Longtime Elk River High School boys hockey coach Tony Sarsland says that the incident preceding his removal from the team involved him "a little more aggressively" confronting his leading scorer about a repeated serious penalty.
Sarsland resigned as coach this week just as the school board was to take up an investigation into what the school district described as "complaints that we have received against Coach Sarsland."
While Sarsland has rejected numerous requests from the Star Tribune for an interview, in Thursday's release of the Let's Play Hockey periodical he details for the first time his side of what happened.
"One of our leading scorers received a checking from behind penalty . . ." in a late-season game, Sarsland said. "I pulled him aside and told him he was done for the night. . . . A few games later, the same player received another checking from behind penalty. It was his second in three games. Again I pulled him over to the side, this time a little more aggressively and told him, 'This can't happen again.' "
Based on Sarsland's account, the second game would have been on Feb. 4 vs. Champlin Park, the final game he coached.
"A few days later at work, I was pulled into the principal's office and told there were allegations against me, saying I was physically abusive to the players. This came as a huge shock to me. I have never shaken a player or hurt them."
The player involved was sophomore Andrew Zerban, according to his father.
Jim Zerban, who didn't make it to the game until after his son's major penalty, recounted that Andrew said "he got a questionable checking-from-behind penalty. He was devastated, because if you get two in the whole season, you were out for the whole season."
The father added that Sarsland called him and said, "I can't go through with that. I can't put my Number 1 scorer on the sideline."
Under Sarsland's successor, Zerban remained in the lineup and scored seven goals in the team's remaining five games.
District officials were weighing Friday whether to respond to Sarsland's account. School officials have consistently declined to answer questions about the investigation, which became "a moot point" with Sarsland's resignation, said district spokesman Casey Mahon.
Since 1993, the Elks have earned six trips to the state tournament -- winning it all in 2001. If he had remained coach, Sarsland would have been on target to get his 600th career victory next season. His long tenure has been scrutinized for everything from his ability to control his anger to the players' rough style of play to accusations of recruiting.
Sarsland had been on paid leave as coach since February until his resignation. He remains a teacher at VandenBerge Middle School.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482