Willard Ikola has little difficulty recalling his first season as hockey coach at Edina (Minn.) High School. He was 4-9-5 that year, and at that, he claims his record included a lot of luck. "I went back over the season and I found out the problem," says Ikola, known as Ike to everyone, including his players. "It was the coach. He didn't know what he was doing."
In 32 subsequent seasons, Ikola has done better. His record now stands at 616-149-38. That makes him the winningest high school coach in Minnesota history, according to Howard Voigt, information director for the State High School League. It's a pretty sure bet that Ikola is also the winningest high school hockey coach in the nation, but Fred Mares, editor of the National High School Sports Record Book, says that recordkeeping over the decades has been too casual for him to confirm that.
It's hard to imagine that anyone would even approach Ikola's record. His teams have won 22 Lake Conference titles, 19 regional playoffs and eight Minnesota high school championships (1969, '71, '74, '78, '79, '82, '84 and '88) and were state runners-up twice—all in a locale where hockey ranks second only to muskie fishing in terms of fan devotion.
"Respect for Coach Ike was a given," says New Jersey Devils winger Dave Maley, an Edina graduate. "He had no weaknesses. I've been fortunate to play on a team at Edina that won the state championship, to play on a team at the University of Wisconsin that won the NCAA championship, and to play on a Montreal Canadiens team  that won the Stanley Cup. The state championship at Edina was the best."
March 25, 1991
Paul Ranheim, who plays left wing for the Calgary Flames, is equally enthusiastic about his former coach. "Coach Ikola definitely knew when to push and when to laugh," says Ranheim. "Frankly, I thought he'd coach forever."
Ikola, 58, may be a hockey legend, but like prophets, legends can have it pretty rough at home. When asked to evaluate his dad as a coach, Ikola's son Steve says merely, "Pretty good." Steve, who owns a house-painting business, played on his dad's 1978 state championship team; Ikola's other son, Matt, who works in the Edina school district, was a member of the 1974 state championship team, Ike's only undefeated squad. Even Laurie Ikola views her husband's record with wry acceptance. A sign in the family room of the Ikola house reads: WE INTERRUPT THIS MARRIAGE TO BRING YOU THE HOCKEY SEASON. Maybe the family's view would be more ebullient had it not been tempered by Ikola's own self-deprecating evaluation of his achievements: "Only 146 high schools in the state play hockey; boys' basketball has 428. Now, winning that would really be something."
This month Ikola was again at the state tournament in St. Paul, where 17,000 fans filled every seat in St. Paul Civic Center for three days. But this was one of those rare years in which Ikola was only a spectator. The 1990-91 Hornets did not make the eight-team field playing for the title. "We didn't win; so be it," Ikola says. "The sun comes up tomorrow, and all that happens is you go practice." Not necessarily. Ikola knows full well he will not be going to practice tomorrow, or next year. The most successful hockey coach in Minnesota, perhaps in the U.S., has decided it's time to retire.
It's odd, in a way, that Ikola settled in as a high school coach. When he attended Eveleth (Minn.) High from 1946 to '50, he played goalie for a team that went undefeated for three years and that still holds the national prep record for consecutive wins, at 67. He went on to the University of Michigan, where he was goaltender for NCAA-championship squads in 1952 and '53. In 1956, he was selected as goalie for the U.S. Olympic team, which won a silver medal in Cortina, Italy. The U.S. lost the gold to the Soviet Union 4-0. "It was closer than that," Ikola says. But quickly he jumps back into his self-deprecating mode and says, "The older you get, the better you were. I was a consistent goalie. That's all." He played on the U.S. team in 1957 and '58 while serving as a navigator in the Air Force, and in 1958 he also hooked up with Edina, for $5,400 a year. He was offered a deal to go pro, but back then the pay wasn't much to speak of (less than five figures) and he had already seen the world, thanks to hockey and the Air Force. Besides, "I just wanted to coach," he says.
Ikola's record attests to the wisdom of that decision. More important to him, three generations of hockey players attest to his value as a coach. Perhaps that is because Ikola always treated the members of his teams as rational individuals. Take his pregame talk: "Got your blades? Mouthpieces? Let's go." That's as rah-rah as he gets. In fact, Maley, one of the four Edina grads who have made it to the NHL—Ranheim, Bill Nyrop (Montreal and Minnesota) and Craig Norwich (St. Louis and Winnipeg) are the others—sent Ikola a photo in 1986 of himself holding the Stanley Cup with Ike's inevitable pregame speech written on it.
