By Jim den Hollander
Chris Walby, Head Coach of the Minnesota Mullets is originally from the Sauk Prairie/Lodi area and part of one of the original hockey families.
Now 46, Walby played his junior hockey with the Wisconsin Capitols in the USHL and played a few seasons of junior in British Columbia before ultimately turning his focus onto the other side of the bench.
He coached the Middleton Cardinals to a host of conference titles and some state championship tournament berths before stepping behind the bench of the Minnesota Iron Rangers of the Superior International Junior Hockey League, a team he coached for three seasons and ultimately purchased.
He purchased the Forest Lake (formerly Edina) Lakers in 2016 and renamed the team the Minnesota Mullets the following season. Along with the ownership responsibilities, Walby has been the team’s general manager and coach for the past six seasons as well.
Walby agreed to take part in an email question-answer type interview with Saukhockey.info earlier this week.
Saukhockey.info: I moved here in 2000 and despite the popularity of the Badgers and such, I felt like hockey in Wisconsin was at least a generation behind the hockey states like Minnesota, just in terms of general interest at that time. What are your memories of being a youngster, involved in hockey in Wisconsin?
Chris Walby: I grew up on a horse farm set on 32 acres in between Sauk City and Lodi, long before Sauk City and Prairie du Sac built their rink. We were forced to play all our youth hockey in Middleton and for the Madison West Flyers. I have three brothers who also played, so my parents were busy carting us around to the rink.
My Gramma and Grandpa were the reason we got involved in hockey. They had Badger Hockey season tickets and took my brothers and I to our first hockey game. We got hooked quick. We loved the Badgers. When we played pick-up games on our pond or in our garage, we’d argue about who got to pretend to be Mark Johnson, John Newberry, Bruce Driver, Chris Chelios, and we always made our youngest brother play as Marc Behrend in net. I’ve got great memories from those days in the Coliseum.
SH: You started coaching the Cardinals a few years after I arrived here it appears. I remember varsity hockey for WDHS at that time was pretty much a club team. Middleton is a great sports town. Was the hockey program always stronger or was it tough getting players from the wrestling and/or basketball teams?
CW: I played for the Cardinals and graduated from Middleton High School in ‘94. I went on to play junior hockey and then settled in Milwaukee for a few years. When I moved back to Middleton, I was invited to join the staff at Middleton by the Libert brothers who were still the Co-Head Coaches. I was their first captain as they were my coaches during my senior year and their first year at the helm.
My Middleton high school teams were good when I played, but the program had a rough stretch for a few years just before I got there. The Liberts added me and another alumnus in Derek Ward and we quickly turned it around.
We ended up going to “State” the first year myself, Derek Ward, Steve, and Tony Libert combined as a staff. We had a great run together. In nine seasons we made three state tournament appearances and won several Big 8 Titles together.
I credit all three of those coaches as the biggest influences in my coaching career. My final season at Middleton finished with a 5 – 1 loss in the “State” finals against Pete Susens and tough Wausau West team. It took Pete 30 years to win that title and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t have 30 years to chase this’ and I moved on.
What I miss most about coaching high school hockey are the big games and big game environments. The crowds at Cardinal games were awesome. We built quite the program so the students came out in full force.
The Sectional Semi Final and Final games were amazing. We played with full capacity crowds at Cap Ice, Madison Ice Arena and Verona several times. Obviously, I remember the moments during and following the big wins, but some of my fondest memories were lessons taught during tough losses. For example, we went to six overtimes in the 2006 “State” tournament and lost, but it may be one of my favorite hockey memories of all time.
We had a great blend of characters on that team, and it was amazing how they gave everything they had in that game for each other. It was an amazing experience to watch. Sometimes I find myself being more of a cheerleader than a coach and that was one of those times. Time after time, each kid came back to the bench with a look in their eye that said, “I’m doing my best, Coach!” I’ll never forget that game and my time at Middleton.
SH: Your brother Steffon had a great playing (including 289 points in seven seasons in the AHL) and now coaching career (including an SPHL crown won in the spring of 2011 with the Mississippi Surge with regular goaltender Bill Zaniboni). Was he a big influence on you in the sport?
CW: Also, at the top of the list of my biggest influences as a coach and player, is my big brother Steffon.
As a player, I had huge skates to fill because he was awesome. Growing up, I was his biggest fan. If there was a big goal, he’d score it. I’m not kidding either. All throughout his career, when the game was on the line, nine times out of 10 my brother would get the game winner.
