Making a Name For Himself

LaFontaine has Evolved Into One of the NCAA’s Most Dangerous Forwards

Orginially published by College Hockey News on Oct. 8, 2014

mns_jp_lafontaine-1008In hockey, the name LaFontaine has a certain aura. It elicits thoughts of one of a generation’s most dynamic offensive players and carries with it Hall of Fame-level expectations. Entering his senior season, Minnesota State senior forward Jean-Paul LaFontaine has lived up to the family name, having evolved into one of college hockey’s most dangerous forwards.

The Mavericks — ranked sixth in CHN’s Preseason Top 10 and the consensus pick to walk away with WCHA hardware this season — boast one of the top returning groups of forwards in the country this season, and LaFontaine is one of its top contributors. He set career highs in goals (20) and points (40) last season, both of which ranked third in the WCHA. He also was second in the country with 14 goals on a Maverick power play that paced the conference at 25.3 percent.

The Oxford, Mich., native has increased his point total in each of his three season in Mankato, a consistent improvement that reflects an inner drive powered by LaFontaine’s personal expectations. He wants to be the guy his team counts on.

“He expects to be successful,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said of LaFontaine. “It’s not a cockiness, it’s a confidence that he has where he feels that he’s one of the better players on the rink, regardless of who else is on it.

“You need to have that to be successful at an elite level.”

Lafontaine has always had an elite nose for the net, scoring 103 points (42+61) in two seasons for prep school Shattuck St. Mary’s and 48 points (15+33) in 60 USHL games for the Green Bay Gamblers before accumulating 103 points (42+61) in just three seasons for Minnesota State.

“I feel like I’ve improved every year,” LaFontaine said. “Coach Hastings expects a lot each and every year and that expectation keeps getting higher and higher.”

For LaFontaine, who hopes to play professionally after this season, the work never ends. To ready himself for the pro game, he’s striving to improve his defensive reliability in hopes of developing into a more well-rounded player. The Mavericks’ coaching staff has also challenged him to increase his impact at even strength, while maintaining the consistency he’s shown throughout his college career.

For those challenges, and many others, LaFontaine will utilize the close relationships he has within his family, drawing on the experiences of his father, John, as well as his grandfather, whom he credits as the two biggest influences in his career. John LaFontaine is the head coach of the NAHL’s Wichita Falls Wildcats, but still makes time to either watch or attend most of his son’s games.

“It’s great to talk to my dad,” LaFontaine said. “He usually gets to watch the games, so he’ll let me know right away how bad I was or how good I was.”

It never hurts to be able to draw on the expertise of an NHL Hall of Famer either and LaFontaine said his “Uncle Patty” has also provided him valuable insight for his career. Playing hockey in the shadow of one of the best American-born players of all time may seem daunting — and LaFontaine said at times it was when he was younger — but he has been able to grow into an accomplished offensive player in his own right by focusing on what he can control and not letting his uncle’s accomplishments weigh him down.

“I don’t feel that pressure,” he said. “I’m where I should be and am developing into the player that I can be and that’s all that matters.”

Early on, Hastings and the Minnesota State staff have been pleased with the improvements LaFontaine made over the summer. He will again play a starring role on the Mavericks’ power play and top line, and is aiming to lead them to new and greater heights this season.

After winning the program’s first Broadmoor Trophy a year ago, and coming off back-to-back first round losses in the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota State and LaFontaine have gotten a taste of success on college hockey’s biggest stages, but are hungry for more.

“I want to make some noise in the big tournament,” he said.

If LaFontaine and Minnesota State have the seasons they’re capable of, that seems well within their reach.

2014-15 WCHA Watch List

Originally published by College Hockey News on Oct. 8, 2014 

akf_c_parayko-1008As the 2014-15 season gets underway, the WCHA continues its task of re-establishing and stabilizing itself in the new college hockey landscape conference re-alignment created. Its “first” season a year ago was certainly entertaining, as teams battled until the final weekend for position in the standings, including at the top, where Ferris State edged Minnesota State by a single point before the Mavericks got their revenge in the Final Five title game.

