500 Club

by Pete Waggoner

Two veteran coaches reached an exclusive club in high school hockey recently as Benilde-St. Margaret’s Ken Pauly won his 500th career game on Thursday, January 16th, 2020 with a 6-3 win over Bloomington Jefferson. Eden Prairie’s  Lee Smith captured his 500th career win with an Eagles 5-4 win over St. Michael-Albertville on Saturday, January 18th, 2020.  

Pauly and Smith became the 16th and 17th coaches in Minnesota High School hockey history to win 500 games. Woodbury’s Wes Bolin is three wins away from the 500 club at the time this story went to press.    

While Pauly and Smith have a lot in common with their journey to 500, there are also some differences.  One thing in common was they began coaching in programs that were on the ground floor and pushed through to be perennial state title contenders.  They both are owners of large personalities and can command a room with the best of them.  One difference in the two bench bosses is Pauly has spent the major part of his career at a private school while Smith has been at Eden Prairie, a public school his entire career.  Pauly is in his 30th year as a coach, spending all but 3 seasons at Benilde-St. Margaret’s, with three seasons served at Minnetonka. Smith is in his 27th year as a head coach. 

Smith has led his team to 11 state tournament appearances and has won two state titles (2009 and 2011).  Pauly has led his team to 5 state tournaments and has captured three state titles (1999, 2001, 2012). 

As they prepare for a big time game Tuesday night at the St. Louis Park REC Center, the MNHockey.Tv was able to sit down with both coaches in a candid conversation that covered a large number of topics through their careers. For the writer of this article both Ken Pauly and Lee Smith have been cornerstones on a journey of high school hockey coverage that has been as pure as the game can be.  It can be said that the friendships struck with both of these coaches are lifelong and appreciated. 

Pete Waggoner (MNHockeyTv)  First of all to both of you, congratulations on winning your 500th game each.  The timing of the wins are really quite stunning when you think about it.  Ken’s (Pauly) was on Thursday and Lee’s (Smith) was on Saturday.  Let’s start first with you Ken, when you look back and see 500, that’s a big number, what are your thoughts on that? 

Ken Pauly (KP)  My thoughts on that are yes it is a big number but it also is not possible without a great school and a great program.  A lot of great people helped me out, and I’m not trying to be disingenuous, but I am sure that Lee would agree that you just are not going to get to a number like that without having a lot of great people helping you along the way.  Believe me, you feel like you had a hand in it, for sure.  You have to orchestrate the stuff but I always like to think of in terms of coaching teams, it is a big team effort and I am pretty proud of that.  

Lee Smith (LS)  I always think about the fact that where we started in Eden Prairie when I started to where we are now, and to think of when we created a youth program that not only has been a good spot for our own kids to play but for our kids to go on and play at other schools too and have that opportunity to go play beyond Eagle hockey.  I feel the same way as Ken one hundred percent.  I was so fortunate with all the people that have assisted me, making this happen.  Whether in youth coaches or the great coaches that I have had on my staff.  The great players that have chosen to stay in high school when they could have left and played other places.  They decided to stay and play in Eden Prairie and I think that is always exciting.  I feel the same way as Ken,  a lot of people are a part of this.

MNHockeyTv  You guys have the same, from a program perspective, background.  Ken, when you first got to Benilde-St. Margaret’s I don’t know if you were really a juggernaut at the time.  It was a growing process, a build.  Can you look back over the three decades that you have done this and say wow, this has been a build and what did that look like? 

KP  When you started, it was the opposite of a juggernaut, that’s for sure.  When I came in as a JV coach, it  was actually our first-year in the old Missota Conference, and as you both know the MIssota conference was kind of  like the baby Lake Conference.  Burnsville used to be a Missota team and so was the Lakeville team.  Our goal was to just try and be competitive in the conference.  There was no aspiration what-so-ever when you start, I would like to think I was a visionary and say, ‘Hey, you know we are going to be state champions someday.’  My goal was to see how well I could do here and stay for five or six years and see if I can get a Lake Conference job.  That’s basically when you are a young coach is what you are thinking.  I grew up on the Lake Conference and that’s where you are looking at going.  As I started there, I fell in love with it and the truth is, love it or hate it, Class A hockey opened up the door for us to become something different.  The vision grew from there to become one of the better high school programs in the state, top 15 probably every year now, but that’s not where you start.  You don’t start thinking that.  You know what?  You get a job and you love high school hockey. My first year we won the Missota Conference title, that was a big deal.  That was fun!  We were excited about that. It really is incredible that you start thinking, ok, let’s just win the Missota Conference and a decade later you win the Class A title and about seven or eight years later, you are winning a AA title.  That’s pretty cool.  Especially what Lee was talking about was building.  Lee had to build it.  He didn’t come in there and they had all of these titles.  There is a lot of work.  You have to get a shovel and go to work and so did we.  Contrary to what others think, this isn’t a result of getting a key transfer or a result through recruiting.  This is a result of building something that people want to be a part of and that’s how you succeed. 