I learned a lot just by watching him both as a player and as a coach. As a coach, his demeanor is calm and collected. Regardless of the score. He’s always positive when correcting a mistake or encouraging his guys on during a game. I’m the same, but I’m a lot rowdier on the bench at times than he is.
He’s passed a lot of knowledge on to me about defensive zone coverage, offensive zone attacks, effective ways to improve special teams and how to run game day operations. He’s coached at basically every level now, so I’ve still got a lot more to learn from him.
SH: How did you first connect with the Iron Rangers? Was the move to juniors something you had been thinking about for a while? Can you talk a bit about life in the SIJHL? I have never lived in that part of Ontario but think those long bus rides in the dead of winter must be the longest and perhaps most excruciating in junior. Also, if you thought the rivalry between Middleton and Verona was strong, it must have been so fun as an American coach in Northwestern Ontario?
CW: During the summer of 2012, I was sitting at a Brewer game when I received a text from Sean Storie, a coaching buddy from Superior, Wisconsin. It said, “I think I just got you a Junior A coaching job if you want it.” Ever since my own junior career, I have always said that someday I’m going to run my own junior program.
So, I quickly replied, “Where?” Sean responded, “Iron Range.” I had no clue where that even was.
The owner of the Iron Range Ironheads of the Superior International Junior Hockey League called me the next day and offered me the job over the phone. I told him I had no clue what the Iron Range was and had never heard of his team before. He said they were a second-year team, they weren’t going to renew the current head coach’s contract and they were looking for a new coach to take over and relocate the team 50 miles from Chisolm, Minnesota to Hoyt Lakes, Minnesota.
I told him I’d jump into my car first thing in the morning and meet him in Hoyt Lakes. It’s about a nine-hour drive from Middleton to Hoyt Lakes and I was totally blown away by how beautiful the Iron Range was in the middle of June.
I’ll never forget my first Impression of Hoyt Lakes. You take HWY 4 north out of Duluth for an hour and twenty minutes. All you see during that stretch of highway are beautiful lakes, tall pine tree forests and what seemed like a thousand deer.
There is one major road that runs through town, and it takes less than two minutes to get from one end to the other. If you were to stay on that same road, all you see for an hour is the Superior International Forest State Park before you stumble onto Silver Bay, Minnesota, and HWY 61. It’s incredible. It’s also the only way to Thunder Bay so I ended up getting familiar with the view and have a deep appreciation for the area which is also called the Sawtooth Mountain Range.
The first thing you see as you enter Hoyt Lakes is a welcome sign. The second thing you see is the Hoyt Lakes Ice Arena. I loved that part. It instantly made me feel like the rink was the town’s major focal point. Waiting out in front of the rink was its manager, Wayde West and hockey enthusiast, Francine Bonach. They gave me a tour of the rink, our locker room, the gymnasium and what ultimately sold me on the place, a full-size restaurant quality kitchen they used for weddings, banquets, etc. Wayde and Francine told me all of it was ours to use and for whatever I wanted to use it for. The move just felt right. I had everything I needed to build a team and to build NCAA hockey players.
Playing in the SIJHL was tough. It’s a Canadian league and with the exception of two years, we were the only American team in the league. The league was made up of teams in the Northwest Ontario towns of Thunder Bay, Fort Frances, Dryden, Ear Falls and then us, the upstart Minnesota Iron Rangers.
Hoyt Lakes is two hours from the Canadian border and once we would cross the border it felt as if it was us against them. The biggest example of this was a heartbreaking blown offsides call that led to our demise in Game 7 of the SIJHL Championship.
Regardless, the community and I ended up buying the team from the original owner, we built a winning franchise, filled our home arena, and brought something special to a community that needed us just as much as we needed them. It changed all our lives.
In the end, I brought dozens of Wisconsinites with me to the “Range” and ended up placing over 30 players into the NCAA. It was a special and unforgettable time for all of us.
SH: When the Ducks first joined the Minnesota League, I had never heard of Edina. Of course, now I realize Edina and Maple Grove might be two of the greatest hockey towns in the USA. The Lakers/Mullets are a team with a solid history in the Twin Cities area. Is that part of what made you interested in the team?
CW: I’m forever a Wisconsin guy, but I have absolutely fallen in love with the hockey culture in Minnesota and specifically in the Twin Cities. We have a unique set up here for junior hockey. We play out of Augsburg University Ice Arena and are in the heart of Minneapolis. We are less than a mile from where the Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves, Gophers play and several Minneapolis parks and landmarks.
We have a state-of-the-art gym, rink and an incredible coaching and game day staff. Logistically, we have five NCAA schools here in town and over a dozen more within three hours from here. These are the things I’ve always wanted in building a program. We have everything a player needs to develop on and off the ice and into the NCAA.