This season, Minnesota State comes in as the undisputed class of the league, with Ferris State not far behind. After that, though, the picture becomes a bit murkier. Michigan Tech, Alaska, Bowling Green and Alaska-Anchorage will all be in the mix for home ice advantage in the WCHA Playoffs, while the rest of the conference has questions it will have to answer before those teams can be competitive.

The conference is entering year two of its new era and does so under the leadership of a new commissioner that is seeking to increase the WCHA’s exposure, re-build its brand and put itself back into the conversation of the college hockey’s best conference’s. One way of doing that is by putting more teams in the NCAA Tournament, which the league believes it has the depth and talent to accomplish this season.

5 Things to Watch

1. Dawn of a New Era
For the first time in 20 years, and just the third time since 1984, the WCHA will have a new leader. Bill Robertson steps in as the conference’s new commissioner this season, taking over for Bruce McLeod, who retired in June.

Robertson brings a wealth of public relations and promotions experience with him to the WCHA, something the league badly needs. Prior to joining the conference, Robertson served as Vice President of Communications and Broadcasting for the Minnesota Wild. He’s held similar positions in professional sports with the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Minnesota Timberwolves.

“My job is to lift [the WCHA] to higher levels,” Robertson said. “I know with my work in the promotional area, I hope it will help enhance those efforts.”

Robertson has set three “concrete” goals for his first year at the helm of the WCHA: to stabilize the league, increase revenue through sponsorships and increased exposure for and build the league’s brand.

“I want to make sure we keep the WCHA a premier conference in college hockey,” he said.

It won’t be easy. Conference re-alignment knocked the WCHA off its perch as arguably the most powerful conference in the sport to a band of 10 programs that had nowhere else to go. Keeping those teams together, while simultaneously growing the league, will be no easy task.

Since Robertson took over, the WCHA has announced a new TV contract with Fox Sports North, which will see the network broadcast this season’s Final Five in St. Paul and select non-conference matchups featuring WCHA teams. The league has also announced a streaming package through America One Sports, as well as an upgraded social media presence, all with the goal of increasing exposure and accessibility for the WCHA.

2. Ferris State and Minnesota State Set to Lock Horns Again

Minnesota State, the defending Broadmoor Trophy winners, and Ferris State, last season’s MacNaughton Cup winners, come into the season as the heavy favorites to walk away with WCHA hardware again this season.

Picked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in both WCHA preseason polls, the Mavericks and Bulldogs seem destined to battle to the wire again this season as both teams return key parts from last season’s title-winning squads.

Ferris State, which boasted the WCHA’s stingiest defense a year ago, bring back all but one of their defensemen — as well as First Team All-WCHA goalie C.J. Motte — this season. The Bulldogs’ questions are at forward, where they’ll have to replace three of their top four scorers from last season.

The Mavericks return two career 100-point players at forward in seniors Matt Leitner and Jean-Paul LaFontaine, as well as all-league defenseman Zach Palmquist to anchor a strong blue line and sophomore goaltender Cole Huggins — who surprised everyone last year by overtaking Stephon Williams and posting a sterling .926 save percentage and league-leading 1.88 goals against average.

“They’re going to be a tough team to reel in,” Daniels said of the Mavericks. Minnesota State will have to avoid what has become an annual slow start under head coach Mike Hastings. The Mavericks got hot down the stretch, going 10-0-1 down the stretch, but it wasn’t enough to catch the Bulldogs for the regular season title.

Ferris State-Minnesota State is growing into the WCHA’s best rivalry, as evidenced by their three tough and physical games last season, including the Final Five title game. With the two teams set to lock horns once again this season as the clear WCHA favorites, those flames will only burn brighter.

3. Is This the Year For Michigan Tech?

After a fifth-place finish a season ago – the Huskies’ best conference finish in 22 years – Michigan Tech, backed by a strong group of returning upperclassmen forwards and an exciting group on defense, was picked by both the WCHA coaches and media to improve on that finish this year.

“I feel this is the best team that we’ve put on the ice since I’ve been here,” fourth-year head coach Mel Pearson said.

Up front, Michigan Tech returns nine of its top-10 scorers from last year’s team, including junior forward Alex Petan and senior Blake Pietila, who paced the Huskies with 28 points apiece a season ago. Seniors Tanner Kero and David Johnstone and sophomore Reid Sturos also return after topping the 20 point mark.