MNHockeyTV  Lee, I can remember when you started, going from Edina to the Lions’s tap in Eden Prairie, driving through plenty of farm land even in the mid to late eighties and into the early nineties, you got there in 91 or 92,  it was still a very small town, meaning you were starting from scratch, recount that for us. 

LS  I was always my dream to land here because I was fortunate enough that my dad and grandpa would take me to the North Star games, the Twins or the Vikings and we would always have to drive through Eden Prairie and I thought this was a beautiful place and I would like to work here.  It’s far enough where I am close to the Cities yet still in the land that I grew up in where it is farmland.  It’s weird that I ended up that I got here but the one thing that I knew when I started in Eden Prairie is that it was going to grow. It would be an opportunity for me if we could put together a good youth program that we could develop some good players.  My first goal was really to be able to skate as well as Edina, Jefferson, and Burnsville at that time. They were so superior in their skill levels that I didn’t really worry about teaching systems, it was more about get our players to play at that speed of the (Mike)  Crowley’s, the (Joey) Bianchi’s, and the (Jeff) Saterdalen’s, all the kids we had to face.  Once we were able to do that, we became someone that was relevant and competitive with the other teams in the Lake Conference.  One of the most meaningful phone calls I ever got was after the 1998 seven overtime loss to section final that we lost in 6 overtimes to Edina, coach (Tom) Saterdalen called me and said, ‘Lee I just want you to know that when I was at Rochester, I lost my first three section finals too.  Just hang in there and if you stay the course, you are doing it the right way and things could happen for you in the future that could be positive.’  The next year, we were able to go in 99 and that was a gigantic monumental day for us.  

MNHockeyTv The world you guys live in as coaches is under constant scrutiny and there is always second guessing. You see some guys these days just say, I am tired of it and I’m out.  There are a lot of good reasons why you guys stay, but it isn’t easy.  Ken, the whole notion of working through all of the noise that comes from external sources while staying focused on the program and continuing to coach is difficult.  What parts of that are you most proud of? 

KP  I was allowed to grow through that noise.  I think what happens to a lot of young coaches is those bogies come in they hit you while nobody shoots them down.  I had a great Athletic Director and a great President who shot those bogies down before they got to a young kid who probably couldn’t handle it.  I would like to sit here and say I have at 55 that I had at 25 (Smith laughs) so the fact is I had a lot of veteran people in education and in athletics that protected me and allowed me to grow and allowed me to make mistakes.  You look back and say gee, I really wasn’t a very good coach at 25.  I had a lot of enthusiasm and did some things well but, I look back and none of us are the same person 30 years later.  With all of that noise Wags, I think the best thing I had really good people.The President of my school, the Athletic Director, great Principals that just helped keep the perspective of stay focused on your program, stay focused on your kids.  It helped me deal with those things while I had to learn those lessons and toughen my skin up a bit.  Once you get going, and I learned this a long time ago at a young age,  in order for people’s criticism to not matter their praise can’t matter that much either.  I don’t crave that, it’s nice to get it but I don’t crave people telling me I did a good job because when they tell me I do a bad job, I have to take both. 

LS Right

KP  It has gotten more difficult with social media, and chat boards are the worst thing that can happen to a coach.  The last thing you should do is look at it, listen to it, and what I have learned to do is as we have gotten bigger as a program is fly 30,000 feet.  They can’t hit you. Just keep talking.  If I don’t hear them, does it matter?  So, I don’t care what they have to say quite frankly. 

MNHockeyTv How about you Lee? 