SH: Junior hockey teams — successful ones at least, always have a ‘family’ feel. Your bond with the players you coached is obvious and I think you might have more returners each season than most teams as a result. What do you specifically look for in players wanting to play for the Mullets?
CW: I look for players with high quality character. Good kids mostly from good families.
I think team chemistry is the most important factor in building a successful team and program. I try to fill the locker room each year with those types. It always leads to a tight locker room and players build lifelong bonds and relationships with each other. I feel that type of relationship between players make them compete so much harder and they do it for each other.
Those type of kids also make my job feel extra rewarding. They appreciate what we do here and what they’re given.
I truly care for our players and want them to reach their full potential. Nothing makes me smile more than when they have success and achieve their goals. I think they know that. The best phone call in the world is the call I get when a player has accepted an offer to play college hockey.
We get these players at a time where they can set the table for the rest of their lives and our guys are doing great. What we try to teach here goes beyond hockey. We want good players to turn into good husbands, fathers, and members in their communities. The longer I coach, the more I see that come to fruition.
SH: You, like Coach Falzone, seem to relish a chance to wear a lot of hats. You don’t appear to delegate much, preferring to look after most of the day-to-day stuff yourself. Does the paperwork and stuff that goes with being an owner/gm, take any time away from being a coach or have you found a good way to make it work?
CW: I’ve found a way to successfully make it work. True, I do wear a lot of hats and I’m involved in every aspect of running a junior hockey team, but I’ve also surrounded myself with several great people in part time roles that are key players in day-to-day operations.
I had my first full time assistant coach this past season and it was awesome. Max Seiter from Steven’s Point. He’s a former player of mine from the Range and went on to study Physical Therapy at NCAA Finlandia in the U.P.
Coach Max was great. Knocked it out of the park in his first year of coaching. He made the biggest impact in the gym. He knows his stuff and the guys could see it and bought in from the start.
Marty Sertich joined our staff this past season. Marty had an incredible career in the NHL and was a Hobey Baker winner at Colorado College. He’s from here and helps with the University St. Thomas women’s program as well.
Coach Marty would come in one or two times a week to lead our skill practices. He’s still in incredible shape and would run the kids through edge work drills and a series of drills focused on passing, shooting, and getting “touches” in each week. The boys loved him.
Coach Tom Strelow is also still involved. He’s been a great mentor for our players and for me as a coach. Tom also serves as an assistant for Minnesota high school state champion Mahtomedi High School and is a billet father each year for several of our boys.
I’m also blessed with a great game day staff (HP, Nicki, Kels, Zoa, Kate, Roy, and Dan) that run our home games and travel with us for several road games. They’ve filled in several times when road teams were short a trainer or a broadcast guy and our equipment manager isn’t shy about sharpening an opposing team’s skate.
The toughest part about running a team is putting the team together. Several owner, coaches, and GM’s struggle at it. I don’t have the budget to run all over the country to scout and who wants to be away from their family that often?”
I’m lucky to have an amazing network of friends in hockey. I’m very thankful and grateful for them. A majority of my roster each season is built on referrals from people in hockey that I’ve met along the way and know we can provide a great place to play from some kind of an experience we’ve shared over the years.
I’ve always believed that if you treat someone well, they’ll always stick with you. I can say that my vets typically feel that way and if they don’t, that’s ok. Where can we move you to where you’re happy?
In the end, each locker room is the same each year. We’ve all had a blast and it’s a season they will never forget.
SH: How often do you get back to this area? Is it still special for you walking into Cap Ice or any of the other rinks in this area?
CW: I get back often. I had a special experience this past year during Covid and when our rinks shutdown in Minnesota. I let the boys go home for a week at Thanksgiving and when they came back, we moved operations and we all met at the Sauk Prairie Area Recreation Center (SPARC).
It was awesome and kind of a dream come true for me. It was a feeling of my life in hockey kind of coming full circle. I loved having the team on my real home turf. I introduced several to Culver’s, Piggly Wiggly, Devils Lake and the Dells.
The staff at Sauk’s arena was awesome to us and the venue worked perfect for our needs. Dave Jolicoeur has a great crew there and was great to work with.
We skated out of Sauk City’s rink for two weeks. We played four games and practiced there before moving on to our Chicago Showcase just before Christmas.
It was a special trip. One that I will never forget. The boys thought we were going to be forced to shut down for weeks and we didn’t. We made it through. They sincerely appreciated it and we grew together as a team at such a crucial time.