After college, Roy coached and taught in North Dakota for seven years. He won three consecutive state titles while coaching a team in Grand Forks, N.D., before moving to Albert Lea.

Why leave a successful hockey program to start over in a new state? Nystrom said a friend told him he’d make more money in Minnesota.

Four decades later, Nystrom has established a legacy in Albert Lea. He lives there with his wife, two children and three grandchildren.

“He knows the game,” said his son David Nystrom, who has coached under his father for 21 years. “He gets kids. He was a teacher — that helps. He’s got a little passion in him.”

Albert Lea has made the state tournament three times under Nystrom and took home the consolation title in 2005.

Nystrom doesn’t define his time at Albert Lea by a few special memories. “It’s been fun the entire time,” he said.

Though the wins have piled up, Nystrom has never hung his hat on the number.

“He understands that you can be the greatest coach in the world, but kids have to perform for you,” Grosso said. “I think he has a passion for his coaching and a passion for teaching and a passion for life.”

Albert Lea boys’ hockey senior Adam Herbst said the hype surrounding Nystrom was crazy.

“I was so excited; I couldn’t wait to be coached by him,” Herbst said.

Though a bad hip keeps Nystrom off skates these days, his practices go off without a hitch thanks to a veteran system and assistant coaches who have played under it.

Discipline is important to Nystrom. He’s been known to yell, though his son thinks he’s gotten softer through the years. He also has a rule in which his team has to do extra skating if it beats a team by more than 10 goals.

“If you’re up by 10 or nine goals, that’s enough,” boys’ hockey senior Nathan Stadheim said. “You’re going to win the game, obviously, so why score more?”

Early days and college

Hockey has always been a special culture in the Iron Range of Minnesota. Nystrom said it was more intense when he was growing up.

“There was basketball, there was swimming, but just about everybody in Eveleth was a hockey player,” Nystrom said. “And that’s how I got into it.”

He started skating at age 4 at the rink across the street from his house. Nystrom credits his father with introducing him to the game.

“He threw me out there on the rink, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Nystrom said.

Mariucci gave Nystrom a full scholarship to play for the Gophers, but Nystrom didn’t make an impact right away. That was the norm of college hockey in the 1960s, when all freshmen played on the freshmen team.

When he finally saw the ice his junior year, he made an impact.

During his junior and senior campaigns, Nystrom played in 55 games and had 33 goals and 35 assists.

The Gophers finished third in the conference during Nystrom’s final two years thanks in part to good conditioning, Grosso said.

“[Mariucci] always made sure that we were in shape,” Grosso said. “His statement was always, ‘You’re not as good as the Canadians, so you have to work twice as hard.’”

Grosso admitted the game has changed and he hasn’t used many of Mariucci’s coaching philosophies in his own career. But he said he and Nystrom, among other coaches who came out of that time period, learned the importance of conditioning from Mariucci.

“I think that both Roy and I know that if you’re not in shape … you’re not going to win,” Grosso said.

Roy graduated with degrees in physical education and special education. He later got his master’s degree at the University of North Dakota.

Friendly rivalry

Albert Lea and Rochester Mayo have an unusual hockey rivalry, as their coaches played on the same line in college.

Grosso said the games between the Tigers and Spartans are always close.

It’s “a positive rivalry,” Grosso said. “Both our teams play as if it’s a playoff game, and it’s never rough or dirty hockey.”

In their first meeting this year, Mayo edged out Albert Lea, 3-2. They’ll meet again Saturday.

“There haven’t been too many years when one of us has dominated,” Grosso said. “It’s been a tremendous rivalry, and we’ve had lots of fun with it.”

Community icon

“It was a humbling experience,” Nystrom said. “Normally they usually name a building after you when you die. I was just wondering if they knew something more than I did.”

The honor was a long time coming, Albert Lea mayor Vern Rasmussen Jr. said.

“It really was initiated by the Albert Lea Hockey Association,” Rasmussen said. “It became apparent that it was going to be an important thing for our community to recognize him because he’s been such a big part of actually building hockey in Albert Lea.”