When Delano’s Ben Meyers was named to the 2022 U.S. Men’s Olympic Hockey Team, some swear you could hear the cheers from Delano reverberate across the state.
A homegrown player who faced pressures to leave high school but chose to stay is exactly the type of player Tigers boys’ varsity coach Gerrit van Bergen said he wants to represent the community of Delano.
“Having an Olympian in town is a big deal. I’m a science teacher and that first U.S. game there might not have been a lot of science done that day,” joked van Bergen, who is a Rockford-Delano alum and took over as head coach in 2017. “It’s just been awesome to have seen his progression, and we’re lucky to have had him play for us and stay all the way through high school. He wanted to play with his buddies and get them to a state tournament, and he did exactly that.
“And because of it, he created just a ton of momentum for our program.”
But Meyers is just the tip of the iceberg, van Bergen says, as Delano continues to build its entire association into a powerhouse. From the grassroots growth up to the high school’s recent success, Delano has created a respected, perennial contender.
Upping the Competition
In 2008-09, Delano, a community of roughly 6,085, moved from District 5 to District 3, pitting them against Wayzata, Osseo-Maple Grove, Orono and others.
“It was in many ways kind of the perfect storm for our program,” said van Bergen. “We were no longer allowed to kind of live this small-town hockey mindset. We had to change.”
Van Bergen noted that initially many thought the move was going to be “Terrible. We can’t do this.” But it was ultimately embraced as an opportunity.
“This is going to be the best thing for us,” he said. “We’re going to have an A team no matter what at every level, and it may not be pretty but it’s going to allow us to grow, and it forced us to get really uncomfortable.
“And through that, at the youngest levels, we had a great group of people that were working to make skill development No. 1.”
The ADM Way
“We weren’t going to get caught up in these Mite games and super Mite tryouts. We were going to focus on skill development,” said van Bergen. “People said the kids will be bored. Not if they’re coached. Not if they’re taught. We can have a kid who was on the Squirt A team and a kid who picked up his first pair of skates last week and if we coach both of them, we can develop them.”
While Delano’s commitment to player development has played a key role in their current success, van Bergen believes they still have room to improve, noting he wants to follow the lead of East Grand Forks, a program who put emphasis on skill development before games to establish itself as one of the elite associations.
“I would love to see Squirts go to half-ice games and the other end is used for skill development. The big ice is not suitable for them,” said van Bergen. “Parents see their kids on full ice and say, ‘Wow, they’re skating with the puck.’ ‘Wow, they scored a goal.’ But that’s not a real representation of hockey because the ice sheet is too big.
“We move them to cross-ice games and now they’re actually playing hockey. Now they have someone making them change directions, making them make passes and make plays and making them be a teammate.
“You know, take a look at that 2017 team, our first state tournament team – we have four guys play Division I and one Olympian in that group right now, and those guys didn’t play game after game when they were Mites. They did skill development. They played against each other. They weren’t focused on getting on some Triple A team, they were focused on playing baseball in the summer.”
Another one of those players on the 2017 team? Michigan Tech senior Brian Halonen, one of the top point-getters in all of college hockey this year.
Building a Culture
One of the pillars in any association is the culture. Delano is no different, and van Bergen points to that as the primary reason they have been able to recruit, retain and grow.
“We have some of the best volunteers and coaches in the world,” he said. “I’m sure everyone can say that, but I honestly believe it. Like I said, we put leadership in place that is focused on the same goal of developing these players into athletes and good people.”
Van Bergen also points to the Delano hockey celebs like Meyers and Tyler Heinonen (the program’s first-ever Division I player) who not only put the town on the map in the hockey sphere, but come back to work and continue to build that.
“To this day, Ben comes back and helps with our summer camp,” said van Bergen. “I think one of the biggest pieces about our culture is that there’s a strong connection with our alumni. Whether it’s coaches, or players or just people who live in the community and had their kid play. And it’s a remarkable trickle effect when you have Division I players and Olympians. Kids recognize them and say hey, he wore the same jersey as a youth that I’m wearing.”
Another part of that culture: success and belief.
“A couple of years back, we took Breck to OT in a semifinal, and that was a galvanizing moment because that’s when we realized how close we are,” recalled van Bergen. “Before I was hearing parents just happy that their kid makes the high school team and now we really believe a state championship is our goal.”
With a 2019 Bantam A Minnesota Hockey State Tournament appearance, and boys’ high school state tournament appearances in 2017, 2019, 2020 and 2021, you might suspect that the goal in Delano is to bring home the title.
Yes and no.
“My ultimate vision is to bring the model that East Grand Forks used and their approach to skill development,” said van Bergen. “If you look at their youth teams, they are going to be unbelievable at hockey for the foreseeable future and that’s because they put such focus on skill development. I’m hopeful to really get that off the ground in the next year or two – we’re so close.”
“Because with that skill development comes success in winning championships, which are great too don’t get me wrong. But we’re here to develop players, athletes and people. That’s the biggest win right there.”