Instead of intimidation, Ikola utilizes a quiet emphasis on what he considers the proper values. Certainly he thinks winning is worth the effort. But victories come as a result of solid preparation, not a moment's hysteria. He, for example, never berates the officials and won't allow his players to do it, either. "It just seems to me that if the referees constantly hear the coach or players yapping, it's not good," says Ikola. "A lot of them have rabbit ears, so they'll give you the bad end of the stick."
But this low-key approach would not count for much if Ikola's players looked on him as some sort of benign baby-sitter. Be assured, he can jerk an errant player back in line with a speed that Bear Bryant would have appreciated. In one recent game, a defenseman was hit with a 10-minute major penalty for using vulgar language. Ikola was fuming over the incident between periods. "You clean up your rhetoric," he said to the player in the locker room. "This is high school hockey. This is not the NHL. Do you understand?" The defenseman stared at the floor. Ikola waited. Waited. Waited. Finally, breaking the crushing silence, the player mumbled, "Yes, Coach, I understand."
A lesson was taught. And learned. Says Edina athletic director Bud Bjerken, "Ike succeeds because of what he doesn't say. He doesn't overcoach and talk them to death, so when he does talk, he means it—and they listen."
"Our goal is not to get players in the NHL," says Ikola. "Our goal is to get them in college." So far, 95 Edina players have gone to Division I-A schools on hockey scholarships, and five have been on Olympic or national teams.
Ranheim says, "Coach Ikola definitely knew when to push and when to laugh. He almost certainly would have produced more pros if he had urged year-round play. He doesn't. In fact, he's against it."
Says Ikola, "In the summer, kids should fish, swim. In the fall, they should play football. Later in the spring, they should run track, play baseball. Really, four months of hockey is plenty." Perspective. So it's in character that Ikola doesn't believe in meetings, either with players or coaches, nor does he believe in scouting his opponents. "When I see an opponent play," he says, "I always overrate them. I'd rather play them equal."
That is the way he judges his own teams. As many as 100 players have tried out for the 42 varsity and junior varsity spots open at Edina—population 46,073—some years. Ikola doesn't just congratulate the successful prospects in person; he also makes it a point to talk to each player he cuts. "I hate it," he says. "Just hate having to tell them." He always tries to lessen the disappointment by saying where the cut player might best find a spot on one of the community teams that are active in the Edina area.
One prospect that Ikola did not feel uncomfortable talking to last fall was senior goalie Jenny Hanley—the first female to make the varsity team. "She was the second-best goalie who tried out," Ikola says in typical low-key fashion. "Her biggest drawback is strength with the stick. But she's a pretty cool customer." Jenny, a senior, was 8-1 in games that she started. Taking a cue from her coach, Jenny is low-key about her situation. She says, "The coach treated me fine and all the guys accepted me. With the other teams, sometimes they had this look of amazement in their eyes. I chuckled."
Ikola insists that having Jenny in goal this season was no big deal. He does say, "When I saw her coming up through the system, I thought, Oh, well, I'll be retired by the time she gets here." That turned out to be a miscalculation, but it didn't faze Ikola.
For all Ikola's laid-back style, hockey is his life. "You can never get enough of it," he says. "There's no grind to it. Before you know it, practice is over. And then the game comes. And before you know it, the game is over. And then the season is over." And now that the final season is over, Ikola says, "It's going to be interesting to see how much I miss it. It's possible that it might be fun not to go to a hockey rink on Saturday nights." He's even thinking of traveling to Florida next winter, which is fine with Laurie, who hopes maybe they will "celebrate our 37th wedding anniversary [Dec. 28] somewhere besides a hockey rink."
In a basement room in Ikola's Edina house, the walls are covered with hockey memorabilia. He takes down a photograph. "Here's our Olympic team," he says, "It's getting a little faded." He looks at it for a long moment, then shakes his head. "It has been a lot of good years. Hockey has been good to me. I hope I've been good to hockey."