“It all starts there for our team,” Pearson said of his forward group. “We’ll go as they go.”

Senior Riley Sweeney will anchor the Huskies’ blueliners, and Peterson is excited to see what Shane Hanna can do in his sophomore season, after leading all WCHA defensemen in scoring in league play.

“He is one of the most exciting defensemen, offensively, that I’ve been associated with in college hockey,” Peterson said of Hanna.

The questions for Michigan Tech are in goal, and, for now, it will be up to junior Jamie Phillips to answer them. Phillips, a 2012 seventh round selection of the Winnipeg Jets, steps in for the departed Phoenix Copley. In 22 appearances over his two-year career in Houghton, Phillips is 6-8-1 with a 2.69 goals against average and a .897 save percentage.

4. Whitten Takes Over at Lake Superior State

Lake Superior State, coming off a season that saw it miss the WCHA playoffs by one point, heads into this year with a new leader behind the bench — former Michigan Tech assistant Damon Whitten — after deciding not to renew Jim Roque’s contract.

Whitten inherits a program that hasn’t finished better than seventh in its conference over the past five years, has just four winning season in the past 17 years and hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since the 1995-96 season. This season, the Lakers will have to find new sources of offense after losing three of their top four scorers from last season, as well as replace their strong goalie duo of Kevin Kapalka and Kevin Murdock.

Whitten does come in with a good understanding of the Lake Superior State program, having played under program founder Ron Mason during his four-year career (1997-01) at Michigan State and having worked for Mason’s successor, Rick Comley, on two separate occasions in East Lansing.

In fact, if Whitten had his way coming out of high school, he would have played for the Lakers. He was recruited by former head coach Jeff Jackson, but never received an offer.

“I was kind of hoping to play here. I was almost a Laker a long time ago,” Whitten said. “It probably took about 15 to 18 years longer than I wanted, but I’m excited to be here and for the opportunity.”

Whitten cites both Mason and Comley as two of his biggest coaching inspirations and mentors and is determined to restore Lake Super State to the heights it achieved in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the Lakers captured three NCAA crowns in seven years.

“We’ve got a great responsibility to live up to the foundation that has been set,” Whitten said. “The work starts immediately to build this program and restore that pride and that history.”

5. Embellishment

As will be the case in the NHL this season, diving and embellishment will be points of emphasis for WCHA referees this season.

While WCHA Supervisor of Officials Greg Shepherd said that he doesn’t believe diving is a huge problem in the conference, it does happen and he will work with coaches to eliminate it from the league. Part of that, he said, will come by calling just the one diving penalty on a play that involves embellishment, rather than calling a trip and a dive, a hook and a dive, etc.

“As officials, we have to do a better job of targeting those players,” Shepherd said. “We have to do a better job of calling diving and putting the person in the penalty box.”

5 Players to Watch

1. Matt Leitner, Senior, Forward, Minnesota State

After a slow start that saw him score just three points through his first eight games played, Leitner turned it on and finished the season as the league’s leading scorer, helping Minnesota State to its first Broadmoor Trophy and earning himself First Team All-WCHA honors.

Leitner heads into the 2014-15 seasons as the media’s pick for WCHA Preseason Player of the Year and, along with the rest of the team’s high-powered returning forwards, is expected to lead the conference favorite Mavericks this season and build on last year’s first round NCAA exit.

“Hopefully Matt can pick up where he left off,” Hastings said. “I thought he was playing his best hockey at the most important time.”

It’d be hard to argue that. After his tough start, Leitner averaged better than a point per game in the season’s final 31 games, bagging 42 points (12+30). He is one of the nation’s top returning offensive threats, having scored 121 points (40+81) through the first three seasons of his college career.

2. C.J. Motte, Senior, Goaltender, Ferris State

Ferris State will go as far as its back end can take it this season, led by returning Hobey Baker top-10 finalist CJ Motte, who his head coach calls “as good a goaltender as there is in the nation.”

“We’re in really good hands with C.J.,” Daniels said. “(He’s) going to be worth an awful lot to our team.”

