NORTHFIELD -- The office is 10 by 12 feet in size, large enough for a desk and a few chairs. Black paint on the walls — a nod to school colors — has faded to gray. A fresh coat is on the to-do list.
That list seems endless some days. The man responsible for every detail, whether critically important or merely cosmetic, is no stranger to overseeing successful hockey programs. Mike Eaves coached in the NHL and won a national championship as head coach at Wisconsin.
So what is he doing here, at age 60, coaching at tiny St. Olaf, a private liberal arts college known more for its music department than its hockey program?
“Everything came together here,” he said. “It was almost a no-brainer.”
Eaves refers to factors that steered him to Division III hockey as “tumblers.”
The first came in March when he was fired by Wisconsin after 14 seasons. Eaves led the Badgers to the NCAA title in 2006 and runner-up finish in 2010, but a 12-45-13 combined record in his final two seasons prompted athletic director Barry Alvarez to make a change.
“We weren’t putting butts in the seats, and it’s a business,” Eaves said. “Sometimes you just need a change. You need a different voice. You need a different energy.”
His energy isn’t a problem. Eaves, who played in the NHL for the North Stars and Calgary from 1978-86, still rises at 5 a.m. and bounces around the office with the gusto of an unpaid intern.
Eaves wasn’t ready for retirement after being fired for only the second time in three decades of coaching. After a trip to Hawaii and time spent with grandkids, he started looking for a new job.
He had interest in a few American Hockey League opportunities. But then he received a phone call from his son, Ben, who was in the process of being named St. Olaf’s strength and conditioning coordinator.
Long known for its academic excellence and a renowned music program, St. Olaf has made a commitment to upgrade athletics. The school hired a full-time athletic director for the first time in Ryan Bowles, who held a leadership role in athletics at the University of Maryland.
Under Bowles’ direction, St. Olaf bolstered its football facilities, made a handful of coaching changes and committed to spend $6 million to transform an indoor track into an on-campus hockey rink.
“Academics is the most important thing, but in terms of importance, I just want athletics to be tied for second,” said Bowles, 15 months into his job. “I want us to be excellent in athletics, excellent in music as we are.”
Settling in to new role
While interviewing Ben Eaves for the strength coach position, Bowles inquired about his dad’s plans. That led to an informal conversation with Eaves, then a formal interview and finally a new stop in his nomadic coaching career.
“All these tumblers came together,” he said.
Including housing. Eaves and wife Beth moved into their lake cabin 12 miles from campus. They’ve had the place since he coached at Shattuck St.-Mary’s.
“Every morning I get up and get to look at the lake,” he said. “And every night I get to look at the lake.”
In between those quiet moments, his schedule is crammed with tasks he once left to others. At Wisconsin, he was surrounded by support staff that handled various functions in operating a high-profile program.
Now those duties fall in his lap, with help from Ben, who also serves as his assistant coach. Ben’s brother, Patrick, is a forward for the NHL’s Dallas Stars.
Mike Eaves started by sprucing up his office with plaques that highlight his program’s historical achievements. It’s all about building a brand, he said.
He organized and ran an alumni golf outing — “I can tell you we will do things differently next year,” he said. “That was a big project.”
Ben took care of uniform washing — “Our kids have work-study,” Mike said. “After practice, before they go study, we have some kids whose duty is laundry.”
Mike drove the team’s skate sharpener to a repair shop in St. Paul. He found a student manager who knows how to operate the machine.
Room to move up
Eaves jokes that he might buy a sombrero and attach baseball caps to the top to symbolize all the different hats he wears now. He has a new appreciation for people he worked with at Wisconsin who handled all those duties so he could focus on coaching.
Eaves says he probably would not have taken this job when he was 40 as he climbed the coaching ladder.
“Now being older, I think I’m ready for this job,” he said.
His program has 49 players this season. Eaves formed two teams: varsity and what he calls the American League team.
“We tell them, ‘Fellas, you’re our minor league system. You will get called up based on classes, performance, grades, injuries, labs,’ ” Eaves said.
A whiteboard in Eaves’ office contains a day-by-day reminder of every player’s lab schedule. Labs take precedence over practice. Eaves adjusts his practice plan based on how many players will miss that day’s practice because of lab.
He never has a full team at any practice.
“Every night I go home and say, ‘OK, who has labs tomorrow, what do we need to do?’ ” he said. “You know what? Being older helps. We’ve seen it all. Now I’m seeing something else and it’s OK.”
The Oles are 2-7-1 this season, but Eaves isn’t worried so much about their record as he is that every week he sees progress.”
“It’s an exciting time to be here because we have the right people in place,” he said.
Big name carries weight
Eaves’ hiring has given the hockey program and athletic department new energy and more credibility.
“There’s a buzz and the kids know it, too,” Ben said. “Things are changing here, and there’s a reason to be excited. It’s our turn to up the ante a little bit.”
This is what Bowles had in mind when he arrived on campus. He brought big plans with him. He didn’t hesitate to contact Eaves about a job because, why not?
“I think it hopefully shows there’s a seriousness about what we do,” Bowles said.
Returning players feel that shift in commitment with a high-profile coach and plans to build an on-campus rink. The team practices and plays games at the Northfield Ice Arena.
Junior defenseman Judd Loewenstein might graduate before the new 900-seat arena is completed, but he envisions the program looking markedly different five years from now.
“I think we should be a top-10 team in the country,” he said. “Once the rink is built, we can recruit some of the best players that don’t go to Division I. And I don’t think there is a better résumé for a coach in Division III.”
Eaves insists he’s still demanding of players, the same as when he coached Wisconsin. The two programs are vastly different in visibility and in numerous other ways, but he doesn’t view this as paid retirement.
“He’s passionate and intense but not in negative way,” senior defenseman Chris Hansen said. “You can definitely see his emotion.”
Eaves says he’s landed in a good spot personally and professionally. As he stood in a dark indoor track that will someday become his team’s new home, he was asked if a bigger job might tempt him to leave.
“No, no,” he said. “I’ve been there, done that. This is really good.”