After his team's 4-1 section loss to Centennial on Wednesday night, Maple Grove boys' hockey coach Gary Stefano gathered his team in the locker room and told them what he had known for more than a week: This loss would be his final game as the coach at Maple Grove.
"A lot of tears, a lot of hugs, a lot of 'Whys?'" said Stefano, the only head hockey coach in the school's 17 years of existence.
Stefano said he still can't answer the "Whys?" But then very few answers have been provided since Jan. 16, when he announced that 13 players from his 18-player varsity team had been suspended for between two and four games over an incident that occurred at a private home in mid-December. The incident ultimately -- apparently -- cost Stefano his job.
Apparently, because to date no one has said exactly what happened on that mid-December night, just as, Stefano said, no school official has spelled out why he received a letter of non-renewal for his coaching position on Feb. 19.
And all those unanswered questions led to rumors and to anger, and now to a firing of a successful coach who only one year earlier had led Maple Grove to its first state hockey tournament appearance.
"I don't want my son to learn this as a life lesson: For reasons we don't know, somebody loses their job,'' said John Passolt, whose son Josh is a sophomore on the team. "I think it's unfair to everyone involved.''
School officials on Thursday confirmed only that Stefano, a 32-year coaching veteran, would not return next year. Administrators said they would have no comment beyond a brief written statement sent from Barb Olson, district spokesperson, which said:
"The district can confirm that Mr. Stefano will not return as head hockey coach next year. Maple Grove Senior High administrators are looking forward to hearing stakeholder perspectives as the school begins the process of hiring a new head hockey coach."
No answers, only rumors
School officials, citing state privacy laws, have never divulged details behind the reasons for the suspensions. Or said anything to dispel rumors. Maple Grove Principal Sara Vernig, at a mid-January news conference, was asked about allegations of a purported sex video. She said privacy laws prohibited her from commenting, and later at the same news conference called the incident "devastating.''
From that point, the season was played out amid a swirl of rumors. Stefano said the weeks since mid-January have "been a long haul. ... It's been tough. My family has suffered.''
Parents of hockey players only now are beginning to speak publicly, and several have expressed frustration that the district has done nothing to quell rumors.
"I'm frustrated the way the school administration has hung Gary [Stefano] out to dry, and the way the administration has, by exposing our kids of being guilty of a nameless crime, let everyone fill in the blanks as far as what happened,'' said Tony Brumm, whose son David is a sophomore on the team. "And what actually happened is far less than people have used their imaginations to create.''
Not everyone in the community was upset by Stefano's ouster. "While the circumstances that led to the change are unfortunate, there is no question that a change in leadership was necessary,'' said Pat Ross, a community youth sports activist and coach.
Stefano said that when he received the letter of non-renewal he told only his family and one of his assistants. Maple Grove, which lost four of five games after the suspensions were announced, finished its regular season with a four-game winning streak, including a 7-5 regular-season-ending victory over section favorite Blaine on Feb. 14. The letter arrived five days later, just before the Crimson's 6-0 victory over Irondale on Feb. 23 in the opening section game.
"When you get that letter as you're trying to prepare your team for the playoffs, of course it's disappointing,'' Stefano said. "Next year is the least of my concerns. ... We were the defending [section] champs, and I wanted to let the kids take a run at it again,'' he said of keeping the non-renewal letter to himself.
Stefano won't discuss what he believes to have happened at the private home in mid-December, saying only that he, personally, would have "done nothing different'' this season, on or off the ice.
But he said he doubts he could be successful appealing the district's decision, since coaching positions have to be renewed annually and are at the whim of the employer.
Stefano, a district junior high teacher, said he has no plans to look for a teaching job elsewhere. As for hockey, he said he hasn't closed the book on coaching, and said he's already had several feelers from other schools.
"It's a passion, a passion,'' he said of coaching. "I feel good about myself, my kids and everything about the program. ... I have no hard feelings. When you try to do the best things -- and I've made mistakes, I'm not perfect -- but when you know you've tried to do the right things, you can hold your head high and get through it.''