LS I would say the same thing.  Number one, I have had two Principals Conn McCartan and now Robb Virgin, both have been in my corner since the start.  Then I had two Athletic Directors Steve Schultz who hired me and was with me for about five or six years and I have had Mike Grant ever since.  Both of those guys have been great and always in my corner.  I think what Ken said about not looking at the social media, I think I quit looking at MinnHock in about 2000 and that was probably one of the smartest things I ever did.  I used to think I could find out who was playing or not playing in a game.  Instead what I found out was how bad I was (Pauly belly laughs) or what I was doing wrong, what dad was mad at me or whatever.  High sticker didn’t like Smith for this reason - they dumped the puck or, (PW laughs) or, for some other reason.  They all had their little things and I just had to learn to block it.  The other thing is that I think that we always tried to treat our kids well and have been about relationships with kids.  Those have been genuine.  It’s been more about the noise of the parents.  I think the best thing that we have done is we don’t text, don’t call, don’t email, unless it is in regard to a sickness or a school related thing.  Just having those people in your ear gives them an opportunity to pollute your mind.  We have a really good staff that is tremendous and I only have to ask those guys the questions.  I don’t need to hear from a parent.  We see every practice.  We see every game.  We know what we are looking for in our players.  It’s not up to them to pollute our minds and we have empowered the kids. The kids have the opportunity if they are unhappy about something, they can come in and talk it out and have had those communication sessions in the past and I am sure they will happen in the future.  At the end of the day, you have to trust the people that you hire to work with.  It started with Ty Eigner and it went into Ollie (Steve Olinger) and (Greg) Aslakson was good for us and (Mike) Terwilliger.  Now, working with (Paul) Ranheim and (Tom) Gerdes has been wonderful for our program.  

MNHockeyTv We are talking about wins so I am going to go there.  Obviously you play to win the games but do you think that winning can become the focal point and the process can be missed along the way?  What is your approach to that Ken? 

KP  If it is a matter of whoever wins the state championship and everyone else is a failure, that is a false value.  In terms of the emphasis on being competitive and trying to win,  I don’t think that is oversold and it is a good thing.  They are interscholastic athletics and not intramural athletics.  I think that is a worthy pursuit.  We have said it for a long time, and other people have said it too, that going to the state championship is our goal but ultimately it is not our purpose. Ultimately, our purpose is larger things.  I am sure Lee feels that same way that when you get to a milestone like this, people like to ask you what is the biggest goal, what is biggest game, and instead, what keeps coming back to you is all the people you coached and worked with.  That’s what really floods back. The fact is, you were in it with them.  What were you in?  You were part of the team, you had worthy pursuit, you were trying to win games, you were trying to get to a state tournament and sometimes you are successful, more times than not you were not but does that mean that you did not get there that somehow the pursuit was not worth and that the individuals weren’t worthy?  Of course not and from that standpoint it is over emphasized.  That is part of sports and that’s the pursuit.  Ultimately, when Lee and I get smart and retire and are sitting up north looking at the lake smoking a cigar and having a beer or something, we are just going to remember the great people that you got to work with, not just the kids but the coaches and quite frankly, we have had some pretty good parents too and I’ll remember them.  Some weren’t so great and I won’t remember them.” 

LS (Chuckles) Well said.  I would say that when I was first starting out when I was 27, the pursuit of winning every game and not losing was too strong, that I didn’t develop the bench that I needed to if you really want to make a run for it.  Through the course of time and through going down to Mariucci and figuring out that you had to have more than two lines to be able to get out of there, I matured and I went from thinking the season was a sprint and every game had to be played.   I am not afraid to develop the bench and I am not afraid to develop kids and maybe have games end up closer or maybe even losing a game because you might see that team later and have that mojo to beat them the second time, it might come back around.  These guys are high school kids and I think Ken’s a mastermind motivator and I believe I am pretty good at it too.  I feel that when it gets into that situation, if you have more guys that you can play that are motivated, you will have a chance to win the game.  I learned that at the end of the day, you’ve got your stars and you have to have your kids that are right there with them, the warriors. I try to have more warriors on my bench and guys that I can trust that are going to go through the wall for the team, but yet not do something stupid and hurt your team by taking a bad penalty for the fact of their sake. 

MNHockeyTv When you look at win number one Ken versus win number 500,  how were they similar and how were they different? 

