Transforming into a dynasty
By Greg Bates
GREEN BAY – Cory McCracken vividly remembers his first season as coach of the new Notre Dame Academy boys’ hockey team.
It was a rough 2006-07 campaign as the Tritons went 2-17-2.
Notre Dame — which had dropped its hockey program 11 years earlier — was the No. 12 seed in its regional for playoffs and lost to the Sheboygan South co-op, 8-4.
McCracken and assistant coach Silverio Mirao had a chat after the handshake line on their way to the locker room.
“Before we addressed the team, and I looked at Sil and I said, ‘We will never be this bad again,’” McCracken recalled. “We weren’t. We turned the corner and put an offseason program in. We had the guys that started to buy in, then kids were just filtering back into the program that were coming out of youth hockey that were going to help our numbers in Years 2 and 3.”
The second season, Notre Dame improved to 11-10-1. The program was moving in a positive direction.
Now, 17 years after Notre Dame resurrected boys’ hockey, it has become a state powerhouse and title contender every season.
This Friday, Notre Dame will try to advance to its 10th state tournament in the last 14 years. The undefeated and top-ranked Tritons will take on No. 3-ranked Bay Port in a Division 1 sectional final at the Cornerstone Community Center.
All the program’s success has been under the direction of McCracken, the steadiest of leaders. During his tenure, McCracken has a remarkable record of 298-98-20.
“He’s just built the program from the ground up,” former Notre Dame athletic director Ken Flaten said. “He reminds me of a lot of what you see with small college coaches that they’re responsible for every aspect of the program.”
Rich hockey historyGeorge Wrobel started boys’ hockey at Premontre in 1968 and he later went on to form St. Norbert College’s program as well.
Boys’ hockey had a rich tradition at Premontre — which merged with Abbot Pennings and St. Joseph Academy to become Notre Dame Academy in 1990 — having really strong teams while competing in the Wisconsin Independent School Athletic Association (WISAA).
In the first two years of hockey at Notre Dame in the early 1990s, the hockey team won 19 games each season.
“Then the numbers started to dwindle in ’92 onward,” Flaten said. “In 1995-96 towards the end of that season, we decided that we were going to take a break with the hope of bringing hockey back as soon as the numbers could support it again.”
When Dane Radecki took over as Notre Dame Academy president in 2005, he remembers one letter being on his desk that stated: start a hockey program.
Talk began about reinstituting the sport and having it part of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association (WIAA). Radecki and Flaten set up an advisory committee and recruited local administrators from schools to conduct a study. There was also an open forum where parents flocked to make their opinions heard.
“There were a lot of families in the area interested in us having a hockey program — not just families from the school, but families in the community, because some of the club teams had so many games and almost too many that families felt their kids were suffering with their academics because there was no control over how many games there would be and what nights they are playing and all of that,” said Radecki, who is now the abbot of St. Norbert Abbey. “Under WIAA, you were going to be limited to something like at that time 20 games, plus your playoffs, so it complimented academics.”
On Oct. 21, 2005, Flaten sent out a press release to media and guests that boys’ hockey had been approved as a WIAA-sanctioned program and its first season back — after 10 years dormant — would be in 2006-07.
“What really put us in that direction was other schools started hockey, St. Norbert College added hockey and it took off and became so successful,” said Flaten, who is now the executive director of business and operations at Notre Dame. “We have that connection with the Norbertines and the school and that was a big, big thing for us. Everything just fell into place. We added it and since that time, De Pere, Bay Port, Ashwaubenon, the co-op in Pulaski, all these other schools added it. The time was right.”
Notre Dame was accepted into the Badgerland Hockey League and the team was going to play at the Brown County Ice Arena.
In early 2006, Mike Buchan was hired as head coach. However, before he even coached a game, he left for a college hockey opportunity.
The hiring process was reopened with a short list of candidates.
McCracken, who had previously been coaching club hockey with the De Pere Voyageurs and had just moved back to Green Bay, threw his hat in the ring. On Aug. 28, 2006, McCracken was hired.
