The numbers are eye-popping: 1,021 victories, 10 league championships in 22 years and titles in four different leagues.
And so are these numbers: 3,165 career penalty minutes, 432 penalty minutes in a season and more than 200 career fights.
They all belong to Steve Martinson, a Minnesota native who toiled most of his playing career as an enforcer at the Triple-A level, with 50 games in the NHL sprinkled in, and is the career victory leader among U.S.-born pro hockey coaches. On March 9, Martinson posted his 1,000th career victory as coach when the Allen Americans of the ECHL — hockey’s Double-A level — beat the Tulsa Oilers 3-2 in Allen, Texas.
“I didn’t really think about it much,’’ said Martinson, a former Minnetonka High School and St. Cloud State standout. “We had a tough year, so the whole focus was trying to get better.’’
The results this season for Martinson, 61, and the Americans was a rarity. Allen missed the playoffs, only the second time in 22 seasons that the coach hasn’t had a team in the postseason. But the 1,000-victory milestone was one to celebrate. Among pro hockey coaches all time, only Scott Bowman (1,244 wins in the NHL) and John Brophy (1,027 in the ECHL and NHL) have more wins than Martinson’s 1,021. The Americans, with an assist from Martinson’s wife, Michelle, saluted him with a video board tribute.
“My wife messaged a lot people, and there was big video. She’s pretty sneaky; she did it without me even knowing,’’ Martinson said with a chuckle.
Becoming a player
Martinson’s achievement of 1,000 coaching wins didn’t follow a typical path. After graduating high school in 1977, the self-described late bloomer went to St. Cloud State, an NCAA Division II program at the time. He became a solid scorer, collecting 60 goals and 64 assists for the Huskies, but also honed his physical game as his body filled out to 6-1 and 200 pounds.
“He was a skilled big guy who scored at lot of goals at St. Cloud State,’’ said Dave Reichel, a Huskies teammate of Martinson’s, “and he brought some nastiness to anyone who wanted to mess with him.’’
Reichel, who’s been St. Cloud State’s radio analyst for 29 years, was in North Stars training camp with Martinson in 1981. “When he moved on to the pros, his ticket was to play a tough game,’’ Reichel said.
Martinson said he received the invitation to Stars camp because of his scoring ability at St. Cloud State, but his physical presence resulted in a longer stay.
“I got three days of meal money, where everybody else got seven days,’’ he recalled. “They didn’t know I could fight. I fought Archie Henderson, who was a noted tough guy at the time. I figured I better do something quick or I wasn’t going to be around very long. I picked a fight with Archie, and after that, [coach] Glen Sonmor came up and talked to me, and I ended up sticking for the whole camp.’’
Martinson didn’t make the North Stars that season and spent time with their Toledo and Birmingham farm clubs. He continued to bounce around the minors in the 1980s, including the 1985-86 season with Hershey of the AHL in which amassed 432 penalty minutes in 69 games. He fought so much that season to make a name for himself.
“That [previous] summer, I had an offer from the Flyers, and then the Oilers called me,’’ Martinson said. “The director of player personnel says, ‘Don’t sign that [Flyers offer]. Let me talk to [coach] Glen Sather.’ Sather calls me up and said, ‘Steve, I’ve never heard of you until today. My understanding is you can fight. We’ve got a lot of guys who can score. We’re looking for someone who can fight. [Dave] Semenko is on his way out. If you come here and beat Semenko, you can stay.’ It was really matter of fact.’’
Sather’s pitch didn’t work, and Martinson signed with the Flyers. The Oilers ended up with Marty McSorley as their enforcer, and Martinson ended up with a case of “what might have beens.’’ “It’s one of those things I kick myself for not going there,’’ he said, “but what are you going to do?’’
Martinson made it to the NHL with the Detroit Red Wings in 1987-88 for 10 games, and he scored in his debut against Edmonton. He recalled another episode from that game.
“I remember coming around the net and trying to hit [Wayne] Gretzky so hard, thinking, ‘This might be my only game,’ ’’ Martinson said. “He tripped, and I went right over the top of him and ended up getting in a fight right after because they knew I was trying to hit him. It was pretty wild.’’
Martinson’s NHL career would last 49 regular-season games and one playoff contest, with 39 coming with Montreal and the last with the North Stars in 1991-92. “Played against Toronto when Basil [McRae] was hurt,’’ he said. “It was fun to play a game with the Stars.’’
The coaching bug bites
Martinson’s 14-year playing career ended 1994-95, and he decided to put his business degree to use as a consultant with Smith Barney. But the San Diego Barracudas of Roller Hockey International lured him into coaching in the summer of ’95, and the San Diego Gulls of the West Coast Hockey League hired him as their coach that fall. “I thought, ‘I can always go back to being a financial consultant,’ ’’ he said. “I never went back.’’
The Gulls won the first of three consecutive league championships in Martinson’s debut season, and he added titles in 2001 and 2003. Brett Larson, now St. Cloud State’s coach, was a player/coach for Martinson with the Gulls.
“I caught the coaching bug from him, for sure, and it’s ironic that I end up coaching at his alma mater,’’ said Larson, who played at Minnesota Duluth. “The best coaches have some type of intangible, and most of it is who they are as people that makes teams want to go through the wall for them and do anything for them. Steve has that.’’
Martinson’s background as an enforcer has helped him see different perspectives from the bench, Larson said.
“I was a puck-moving defenseman who never fought. I think Marty appreciated every guy for what they brought to the team,’’ Larson said. “You didn’t have to be a tough guy to make Marty like you.’’
That tough-guy persona was there in Martinson’s coaching, too. In 1999, a huge brawl broke out between the Gulls and Phoenix, and the Mustangs’ John Badduke punched Martinson. Chaos ensued, and the game ended up being suspended after two periods.
“You look over and you see Marty in his suit and tie and dress shoes, fighting a guy who’s on skates. That’s usually not a fair match, but Marty did pretty good,’’ Larson said. “Finally, Marty and I go back to the office, and his shirt’s kind of ripped and he’s got blood dripping down from the corner of his mouth, and he says, ‘You know what? That was the most fun I’ve had in years.’ ’’
Martinson left the Gulls after the 2003-04 season and landed with the Rockford Ice Hogs of the United Hockey League and led that team to a title in 2007. Stops in Elmira and Chicago of the ECHL followed, and he ended up in Allen in 2012-13. The Americans won CHL titles in his first two seasons as coach, then moved to the ECHL, where they won two more in a row. The team now is a Wild affiliate.
Hard work, and physical play, of course, are traits of Martinson’s teams.
“The key to my success has always been my skill played harder than the other team’s skill,’’ he said. “I looked at it as we weren’t more skilled, but they played harder. When I’ve had success, we’ve had skill combined with physicality.’’
Even with those 1,000 victories and 10 championships, Martinson has no plans of letting up.
“I like what I’m doing. I’d like to do something with Minnesota, too,’’ he said. “I’ve had better success than anybody at that level, so whatever I do I think I would do well. I never plan on retiring.’’