KP  The biggest difference is I echo what Lee just said is that I think win number one seemed like a hell of a lot of a bigger deal than win number 500.  When you are coaching that first game, I stepped on the bench and I’m going, I hope we can score a goal!  We scored a goal and I go, Oh Good!  I can do this.  As a young coach, you died a million deaths when you lost and when you won you were jazzed up.  As you get older, you realize maybe dumping that game would have been a good idea earning what we need to learn.  The only way to get that is to go through it. 

LS  Right, right.  

KP  You only learn that by experience and it’s funny because people will say what are the most memorable games?  I don’t know what it is but it’s the ones that hurt the most that still come back to haunt you.  I would like to sit here and say oh gosh, this big win and that big win and you do, but it’s actually the heartbreak games and that leave an indelible mark on you because it really teaches you the most.  You can’t learn without losing.  What Lee was just saying was I need to have a larger vision here.  It’s not just about developing your bench, it’s about developing a team.  It’s giving kids an opportunity to play so you can be a team that’s bought in at the end of the year and that means you are going to get clipped every once in a while.  I don’t give short answers and you know that Wags, but the fact is win number 500 was nice to get it but then I was just kind of ehh, we didn’t do this, we didn’t do that.  Win number one, I was just fired up, we got the win (laughs). 

MNHockeyTv  How about you Lee? 

LS  I honestly Pete, don’t remember win number one. I remember the first  loss because I was standing where Ken owns the bench over there at St. Louis Park (Pauly laughs) and I was on the Red Knights side and we were playing St. Louis Park and John Barger was the coach of St. Louis Park and he had Erik Rasmussen and he was milking every faceoff. He brought Erik to the bench, there was no countdown by the ref and finally I am like, you know how I do this Ken,  is this a time out or are we going to get this game in? 

KP (Pauly laughs) Lee learned it from the master! 

LS  (Smith laughs) John Barger yells across at me, ‘Hey Schmidty!  Shut up! This is High School Hockey now! You haven’t earned that yet!’ (Pauly full on belly laughing) I’ll never forget the fact that we lost that game in OT and Erik Rasmussen went on to be in the NHL.  That was my first loss, standing on Ken’s bench.  I think the pain of the losses far outweigh the excitement of the wins.  There is no question, when you get to Mariucci and if you are able to win there, there is nothing better than that.  You get to go to the St. Tournament in St. Paul and that was one of the reasons why I went into coaching is that I never got to go there as a player and I always dreamed of that. I always hoped of that I could find a way to get a bunch of guys to follow a country boy into St. Paul and it’s been a great run with that. 

MNHockeyTv  What was sweeter for you guys. Winning the section title or state championship? 

KP  To me, it is always the section title that gives you the opportunity. If you win a state title, great. But, I just think that being able to punch that ticket and you get to have one more weekend as a team in St. Paul, I just think to me, that’s the white moment where you are like, hey man, this is good.  I always like to say the team was born to die and we just hope it dies a natural death in St. Paul.  All I can compare it to, and I have been asked that question before, and I know Lee has had his heartbreaks too, there is nothing more painful than losing that section final. Losing a state final game, I know Lee has won plenty and he has lost a few. I know it’s hard and if you are in that game and you lose it but, I told Lee this a few times before and he has played some epic games and won some epic state titles and lost some where he has been a state finalist but there is only one person that would trade places with him and that is the person who won it.  If I had to stay at home and watch it on the TV, I would trade it in a heartbeat to play in that state title game. 

LS  Pete, when he tells you that, he is not lying.  He called me right after we were beat by Edina last year and it meant a lot because we have had our epic battles, Ken and I, and the best thing that happened is when we got moved to different sections because we could be friends and be at ease and I learned what a great guy Ken was and what a great coach he was, I always knew that part, but to know the kind of person he is, to meet his family when it wasn’t head to head.  It was a lot different.  I have nothing but the utmost respect for the Red Knights and Ken Pauly leads the way for that charge. 

KP  Back atchya Eagle.  Back atchya baby! 

MNHockeyTv That was great and Lee, you kind of segued into my next question. Ken, over the years you guys have run side-by-side and you were at a private school the majority of your career.  Lee, you have been at a public school the whole time.  Lee has worked on his high school program while building the youth feeder system.  Ken, you have cultivated your kids from grade seven through grade twelve. Ken, what can you say about Lee that you have observed of him as a big time coach in high school hockey? 