Ironically, McCracken and Buchan — who is now the Bay Port coach — will square off in a sectional final for the right to go to state.
Flaten finds it rewarding that McCracken is still the Notre Dame coach after all these years.
“When I said, ‘We landed on our feet,’ I never thought we’d land as strongly as we did,” Flaten said. “I was probably in a real panic situation, saying we came back after 10 years and then unfortunately [the coach left] and I had to find another person. That was the luckiest and good fortune I could probably have to find [McCracken].”
Rough startThat first season in 2006-07 was rough.
McCracken knew it would take some time to get the program running smoothly.
“When I took the job at Notre Dame, it was more of building the program and establishing a culture,” McCracken said. “The first year was the foundation of this is what our program needs to look like, how we want to do things, so just establishing things that still stand today. But there were certainly some moments of questioning, ‘Is this really worth doing long term? Is there going to be a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, so to speak, if we keep working at it?’ We always thought the answer would be yes.”
Despite the 2-17-2 season, administration was 100% behind the new program and its coach.
“It galvanized the school again in another way — the students loved coming to hockey games,” Radecki said. “The hockey parents are their own breed. They are so devoted and so focused on it; they were enthusiastic. It was just nice to see another element, another positive program for the kids that they could do that.
“As far as the record, in my estimation, do your best. I don’t want to say, ‘This is what you’ve got to do.’”
By the second year, McCracken was starting to see the results he desired. About midway through the season, McCracken’s squad was transforming.
“We started to learn how to win some games that were close games against teams that were very similar to us in competitiveness,” McCracken said. “We finally found a way to win some of those games that in the first year we never had a chance to win.”
In Year 3, Notre Dame knocked off Ashwaubenon twice and took down Fond du Lac — which had won a state title two years earlier — at its own rink.
The next year, the Tritons won their first 15 games of the season and advanced to state for the first time.
“I felt like once you got to that level, you were on your way,” Radecki said. “You were attracting and working well with talent. We weren’t going to struggle for 10 years to try to achieve something.”
That started a stretch of five straight state semifinal appearances and the program’s first and only state title in the 2011-12 season. During that five-year run, Notre Dame went a combined 129-14-1.
Even to this day, McCracken still uses what he learned as a coach that first season to help him run his successful program.
“One is how to instill a foundation of success within your program, so your culture and your building blocks of what’s a non-negotiable part of having success as a hockey team,” McCracken said. “The second piece would be building some team chemistry and how important the team building experiences and make sure players, no matter what their role is on the team, it’s understanding how important and impactful they are to the success of your group. Then the third piece is just how hard it is to win vs. really good teams, and that takes a lot of preparation from the coaching staff on pregame and pre-scouting, but also the desire of the players to be in a practice environment every day where they’re going to take steps forward. I think those three things for us, just the development mindset in practice, to take whatever we have and make it better every day in practice, build the culture and the foundation of how the team’s going to drive success and be competitive.”
It’s amazing to think that in McCracken’s 17 seasons as coach, 27 of his career 98 losses came in the first two seasons. That means he’s lost just 71 games in the last 15 years combined.
Just two wins shy of 300 — a milestone that not a lot of hockey coaches have achieved in the state — McCracken can hit that magic number with a victory in a Division 1 state semifinal, if Notre Dame advances that far. McCracken has a career record of 2-6 in state semifinal games.
Sitting at 25-0 (after victory on Feb. 21), Notre Dame is trying to cap off its first undefeated season in school history and win the program’s second state title.
McCracken and his guys don’t feel any added pressure in the postseason despite having the No. 1 state ranking on their backs all season.
“I think we look forward to that opportunity more than anything else,” McCracken said. “We understand as a coaching staff that there’s only one team that wins the final game at the end of the year; we’d like to be that team every year. So our players approach their start of their season with the goal in mind that they would like to be playing their best hockey and have a chance to win a state championship at the end of the year. We also know it doesn’t define our program and doesn’t define our team as far as how our success is looked at internally.”