Arms folded, dressed in black, Edina hockey coach Curt Giles stands behind the bench, watching the game with steely intensity that doesn’t waver.
It’s the unflinching look of the North Stars defenseman who threw jolting hip checks around the Met Center ice more than 30 years ago and earned three team MVP awards.
This season he’s trying to guide Edina, steeped in sports excellence, toward a third consecutive state championship. Not even Willard Ikola, the former Edina coach with eight state titles and and known for his houndstooth hat nicknamed “Champ,” has that accomplishment on his résumé.
Yet Giles, for all of his familiarity to Minnesota sports fans and his success around hockey, is someone few people know.
While Ikola boasted Iron Range roots, Giles was born in Canada, never played high school hockey and enrolled at Minnesota Duluth at age 16. Former North Stars teammates recall him as a king of one-liners, “the greatest guy you don’t see around much,” former teammate Brian Lawton said. Current Edina players describe a coach with whom they can share a laugh but who is also a stern taskmaster.
Giles, whose physical style belied his 5-8 frame, was never the fastest or most skilled player. He survived by playing a relentless style. He coaches as he played, demanding consistent effort and treating bench players no differently than goal-scorers.
Now in his 16th season at Edina, Giles remains something of an outsider. Before returning Edina to championships of late, he endured a petition seeking his ouster. He does not teach in the school. He is not active in the influential boys’ hockey coaches association, a group eager to add his voice.
“If you honestly look after the best interests of the kids and the best interests of the program, you can survive,” said Giles, 56, who began this season 18th among active Minnesota high school hockey coaches in career victories (314).
And the end is nowhere in sight. Edina’s youth hockey association ranked as the state’s largest the past three seasons, with 976 boys in 2012-13. The program boasts numbers, talent and Giles making all the right moves.
“This run could easily continue for six, eight more years,” said Lawton, who roomed with Giles as a player. “Curt has a natural ability as a leader of men, in this case young men. He was a bigger presence than his stats ever were, and that leaked into his coaching.”
Current Edina varsity players grew up leery of Giles, if not flat-out scared of him. They saw the dour visage, heard the yelling and feared the worst.
Later they came to understand his personality included a sense of humor and a willingness to sacrifice for the team. As a player, Giles had his left ring finger amputated at the knuckle nearest his hand to remove a painful tumor in time for the 1986 playoffs. He spins yarns about his playing days and razzes players such as junior forward Garrett Wait for smiling too much. He also maintains fairness.
“Practice to practice, no one’s spot is safe,” senior defenseman Ben Foley said. “He doesn’t give anyone special treatment, and that makes for a really good team dynamic.”
Edina’s team success is its legacy. No Hornets player has received the Mr. Hockey award throughout its 30-year existence. Not that Edina lacks talent. Wait has verbally committed to Minnesota; Dylan Malmquist (Notre Dame) and Henry Bowlby (St. Lawrence) are also college-bound.
Giles has at times deployed a less gentle approach to keep his team on task. Last January, after Hill-Murray embarrassed Edina throughout a 6-1 victory, his players returned to Braemar Arena and skated without a puck to be found.
“We took a night off, and we deserved that,” junior forward Casey Dornbach said. “That was a huge turning point for our season last year. It really brought the group of guys together and that’s when we started having success.”
Edina went 13-0-1 from there and won the championship, its third in five seasons. Giles doesn’t treat his players as special; he pushes them to be special.
“He knows what we’re capable of, and he expects all of that out of us,” senior forward Matt Masterman said.
Craig Hartsburg, a former North Stars captain and now the Columbus Blue Jackets’ associate coach, said he imagines his old defensive partner “is very demanding but fun to play for.”
Giles chuckled at Hartsburg’s assessment as he sat inside the coaches room at Braemar Arena. Its sparse décor includes celebratory team photos of Giles’ three state champions in 2010, 2013 and 2014.
“I feel strongly that in order to get the best out of your kids, they really have to enjoy coming to the rink every day,” Giles said. “Yes, they know they are held accountable. They know they have to work hard. But more so than anything, I want these kids to enjoy themselves.”
Giles met his wife, Mary Pat, an Edina native, in college and they settled in her hometown. After his NHL career ended in 1993, Giles became a coach in Edina’s youth hockey association for six years. He took the varsity job for the 1999-2000 season.
