Erspamer returns to coach hockey
Waupaca principal has opportunity to work with son
By Greg Seubert
A familiar name is back in the Waupaca High School coaching ranks.
John Erspamer, who coached the boys’ hockey team from 1996 to 2008, is replacing Dave Crisman, who stepped down following the 2015-16 season.
“The interest was there when Dave announced that he wasn’t coming back, but there was a lot to think about and I didn’t want to rush into any decisions,” said Erspamer, who took a job as a teacher at WHS in 1996 and is now principal of the Waupaca Learning Center. “I kind of wanted to see how things would play out. There was a search on to find somebody and I helped with that, but there comes a time when you have to make a decision.”
His son, Jack, helped make that decision easier.
“In the end, how many people get to coach their kids in high school?” he asked. “Jack, being a freshman, obviously played a part in it. I’d by lying if I said that wasn’t a major reason that I was coming back, to spend more time with my son in a game we both love.”
Erspamer coached the Comets to a Lumberjack Conference championship during the 1999-2000 season.
“I was probably thinking about (stepping down) the last two years that I coached,” he said. “I had two young kids, going through the Master’s (degree) program while I was getting my district administrator’s license and being a high school principal really took its toll on me. It was time to step away from the responsibility that is high school coaching.
“Everything was going about as half as well as it should have been,” he said. “It was time to step back a little and spend more time with my own kids because I had been spending a lot of time with other peoples’ children. I’m driving by the Expo while my son’s playing a game because I have a high school game. It became a little more difficult for me as a dad.”
Erspamer didn’t give up coaching the game, however, as he coached Jack’s Waupaca Area Youth Hockey Association teams for seven seasons.
“When I left the high school seven years ago, I coached two years of Mites, two years of Squirts, two years of Pee-Wees a year of Bantams,” he said. “I needed a little bit of a break and coaching youth hockey was refreshing, to basically go down to the grass-roots level and help kids come through. I had to chill out and remember that they’re learning the game. At the high school level, you’re hoping they’re coming to you with the basic skills. When you go down to Mites and work your way up to Bantams, you’re teaching them how to crossover and use their stick correctly. To teach them the basics was a whole different thought process.”
The opportunity came to coach the high school team, but Erspamer said he took is time with the decision.
“I was thinking about it all summer long, but it’s a huge commitment and if you’re going to do it, you can’t do it half way,” he said. “I wanted to make sure before I decided to put my name in that I was able and willing to make that commitment to these kids.
“I’m not going there just for my son,” he said. “I’m going there to help upwards of 30 kids love the game of hockey, respect the game of hockey and learn life lessons through hockey. I wanted to make sure my priorities were set and I was able to fulfill what I think is good for kids. I took a long time because I needed that time.”
After stepping away from the high school game, Erspamer said he missed the interaction with his players.
“There’s a camaraderie you have with your coaching staff and the kids,” he said. “Having played high school and college hockey myself, you miss the locker room. I miss game day. Anybody who coaches any sport will tell you game day is the best. The relationship with the high-school aged kids, I did miss that. I’m close with a lot of my former players now.”
One of them, Ross Oestreich, will coach the junior varsity team this season. The coaching staff also includes volunteer Bob Menzies, whose sons Sam, Jack and Max played WAYHA and high school hockey.
“There may be another coach,” Erspamer said. “I’m trying to pick people that have a piece that I may be missing. I’m picking people that I know will make a good coaching group.”
Erspamer didn’t meet with his players this summer.
“I didn’t have any contact with the guys,” he said. “I was not named the coach until recently. I didn’t feel it was my place to do that. There’s a group of freshman coming in that I know very well. I don’t know the sophomore, junior and senior class very well and that’s one of the things I’m going to focus on. Getting to know him is going to be a priority. I have a feeling that some of the kids have no clue that I coached high school hockey here.
“The first thing I’m looking forward to is setting a set of standards that we live by at the rink, at school, outside of school,” he said. “My main goal is to develop relationships with the guys in the locker room. I need to earn their respect just like they need to work so I respect them. It’s a two-way street. Years ago, it was, ‘I’m the head coach’ and that automatically guaranteed respect. Those days are over. I have to earn it just like they have to earn it.”
A handful of Waupaca players went on to play college hockey and some of them played for Erspamer. Brad Navin and Craig Johnson suited up for the University of Wisconsin, while Nick Toneys played for St. Norbert College.
“One of the big things I want for these kids when they leave the program is to understand how to win with class and deal with adversity in an appropriate manner,” Erspamer said. “The teams that have won conference championships or those players that have gone on really understood what it was like to stay humble when you win. Trust me, I want to win as much as the next guy, but I want to do it the right way for the kids.”
Erspamer isn’t the only Great Northern Conference coach returning to their former team this season.
“When I first came to Waupaca, Dave Cox was the coach at Northland Pines and he’s now coaching them again,” he said. “I’m not the only one coming off the bench. There have been a lot of rule changes in the last seven years. Getting back to that and figuring that out is as big as learning who the kids are.”
Erspamer doesn’t want to pick up where he left off in 2008.
“I want to start new and use the experiences from the first 13 years and the patience I learned through youth coaching and combine those to have a completely fresh outlook on how we’re going to handle things,” he said. “I want to give back to the kids. I want to make sure their high school experience is one of the most positive ones they’ve had. I know it’s not going to be all unicorns and rainbows. I get that, but I’m going to do my best to make sure they leave loving the game, loving their teammates and that they’ve learned a few things along the way that’ll help them out in life.”
Erspamer will also rely on his love of the sport he grew up playing in northern Minnesota.
“I’m very passionate about the sport of hockey,” he said. “I’m nervous about it because I want to do a good job. I’m going to draw on a lot of the experiences I’ve had in Waupaca and hopefully learn from the mistakes I’ve made.
“The ultimate goal here is to teach kids how to win with class, deal with adversity and respect the game,” he added. “If we can do that, we’ll win our fair share of games.”