Photo by Robert Williams
Gretchen Norby begins the second year of her second stint behind the bench for the Detroit Lakes co-op girls hockey team this winter. Last year, DL was joined by players from Wadena-Deer Creek, Park Rapids, New York Mills and Frazee as the team looks to weather and reverse a trending decline in participation.

By Robert Williams


Gretchen Norby stepped away from coaching hockey in Detroit Lakes in 2018 in a difficult decision made easier by loss of the time commitments necessitated by the job. However, last year, Norby was called upon by DL Activities Director Rob Nielsen to save the day after head coach Scott Piepkorn left the team in early December during the season.

“It was scary,” Norby said.

Piepkorn quit on a Monday, which led to no team practice and Norby got the call from Nielsen Tuesday morning.

“I thought it over and called some people and by the afternoon I said, ‘As long as I can bring my dad I’m willing to do it,’” Norby said. 

The search for simple things like her skates led to watching practice from the bench Tuesday night before getting on the ice with her team the following day with back-to-back games looking on Thursday and Friday.

Norby had a lot to do in two days, but kept it simple for her new team.

“Obviously, they were kind of reeling too at that moment,” Norby said. “There were a lot of questions. Are we done? Are we going to have a team? Who is going to coach us?”

The main theme was a fresh start for everyone, players, coaches and parents.

“Coming in and saying this is who I am; this is my past; I don’t know you and that works to both of our benefits,” Norby said. “You get to start new here with me.”

Norby graduated from Detroit Lakes in 2004 as arguably the best girls hockey player to come out of DL. She earned All-State honors three straight years and was a member of the inaugural Laker girls team.

Norby moved on to play Division I hockey as a defenseman at St. Cloud State University for two seasons, before a pair of shoulder surgeries cut her career short. She took one year off from the game after college before returning to coach the Lakers under Dan Maloney.

Maloney spearheaded the DL girls hockey program which he began as head coach in 2000 and ran until 2011 when Norby, a three-year assistant, took over the job.

In her first year at the helm, DL made its first trip to the state tournament after defeating Alexandria for the section title. Ultimately, the state tournament was a learning experience after a 13-1 loss to powerhouse Warroad in the quarterfinals and a tough 5-4 double overtime loss to New Ulm in the consolation bracket.

Upon returning to the program last season, Norby did not have a plan for anything but the immediate future.

Norby held a special meeting with parents with the focus of the meeting on what was going to happen in the future, not what had just happened between some parents and the former head coach.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said. “We have a chance to start new here. I’m here for your daughters and you’re just going to have to trust that I’m here because I want this to be a positive experience for them.”

That message got across to the group of parents.

“I felt very supported by them,” she said. “They were willing to give me a chance and put their trust in me.”

Norby’s history with the program certainly gave her plenty of clout if needed, but she felt a personal responsibility for a program that was in trouble.

“I did it because I felt like I owed it to that program that I had come up through,” said Norby. “You have the time, why wouldn’t you do it? And then, when I talked to my dad about it, I thought he was going to be the hard sell. If I do this, I want to do it with you. I don’t think I can do it without you and he said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”

The team skated hard Wednesday and took on the eventual section runners-up Crookston Thursday.

Game strategy and results were the last thing on anyone’s mind. To get to that point, it took a week just to create some basic familiarity.

“I’d say it took me a good week to learn their names and to figure out numbers and names, but to their credit, they worked their butts off for me,” Norby said. “They worked hard every practice and were patient with me while I was getting to know them. There was not a lot of pressure because we knew the situation we were in. Nobody was expecting us to come in and win right away.”

By Christmas break, the team had created some closeness and adjusted to the Norby coaching style and came back from the holiday break focused on a full January schedule. The Lakers finished the season 7-13-2 and also completed the first year of co-oping with a group of local schools: Frazee, New York Mills, Park Rapids, Perham and Wadena-Deer Creek.

Heading into the team’s second year of the co-op was bringing more change. The Mid-State Conference now no longer existed and the team was about to transition to the much bigger and more competitive Central Lakes Conference.

