Even as more than half of the Maple Grove High School boys' hockey team returned to the ice Thursday from suspensions related to an off-the-ice incident, a wave of suspicion and controversy continues to threaten the high-profile program.
At a news conference called Thursday to talk about how to move the team forward, school officials declined to give specifics on what led to the suspension of 13 players last week. When reporters asked Principal Sara Vernig about the purported existence of a sex video stemming from the incident, she said: "I can't answer that. It's part of the investigation.''
She later added, "I'll tell you, personally, it's been devastating and disappointing."
Longtime head coach Gary Stefano called it "by far my worst experience'' in 32 years as a coach. He said references to a purported video called "The Show" had been "brought up." School officials stopped him from answering further, citing privacy laws.
The episode also has some in the community questioning Stefano, the only head hockey coach in the school's 17-year history. He had been placed on administrative leave with pay last week during the investigation, then was reinstated as head coach about a day later.
"I hate to be too critical, but I do think there are issues with leadership, both within the district and the high school hockey program,'' said Todd Hill, former president of the Osseo-Maple Grove Hockey Association.
The 1,700-student high school has been rocked by the fallout from the incident, which occurred in mid-December at a private home. A school district investigation found violations of the Minnesota State High School League's code of conduct. That resulted in two-game suspensions for most players and four-game suspensions for "a couple,'' Stefano said last week.
Vernig and Wendy Loberg, who oversees athletics for the school district, said reports of the incident had swept through the school via social media, including Twitter and Facebook. Loberg also said that what occurred was part of a larger societal problem and that risqué movies and TV shows contribute to the problem.
"When we look at our role models, and we look at our shows that are No. 1 in the eyes of kids, [it's] 'Jersey Shore,' 'Hangover,'" Loberg said.
Officials called the briefing to outline an "action plan'' to have coaches, school leaders and students focus on instilling leadership and raising expectations of students. Vernig said Stefano will help implement the plan.
'Boys are boys'
School officials said they were not aware of the incident until Jan. 14 -- about a month after it occurred -- and Stefano said he dealt with it immediately once news reached him. The coach maintained Thursday that he had not lost control of his program and was still a good role model.
Parents of some team members acknowledged problems, but said they wanted to move on.
"The program's great. The boys made a mistake," said Nancy Fischer, whose son, Cuyler, plays junior varsity hockey at the school. She said her son was not part of the incident. "Boys are boys. It's hard to keep those boys out of trouble. The coach can only do so much -- it's the parents that have to step in."
Lisa Kermode, whose son Nolan plays varsity hockey at Maple Grove, had little to say. "It's been overexaggerated," she said. "So, no comment from the Kermodes."
But some school employees said the suspensions -- along with the investigation of Stefano -- pointed to larger problems and exposed a culture in which hockey players seemed to enjoy an exalted status not afforded other students.
School district and high school officials have been tight-lipped not only about what occurred but in reacting to it. Vernig acknowledged the faculty had mixed reactions on whether the suspensions were adequate.
School board members were also mum. James Burgett, board treasurer, declined to say whether he was receiving calls concerning the suspensions and the hockey program, and he referred all questions to a district spokesperson. Teresa Lunt, the school board's vice chair, did likewise.
Maple Grove police Capt. Tracy Stille said his department also had little knowledge of the incident. He said the episode did not lead to a police report to his agency.
Ryan Gau, a teacher at the high school, said school workers were given few details by Vernig before the suspensions were announced and were told to say little. "There was some real concern, we were told, that because of what happened with the hockey players it could damage the reputation of the school," he said. "We wanted to be careful to support all of the good things we were doing, and not let an incident like this take over."
Gau said teachers were told to "discourage students from talking [and] making it become a distraction."
Culture change takes time
The team played two games while its players were suspended, losing to Blaine and defeating Anoka.
On Thursday night players took their home ice for the first time since the suspensions in a game against Centennial at the Maple Grove Community Center. Crimson players hit the ice without helmets to cheers and applause from the crowd. About 30 students, a little more than half of them female, sat together near the Maple Grove goal. The school band also attended the game, which Centennial won 5-4.
Despite the loss, Stefano said, the team vibe had the feel of a recent six-game winning streak. "Guys were positive and eager to get back on the ice and play some hockey," he said.
He said team meetings have been held, as well as a parent meeting last week, to begin implementing elements of the action plan. "We've already made great strides," he said.
In an e-mail Vernig sent to parents of high school students earlier Thursday, she wrote that the action plan is "a work in progress. Changing culture will require time, and I assure you that we will take every opportunity to create learning opportunities so that we can influence future behavior."
During the news conference, Vernig said that kids "make dumb decisions sometimes,'' then was asked if this wasn't something more serious.
"There's a lot of work that needs to be done here when we talk about character, when we talk about community, when we talk about integrity, when we talk about responsibility and respect,'' she said.
Staff writer David La Vaque contributed to this report. Mike Kaszuba • 612-673-4388 Dennis Brackin • 612-673-1740