Steven Carl Younghans is a big guy, 6-2 and about 290 pounds, and he has been big since he was an elementary school football player on the East Side of St. Paul, where no one calls him Steven Carl Younghans.
They call him "Moose."
Moose Younghans was not much of a hockey player as a kid. His cousin, Tom, was a gifted puckster who went on to play for the Minnesota North Stars, but Moose didn't even play hockey at Johnson High School, where he was a defensive tackle on the football team, graduating in 1974. But somehow, Moose has become the beloved modern-era keeper of one of the fiercest hockey traditions in the state. If Minnesota is the State of Hockey, and St. Paul is "Hockeytown," then the working-class neighborhoods around Johnson High School are at the center of the very heart of hockey.
And Moose is the man in the middle.
"I just try to stay out of the way at practices," he jokes, mocking his skating ability. "I consider it a successful season if I don't get knocked down."
The mystique and the magic of hockey rubbed off on the big football player who grew up a block from Johnson hockey legend Lou Cotroneo and was friends with Coach Cotroneo's hockey star son, Jimmy. Moose started coaching a Bantams team at Prosperity Heights playground just a few years after leaving Johnson, and he has never looked back. A confirmed bachelor, he has contributed thousands of hours over many years to youth sports.
Moose, 52, has been the coach of the Johnson Governors the past 15 seasons. He still also coaches the Johnson A Bantams. He's also general manager of Strauss Skates and Bicycles, which has been sharpening and selling skates in the Capital City for 122 years. Moose has made his mark on hockey in the area of St. Paul that gave us Herb Brooks, Les Auge, Wendell Anderson and more. He preaches dedication, determination, and desire. Which is why it makes sense that Moose and the Governors will have their moment in the sun -- and in the deepfreeze -- on Saturday, when they take to the outdoor ice at the Phalen Recreation Center on Wheelock Parkway as part of the third annual Hockey Day Minnesota, a day-long marathon of hockey games.
Sponsored by the Minnesota Wild, the day features an 8 p.m. tilt at the Xcel Energy Center between the Wild and the Anaheim Ducks. But for many in Hockeytown, the centerpiece of Hockey Day Minnesota will be the 10 a.m. outdoors game (it's being billed as "The Showdown in Hockeytown") between Johnson and the Rockets of Rochester John-Marshall. It will be televised live on Fox Sports North, as will the rest of the day's activities, beginning at 9 a.m. Included is a girls high school hockey game between Stillwater and Minnetonka, scheduled for Phalen at 1:30 p.m.
"I guarantee you that on Saturday morning, you will see how excited the East Side is about hockey," Moose said Wednesday, as he prepared to lead a sub-zero practice. "We don't think Johnson hockey is dying; we think it's alive and well. We're proud of being called 'Johnson Boys,' whether our record is 22-3 or 6-7. We try to emulate the guys from the past, and want to be thought of like them, be just like them, in the future."
To reinforce the link with the school's hardworking East Side heritage, Moose has a simple method. The team's practice jerseys all have the same number: 55106. That's the postal ZIP code for the area near Lake Phalen.
Johnson has four state hockey titles to its credit: 1947, 1953, 1955 and 1963. Its last state tournament appearance, however, was in 1995, and the program, despite all its historic luster, has been eclipsed by many of the better-funded, larger suburban schools and private academies. Johnson High, with an enrollment of under 1,200 (a heavy proportion of the students come from poor minority families) has applied to transfer next year from the Double A big school division to the small-school single A. It's a move that isn't popular with everyone, but Moose says it isn't about how many A's you get on your hardware. It's about how many A's you get for your effort.
This year's Johnson squad has only 31 skaters on the Varsity and JV rosters. They've had some ups and downs and a 6-7 record (including a win over Mounds View), but Moose says no one ever outworks his team.
"Some things have changed around here, but the kids' understanding of the historic traditions of the program have not changed at all," he says. "We don't take any nights off."
The Governors traveled to the Far North for the first Hockey Day Minnesota two years ago, playing Lake of the Woods High on the ice of, yes, Lake of the Woods. Although Johnson had previously beaten the Lakers, they lost the Battle of Baudette Bay when, as the visitors, they were made to skate upwind into the teeth of a fierce gale during the first and third periods. "The wind was about 40 miles an hour and it was like trying to push a car to skate against it," Moose recalls with a laugh. "I would have done the same if it was our home ice."
This Saturday, on the smooth new sheet of refrigerated outdoor ice near Lake Phalen, conditions may be ideal for an outdoors game. But if there is any way Moose Younghans can figure to help his team defend hockey's St. Paul heritage, Rochester may feel that the ice has been tilted against them. They better not leave their work ethic back in the Banana Belt of Minnesota.
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