The hardworking team he inherited mirrored Giles’ playing style. The Hornets ended their season in the state tournament, and all seemed right in their world.
But Edina did not return to state until seven years later, by which time a petition had been started to remove Giles. The talent level dipped and players were not putting in the requisite work, those familiar with the program said, but impatient observers did not care.
After all, the words Edina and dynasty flow together. Under Ikola, the Hornets won eight state championships from 1969 to 1988. The community’s affluent hockey faithful have invested to keep the connection more than phonetic. Hockey parents raised almost $800,000 toward a $3.6 million renovation of Braemar Arena.
The project, completed in late 2012, featured a 26,450-square-foot addition called the “Hornet’s Nest,” including four locker rooms, the privately owned Velocity sports training center and a sporting goods store. In announcing the project that July, Mayor James Hovland said, “This is going to put us back on the top again in the world of hockey.”
Reaching the pinnacle also required Giles to change his philosophies about constructing a team. In 2008, Edina reached the state championship game with a team heavily reliant on dominant forwards Zach Budish, Marshall Everson and Anders Lee. But carrying the team became a burden, and the top line was shut down by Hill-Murray in a 3-0 loss.
Two years later, a less-heralded but deeper group won Giles his first title and altered his blueprints.
“You learn through that process what it takes to compete — how many players it takes and what types of players,” Giles said.
With an abundance of talent, Giles finds himself a focal point when players don’t survive varsity cuts or later find playing time reduced.
“I’ve seen some of these parents in Edina, who are high up in the business world, really give it to him,” said Bill Smith, coach of the Edina Junior Gold A team. “But Curt is as fair as the day is long. If the kids produce, they’ll play.”
The pressure is palpable. Yet Giles has elected to stay, declining coaching offers at other levels to remain in Edina.
“I love working with the kids,” said Giles, married for 35 years and with two children and two grandchildren. “I hope they are going to learn something about this game along this journey we have together, but I also hope that they’re going to learn something about life along the way.”
Most are about the age their coach was when Giles’ father, Jack, was electrocuted in a work-related accident only weeks before Giles’ 17th birthday. Asked if he stays in an environment of teenage boys to offer what was taken from him, Giles said, “That could be something subconsciously.”
“It was something that affected me beyond what anybody would understand because he was my guy,” Giles said. “He was the only person on the face of the earth that believed that I could accomplish things that other people didn’t think I could accomplish. He was that rock.”
Escaping Ikola’s long shadow
Parallels exist in the coaching careers of Ikola and Giles. Their wives were major reasons they settled in Edina. Their talent base, while ample, wasn’t always stable. Edina West High School opened during Ikola’s tenure, splitting the community’s players into two programs. Giles, meanwhile, has lost several top players to metro-area private schools, the National Team Development Program in Ann Arbor, Mich., as well as junior leagues in the United States and Canada.
When Ikola retired, his surname became Braemar Arena’s address. For Giles, Ikola Way is not just a street but an idea that he embodies, said Ben Hankinson, an Edina standout under Ikola who has two sons on this year’s junior varsity.
“Coach Ike never answered to anyone else,” Hankinson said. “You respected him so much that you had no other option but to play hard.”
Some of Giles’ former teammates and coaching peers, while acknowledging respect for his accomplishments, still offer blunt critiques.
“He does well because he’s blessed with good numbers,” former North Stars teammate Brian Bellows said. “If you’ve got 12 squirt teams, your varsity is going to be pretty good.”
Bellows’ son, Kieffer, was Edina’s second-line center as a sophomore at the state tournament last season. He opted not to return to Edina.
“I’m going to leave that one alone and just say he’s happier in Sioux Falls right now,” Bellows said.
In the 2014 championship game against Lakeville North, Edina players drew penalties for roughing, unsportsmanlike conduct and a major penalty for boarding.
“They bring intimidation along with skill,” Benilde-St. Margaret’s coach Ken Pauly said.
Pauly, a board member and past president of the coaches association, said not having Giles’ support as an active member is “a disappointment for us.” He calls Giles “a humble man who underestimates the influence he has.”
Giles hip-checked Pauly’s assertion.
“I learned a long time ago that sometimes when you get out front, you open yourself up,” Giles said. “The most important thing for me is this group of kids that we work with. I’ve got to be honest, I don’t care what anybody thinks about me, what I do or how I do it.”