Motte’s 2.17 goals against average and league-leading .928 save percentage last year helped fuel the stingiest defense in the WCHA last season, and the Bulldogs will be relying on that group yet again this season as they sort out where their offensive production is going to come from.

3. Colton Parayko, Junior, Defenseman, Alaska

Parayko has developed into one of the top defensemen in the country during his three years in Fairbanks, evidenced by winning the WCHA Defensive Player of the Year Award and being named First Team All-WCHA and a Second Team All-American.

He’s an all-around defender, utilizing his size – 6-foot-5”, 218 lbs. – and a good stick to get positioning and angles and make himself tough to play against.

“He’s a special player,” Nanooks head coach Dallas Ferguson said. “He’s a big, athletic hockey player. He’s not just a big guy that takes up space.

Ferguson added that, three years ago when Parayko came to Fairbanks, he wouldn’t have described him as an offensive defenseman, but Parayko’s relentless work ethic has helped to develop that part of his game and become an offensive threat from the blue line. The St. Albert, Alberta, native led all WCHA rear guards with 26 points (7+19) last season and was part of an Alaska power play that ranked third in the conference.

4. Alex Globke, Sophomore, Forward, Lake Superior State

Globke, last season’s WCHA Rookie of the Year, led all conference freshmen in overall points last season (12+19=31), but will have to adjust to new surroundings this season to build on that success.

He will be thrust into a much more prominent role this season as the Lakers seek to replace a large chunk of last year’s offense, including both of Globke’s line mates, Colin Campbell and Dan Radke. Suddenly, teams will be keying in on Globke – who is no longer an unknown commodity – and how he responds will go a long way towards determining if Lake Superior State can grab a playoff spot.

“He’s going to be a targeted player this year,” Whitten said. “He’ll get a little bit more attention and we’ll have to help him handle that situation.”

5. Mark Friedman, Freshman, Defenseman, Bowling Green

Friedman, the WCHA Preseason Rookie of the Year, was the highest pick among WCHA players in this summer’s NHL Draft, going in the third round, 86th overall, to the Philadelphia Flyers. Though a bit undersized at 5-foot-10, Friedman will play a big role on defense right away for the Falcons this season, who have some holes to fill on the back end this season.

“I don’t want to put the weight of the world on his shoulders, because he doesn’t need that,” Bowling Green head coach Chris Bergeron cautioned. “He’s a good hockey player and I think he’ll help us fill some of those losses.”

Friedman is known for his smart play and offensive prowess from the blue line, racking up 40 points (10+30) for the USHL’s Waterloo Blackhawks last season — good for fourth in the league among defensemen. Despite his size, Friedman also plays a physical defensive style and was described as “tenacious” by his Waterloo coaches.

MME student competes on Chinese game show

game show web.jpg

7th Grade Immersion student Olivia Meredith demonstrated her Chinese fluency on a popular Chinese game show over the summer

Originally published by Minnetonka Public Schools on Aug. 19, 2014

With back to school just around the corner, Minnetonka Middle School East 7th Grader Olivia Meredith is going to have a very unique story to share with her classmates about what she did over her summer vacation.

Back in July, Olivia, a Chinese Immersion student at MME, was invited by the University of Minnesota’s Confucius Institute to audition for a Chinese game show called “My Chinese Spelling Hero.” After an submitting her application and a two-minute video introducing herself (all done in Chinese), she was selected as a contestant and flown to Beijing with her parents.

​On the popular game show, students from across China compete in a spelling-bee like competition, where students aim to correctly spell a word using Chinese characters. This summer, the show also featured a group of foreigners to demonstrate how Mandarin is being taught around the world.

“It was really fun,” Olivia said.

Contestants used iPads to write down characters that appeared on screen. They earned credits with each correct answer, with the ultimate goal of reaching a four-person judges panel consisting of Chinese celebrities. Using what she’s learned since Kindergarten in Minnetonka’s Chinese Immersion program, Olivia was able to make it all the way to the panel.

“Minnetonka has excellent Chinese teachers, and we are very fortunate for that,” Olivia’s mom, Beth, said.

