When Jason Kalin sat down Wednesday, Jan. 13, to tally up his career wins as head coach of the Superior High School boys hockey team, he was surprised to learn he was on the precipice of a milestone.
In compiling the stats for iFan, Kalin realized he was sitting at win No. 299 ahead of the Spartans’ matchup with Wausau West.
“I knew I was in the 200s, but I had no idea I was that close,” he said.
He decided not to say anything to his players or fellow coaches. Instead, he put his entire focus on the game.
The Spartans got the W, and after he gave a game puck to Brodie Raygor, who scored his first varsity goal, Kalin got on the bus and didn’t give it much thought.
“It wasn’t until the next morning that I woke up and I realized it was No. 300, and at that point I decided to send an email to my coaches and to some of my friends who had coached with me in the past,” he said.
After that, it didn’t take long for the news to spread. Kalin said he appreciates the well wishes and congratulations that have poured in since.
20 years and counting
Kalin took over as head coach of the Spartans in 2001, after serving as an assistant coach for four years. He’s the longest-serving head coach in program history and has long held the record for the most wins.
Gary Harker, who led the Spartans from 1970-77, has the second most wins at 109 in 151 games played.
“I’m leading clearly, but that’s only because I've coached for so stinking long,” Kalin said with a chuckle.
During that time, Kalin has added to the storied legacy of Spartan Hockey by leading three teams to state titles — in 2003, 2005 and most recently, in 2015.
He said all of his teams hold a special place in his heart, but he called the 2015 championship season one of the most rewarding because of the adversity the team went through.
“We struggled all season long. We were losing games by one or two goals — competing and really playing well — and then at the end of the season, they just started hitting everything," he said. "It was awesome to see and very rewarding.”
The 2015 Spartan Hockey team is the only team in WIAA history to win a state championship with a losing record. They entered the playoffs at 8-15-1 and left with a state title.
Coaching philosophy shifts
But at the heart of the accolades and the accomplishments are the students Kalin coaches.
When he took over the team, Kalin was in his mid-20s. George W. Bush was in his first term as President of the United States. America was still reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Destiny’s Child and Shaggy each had two No. 1 songs on the Billboard Top 100. Facebook was still a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, and Facebook’s predecessor, MySpace, hadn’t started yet.
The landscape of the world has changed in countless ways since then, and Kalin said his coaching style changed, as well.
His focus for many years has been on developing his players into good people, as well as skilled hockey players.
“It’s not just about winning or losing. It’s about coaching the character so that they can take that with them in life,” he said. “That has been the best change that I’ve seen is that I’ve improved in trying to coach the total person versus just a hockey player or a hockey team.”
What brought about that change? Kalin said it was a combination of experience and becoming a father.
After he had children of his own, he started to pay more attention to how coaches and educators treated his children and he reflected on how he was treating his students and players.
“I’d want my kids to look up to other coaches, and I want my players to look up to me and in order for them to do that they have to trust me, they have to respect me, they have to know that I’m there for their best interests. When you coach for a couple years — it didn’t take long to recognize that relationships matter.”
Kalin credits Superior football coach Bob DeMeyer and former activities directors Steve Olson and Ray Kosey with influencing his philosophy and serving as mentors.
But the most important people in his life — his wife, Christa, their children and his parents — have been his biggest supporters.
Being the head coach of the Spartans is essentially a full-time job, and to do it right, Kalin said he has to be involved year-round. Kalin wouldn’t have been able to coach for two decades without the support and understanding of Christa and their children, he said.
“You have to have a loving and caring wife, somebody who understands how much it means to lead a group of young men and the amount of time and commitment it takes to do so — I have that,” he said.
What it takes
The time away from his family has been the biggest challenge for Kalin over the years, especially after his children were born, he said.
The full-time nature of coaching hockey in this part of the state also makes it hard to balance home, work and coaching.
Game nights make the long hours and the juggling of responsibilities worth it, though, he said.
"Practices and film and all the management stuff that goes on behind the scenes is what’s the exhausting part of coaching, but when you get to game night it all pays off," he said. "It keeps you coming back for more."
The people he cited as mentors know what it takes to find success in coaching, and all three said time away from family and balancing work, coaching and family are obstacles every coach faces.
Olson, who knew Kalin when he was a student at Superior Senior High School and later when he became a teacher and coach, said Kalin has a deep love for the sport, is always looking to learn more and wants the best for his players.
Olson knows firsthand; his sons played for Kalin, and his daughter consulted Kalin from time to time over the course of her high school and collegiate hockey careers.
“When you coach, you do it because you love to work with kids. I don’t see that he’s lost that passion,” Olson said. “He loves what he does, and to me, that’s one of the greatest attributes that he has.”
Hitting 300 wins is a big milestone for any coach, but especially one who coaches in the Lake Superior Conference.
“Every year we play the top teams in Minnesota and then we play the top teams in Wisconsin, so for him to have that win percentage and 300 wins, especially against the competition that they play against year in and year out, I think is a very amazing stat,” Kosey said.
It also takes the right personality, someone who can get not only players, parents and fellow educators, but also the community to buy in to what they’re doing. Kalin is a team player, Kosey said, which has helped him garner support.
That support is also present in the Spartan Athletic Department, DeMeyer said, where coaches often bounce ideas off each other and work together.
Looking back, DeMeyer said he can see how Kalin has grown over the years.
“He’s not that young guy that wants to win every game and put that above everything else. Because he’s evolved in all areas, he’s been able to stay in it as long as he has,” DeMeyer said.
To DeMeyer, a key reason Kalin has coached for so long and found so much success is because of his focus on players and making them part of the Spartan Hockey legacy.
“It’s about kids. He wants to provide the best experience possible for his student-athletes,” he said. “He’s a Spartan through and through.”