“When Rob talked to me at the end of the year, I still hadn’t made a decision, but I was very, very teeter-tottering,” Norby said. “I really didn’t know what to do. Honestly, if you would have asked me right up until mid to late January, I would have said no, I’m not coming back,” said Norby. “It isn’t that I didn’t enjoy it; I enjoyed it. I was having fun with the kids, but I think it was kind of that last two to three weeks…it kind of brought back my love of the game. I had so much fun with those kids. It was really starting to click, as far as, what I had brought in that second half of the season. There were some really good things happening. It made it really fun for me and it was fun to do it with my dad again. I really enjoyed that aspect of it.”

Much like the first time she left coaching, the concerns were much the same.

“It is such a big commitment and if you want to do it right it’s a huge time commitment,” she said. “Not just October through February. It’s all year long.”

Norby stated that she was willing to commit to three years and she was going to concentrate on team development.

“The game has changed and we have to change with it,” said Norby. 

A big change will be increased travel and competition as part of the new conference against Alexandria, Brainerd, Willmar, River Lakes (ROCORI), Fergus Falls, St. Cloud and Sartell/Sauk Rapids.

“That makes it tricky too, because those aren’t close games. That’s a trek everywhere you’re going,” she said. “From a hockey perspective, we’re playing a lot of AA teams and that’s going to make us a lot better.”

With the co-op so new, there are only a handful of players coming back from last year’s team who are not locals to DL: two from Wadena-Deer Creek, two from Park Rapids, and one from Frazee and New York Mills.

“The thing that it gives us is a ton of potential to pull some of those kids in the future,” Norby said. “Selfishly, what I really like about it is most of those kids are (currently) playing youth boys hockey, so they’re going to come in with a little bit more of a competitive edge and maybe be a little bit more physically prepared than girls who have only played girls hockey.”

Opening up the program for contributions from other schools was a needed solution. It also gives the head coach some assurance that the skaters coming from other schools are in it for the long haul, as joining Detroit Lakes is a big time commitment for student-athletes from outside the district.

Norby cited incoming freshman Dalanie Nelson from Wadena-Deer Creek as one of those players.

“This is a huge commitment for her; she’s going to give up a lot of time, a lot of other things for her to drive here an hour a day for practice,” Norby said.

Same goes for incoming senior defenseman Addison Lauwagie from Park Rapids and freshman forward Aurora Jabas of New York Mills.

“Keep an eye on her (Jabas), she is one to watch,” Norby said. “She understands the game well and understands the game well.”

Frazee’s current contribution to the team is Addison Burton, who has the benefit of being in school with her head coach. Norby is the Technology Coordinator for the Frazee-Vergas School District with an easily accessible office in the media center.

“She’ll just pop in and we’ll talk and just the fact to have a kid from Frazee making that commitment,” said Norby. “Again, it’s a 10-minute drive to DL. She’s making that commitment to get to practice every day and to spend that time. That’s awesome.”

Norby’s presence with Burton paving the way has led to other Frazee and Vergas girls expressing interest in the sport.

“It only helps us as a program and with me being here, I’ve had a couple girls that have come up and said, ‘I want to play hockey. Can I try?’” Norby said.

The co-op has also attracted a new player from Pelican Rapids, who chose to open enroll in DL just to play hockey. 

Looking to the future, Norby believes communication with the existing youth hockey programs in all of the co-op towns will be critical to the program’s future.

The co-op is also kind of a double-edge sword, especially for towns like Park Rapids and Wadena that currently have functioning youth programs and former varsity programs.

“Honestly, I think some of those hopes are they’ll be able to get enough kids back to have their own team,” said Norby.

Girls and women’s hockey got a boost this past season with the formation of the Professional Women’s Hockey League (PWHL), an increased marketing boost, a record setting attendance for a women’s hockey game between Toronto and Montreal,  and locally, a championship in the league’s first year won by Minnesota, one of the six inaugural teams.

“I think the girls hockey numbers have been on the decline for a while now,” said Norby. “When it was new, 20-some years ago, we had such great numbers. You saw that each school could support that. I think there are just enough other things that are available to girls now. I think the money is something that always scared away parents, but I don’t know if hockey is any more expensive now than dance or gymnastics.”

Numbers in the Detroit Lakes girls program have been a constant struggle the past few seasons, something that certainly made Piepkorn’s job difficult and the biggest challenge for Norby in her second stint as Laker head coach.

“I know Pep worked really hard the last couple years just to have enough kids to have a varsity and potentially a junior varsity,” she said. “For Pep, it was a very challenging situation because you just want to have enough kids to fill a varsity team. There were those couple years of struggle there.”