The trip was an all-inclusive Chinese experience for Olivia, as she had to communicate in the language the whole time she was there. On the show, she stood out amongst a group of students from around the world — including Indonesia, Canada and Russia — who were four to six years her senior.

“They were all really nice,” Olivia said. “We all had the Chinese language in common, so it didn’t feel like much of a difference.”

Olivia’s father, John, believes that, despite her young age, she had an advantage because of the environment in which she learned the language. While the other contestants were taught in a traditional high school setting, Olivia has been immersed in the language since she began formal schooling at Minnetonka at age five.

“The fact that they’ve learned it at such an early age, teachers say she doesn’t have an accent, so she’s really pure in her speaking,” John Meredith said. “That’s the immersion experience. Because it’s all day long, it’s so much more involved with the writing, the speaking and the listening.”

She did so well, in fact, that the show is considering bringing her back.

Olivia has no plans to stop her Chinese education, saying that she sees it as a powerful building block for her future.

“I want to get a job where I can use my Chinese down the road,” she said.

Remembering Track Star Marty Benson ’63

Originally published in the Minnetonka Alumni Magazine on July 15, 2014

bensonBack in 1963, Minnetonka didn’t even have a track that was usable for competition—it was nothing more than an uneven and rugged dirt path around the football field. However that didn’t stop senior Marty Benson ’63 from winning the Skippers’ first-ever individual track title and shattering state records in the process.

Benson got a late start in track, only taking up the sport in his junior year after finding himself too lean and lanky for football. He went out for cross-country that fall, and had modest success, but found track to be more to his liking in the spring. While he wasn’t suited for the gridiron, Benson’s leg speed and endurance made him a perfect fit on the track, specifically the 880-yard (half mile) dash.

“I don’t think he realized the natural talent he had until he started on the track and cross country teams,” says Lynn Krafve, Benson’s coach.

After running a personal best 2:02.9 and just missing the state meet in his first year, Benson continued to improve. Still, it was only those that had a keen eye for talent and potential that would have considered him a favorite for the state title heading into his senior season.

That year, the consensus pick for the 880-yard title was St. Louis Park’s Bob Wagner. Wagner and Benson would duel throughout the season trying to best one another. After running a 2:00.6 in the Lake Conference Championships—just 0.4 seconds behind Wagner—Benson, Minnetonka’s co-captain, broke two minutes for the first time (1:56.8) at the District 18 meet, running 1.1 seconds faster than he ever had in the event. Unfortunately, Wagner ran 0.5 seconds faster than that.

Benson beat Wagner for the first time at the state qualifying Region 5 meet, equaling his 1:56.8 mark from the district meet and headed into the finals of the State Meet at Memorial Stadium as one of the favorites.

In the finals, Benson was forced to an outside lane after being boxed in early, but nevertheless moved up just off of the lead with 330 yards to go. He took the lead with 220 yards left and never looked back, pulling away from the field with a winning time of 1:55.7 to crush the previous state record of 1:57.9 by over two seconds.

“After he won the state title he sent me a telegram asking, ‘Where do I go from here?’ I said, ‘Marty, you can go anywhere you want!’,” says Krafve, who was taking a sabbatical at the time of Benson’s win.

Amazingly, that record still stands as the Minnesota high school boys 880-yard cinder track record and only two Tonka runners have ever run faster, though both of them did so on a faster, rubberized tartan surface.

Benson left behind an undeniable legacy with the Minnetonka track and field program. His success gave the Skippers the extra boost they needed to persuade the school board to put in a six-lane cinder track for the 1964 season. So, you could call the eight-lane rubberized track that MHS has today, “The Track that Marty Benson Built.”

After graduating, Benson went to Mankato State College on a track scholarship, where he became one of the best middle distance runners in school history.

“I ran against Marty a couple times in college. It was a true honor to run in the same competition with him. I looked up to him and was inspired by how talented he was,” says former MHS track star Bruce Johnson ’66.

Benson graduated from college in 1967 before enlisting in the Marine Corps, where he became a Marine pilot and Second Lieutenant in 1968. He fought for his country in Vietnam and his leadership and success on the track carried over well to the military. He earned the Distinguished Flying Cross and Air Medal for heroism on numerous occasions and was promoted to First Lieutenant. Tragically, on February 5, 1970, Benson was fatally wounded by ground fire while on a reconnaissance mission and attempting to land a helicopter.

