Upon his return to Wessman Arena this winter, Mike Sislo was greeted with a fond memory: Superior’s 2005 boys hockey state championship banner.
Sislo was a junior forward who helped the Spartans earn one of their record 13 state titles that year before departing to play for the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League and, eventually, four seasons at the University of New Hampshire.
After scoring 51 goals in college, Sislo spent eight full seasons in the American Hockey League. He became the first Superiorite to play in the NHL when he spent 42 games on the New Jersey Devils’ roster in a three-season span. He scored all three of his NHL goals in the 2015-16 season.
Upon retiring from pro hockey, Sislo returned home and is now serving as a volunteer coach for his alma mater.
“It’s nice to get back to Wessman and see the banners and think back to what we accomplished,” Sislo said earlier this week. “Ending my high school career with that state championship definitely was a highlight of my hockey career. Nothing beats winning, and that was the only time I was able to win a championship.”
Sislo and Co. hope to add to that highlight as Superior kicks off the Wisconsin Division 2 playoffs Friday.
Sislo and fellow Superior alum Brett Olson ran hockey development camps the past few summers and knew several of the current players, so when head coach Jason Kalin asked him if he was interested in getting into coaching, Sislo was excited to accept the offer.
“He had talked to me about it in the summer and fall to see what my interest was,” Sislo said. “And I absolutely wanted to do it and was excited for the opportunity, but given my work schedule and the craziness of the year, I haven’t been able to be there as often as I would have liked. But it’s been fun to work with the players.”
Sislo has been working at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in the specialty pharmacy department since last spring.
After his workday, he has focused on coaching Superior’s forwards.
“That’s my strong suit and where I can make more of an impact,” he said.
Junior Carter Kalin, Jason's son, is one of the forwards who first interacted with Sislo as a preteen at those camps. He says the addition of Sislo has been a big boost.
“It’s been awesome having him as a coach,” Carter Kalin said. “Just getting to learn all of what he has gone through from all his years as a pro is amazing. He brings so many new tactics to our team, especially for me on the power play. He’s taught me so much.
“Having a pro come out of Superior and doing what he did, I look up to him because I hope to get there one day.”
Jason Kalin, who also coached Sislo’s teams, says it’s a benefit having him on the staff.
“What’s important is when Mike speaks, it’s about some element of the game that he is looking for the kids to bring more focus to that element,” the coach said. “And the kids listen because he’s been there.”
Sislo’s pro career ended after a nine-game stint in Germany in 2019, following hip surgery and a subsequent back injury upon his return to the ice.
With a new job, Sislo is uncertain whether or not he will stay in the coaching profession.
“I’ve been involved with hockey my whole life and I can see myself always being involved in some capacity in the future,” he said, “But this year I have learned the time it takes to do the job right and that could hinder my involvement in the future.”
Spartans ready for playoffs
Sislo will be in attendance Friday as the Spartans (7-5) open the Division 2 playoffs with a Sectional 1 quarterfinal against WSFLG (3-10). The game is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. in Spooner since Wessman Arena, Superior’s home arena, is not allowing spectators and the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association announced that two spectators per player per team must be allowed for the opening round.
“Honestly, we play better on the road, so I’m OK with that,” Jason Kalin said.
Superior, which has played in a record 37 one-class state tournaments, is playing in Division 2 in the second year of a two-year, two-class experiment.
Coach Kalin is pleased with how his team is playing heading into the playoffs. Superior, which has the depth to play four lines and six defensemen, has won four straight and three by shutout via goaltender Jamin Durfee.
The Spartans have come a long way from losing their opener, 7-1, to Eau Claire North.
“There have been a lot of ups and downs,” Carter Kalin said. “When we first came out of the gate, we weren’t so hot. But as the season has gone on, the boys have gotten more conditioned, and we’re doing a lot better working as a team. We’re finally starting to understand what the coaches are teaching us.”