Benson passed away three weeks later at just 24 years old.

“Marty did what he did, knowing the probable outcome, out a deep, lifelong patriotism. He knew what he was getting into and did it anyway,” says classmate Bill Van Dyke ’63

Benson’s memory has not faded in Minnetonka, however, and is remembered to this day through the Marty Benson Memorial Award, which is awarded annually to the outstanding track athlete at MHS who best exemplifies Benson’s competitive spirit and athletic achievement.

Dr. Peterson Garners Communications Award

Minnetonka Superintendent to be honored by state communications association with Leadership in District Communications Award

Originally published by Minnetonka Public Schools on April 10, 2014

peterson picA world-class school district needs world-class communications, and vice-versa, something that Minnetonka School District Superintendent Dr. Dennis Peterson understands.

Peterson has committed himself to high-quality communication with all community audiences in order to build support for Minnetonka’s mission, vision and goals.

That dedication has earned Dr. Peterson recognition from the Minnesota School Public Relations Association (MinnSPRA), which will honor him with its Leadership in District Communications Award during its spring conference on Friday, April 11.

“It’s a nice honor. I appreciate being nominated by our communications staff, Board members and others that were involved,” Dr. Peterson said of receiving the award. “It’s very humbling because I know there are many other superintendents are very good at communications and have good communications plans in their district.”

“Minnetonka is highly regarded in regards to communications.”

Since assuming the superintendency in 2001, Dr. Peterson has been a staunch supporter of a strong Minnetonka communications plan. But, he notes that a plan can only be as good as the programs and initiatives that it’s promoting. For that reason, he has strived to develop and implement a wide array of world-class programs throughout the District. During his time in Minnetonka, Dr. Peterson has increased student achievement by every academic measure, including the District’s average ACT score increasing from 23.1 to 26.3. He has also made Minnetonka a national leader in using classroom technology as an accelerator of learning, improved facilities, rebuilt community pride in schools and initiated open enrollment.

“There’s an old saying that you do a good job, do a good job, and then tell about it,” Dr. Peterson said. “We have to have good things happening that the Minnetonka community, staff and students can be proud of.”

“We have programs that garner a lot of interest and over 2,500 open-enrolled students,” he added. “That traffic alone tells us that people appreciate what we’re doing and how we do it. Communications allow us to spread the word about those programs, how they’re doing, how successful they are and get feedback.”

By opening that two-way communication with the community, Dr. Peterson has been able to build trust and a mutually beneficent relationship with Minnetonka constituents. In turn, the District has been able to move forward on accomplishing its goals for student learning with community support.

In today’s rapidly changing communications environment, he has also been a visionary leader in communications technologies in order to keep those two-way channels open and current. Under Dr. Peterson’s leadership, Minnetonka has prioritized its website as a primary source of information; launched social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo and others; and rolled out a fully-integrated Minnetonka App this year.

“Communications technology over even the last 10 years has changed dramatically, and over the last 25 years it’s like day and night,” Dr. Peterson said. “It’s critical for a district to stay current in how people are communicating with each other and to have our message out there. Without staying on the cutting edge, we wouldn’t be resonating with our patrons.”

“We want them to know how things are going, how new programs are doing and how students are doing, as well as challenges we’re facing, so that they may help us overcome them,” he added of the importance of connecting with the community.

“It’s critical to make sure employees and constituents of the District know what we’re accomplishing, what we’re trying to accomplish and where we’re not being as successful as we might like,” he said, “so that they feel like the District is being open and honest with them and progressing towards its goals.”

The 2014 MinnSPRA Spring Conference will take place on Friday, April 10, at the TIES Event Center in St. Paul.

Leadership in communications is not the first award Dr. Peterson has received.  He has been recognized with AASA’s President’s Award for Vision and Leadership in Technology (2005), eSchoolNews Tech Savvy Superintendent Award (2006), an Educational Research and Development Institute’s Excellence in Educational Leadership Award (2007), and Minnesota Superintendent of the Year in 2009.