KP First off, you can say we have had transfers because we have. (both laugh) I don’t shy away from it. What I have learned from Lee and it’s funny, you look at guys from a distance and you think you know them but you really don’t.  He was playing in a lot of big games before I got my team to do some of those things and you just watch they do and how they play their lines and systems and you are just trying to pick up things.  You know from a distance that he is a good coach and knows what he is doing.  I hear good stuff about Lee and I hear bad stuff about Lee but all I saw as a coach from the distance is I could tell his kids liked him.  You can tell that at the end of the game and I kind of work with some of his kids in the summer or I would run into them in development camp in St. Cloud and they liked coach Smith, they liked Lee.  That’s always the test.  Look, you are not going to bat 1.000 as a teacher or coach.  Some kids aren’t going to like you but the vast majority you can tell from that interaction.  That is what’s fun and the thing about longevity is the amount of games Lee has coached and I have coached, we are bound to run into each other a lot and we have played each other a lot.  I got to know him and he is a good person, he cares about kids and a lot of us got into this as teachers and coaches are really the same guy. It truly is a fraternity.  I wish it was more the way it first started but I think Lee and I are dinosaurs in more way than one that we are teacher coaches and Benilde-St. Margaret’s believes in that model and obviously that is getting to be more and more of a challenge in today’s world.  When I see Lee, he is competitive as hell but he has perspective and he is a teacher coach.  I’m with him, it’s very difficult to be close to someone when you want the same thing when you are in the same section.  It makes it a lot easier when you are not going after the same thing.  I really feel blessed that they moved EP out of our section, not only because they are damn good, (laughs) but it does allow, and even though we were in the same section, 

LS  We always got along. 

KP (Through a laugh) We always got along but you always kind of just hold back, just a little bit.  Is he workin’ me? (laughs)  Whatever, so.   I’ll tell you what, when EP and Benilde play  those games are intense and both are goin’ at it.  What that shows is you can want to beat the hell out of the other guy and still love him. I have five brothers and we wanted to beat the crap out of each other, but we are brothers.  When I think of Lee Smith or Mikey Taylor (Eagan Head Coach), guys like that, when I play those guys I want to beat them. When it’s over, he’s still my friend. 

MNHockeyTv How about you Lee? 

LS: Ken and I spent a lot of time doing things together where we get good teams together and we do scrimmage-fest and we make sure we put our game at a good time of the year.  It’s not in December, it’s in January or February so we have a true mark on where we are at as a team at that point of the year.  It feels like a section game and when we were in the same section, I always knew that whether we were ranked ahead of Benilde or Benilde ahead us or when he was with Minnetonka that it was going to be a battle.  His kids were going to compete and he was going to work his guys and get every ounce of energy out of his kids and he did it.  Sometimes it was good enough and sometimes it wasn’t.  It wasn’t because of a lack of effort or passion or heat.  The goal that he had for his kids was never about him.  It was always about seeing those 20 guys and his program continue on.  I have the utmost respect for the fact that what a competitor he was for his own kids and program.  I will say one thing that one of the most shocking phone calls I ever got was from Ken.  I had a good player that had gone over to look at his school and he owed me nothing.  He let me know this player went over there and took a tour.  He calls me and says, ‘So and so is came over and looked at it.  I think he is staying in Eden Prairie but I just wanted you to know.’  I thought that was pretty cool that he did that and he didn't need to do that and we was very upfront.  I appreciated that and it really taught me a lot about the integrity that I already though he had but it reassured it even more that he would do that.

MNHockeyTv:  Last question.  Is there room for 500 more? (Pauly laughs) Or, are you going to leave that to (Mike) Randolph? 

LS  We can combine them. 

KP  NO!  No. (more laughs from all) I will tell you this.  When you start to look at that list, is like wow.  As long as we have been playing high school hockey, what is it, 15 or 16 people have gotten to that 500 plateau? That’s pretty cool and I’m a history guy.  The history of that is pretty cool.  I think there is enough in the tank to get to 6 but I sure as heck know that Lee has that as well.  But, you don’t start coaching thinking about the number of career wins. 

LS:  Right, right.  

KP:  That’s a nice number but each year, there is something Willard Ikola said years ago and no one went to more states and won more than Ike did and he was asked if it ever gets old and he said ‘No, because it’s always a new group of kids you are bringing here.’  I certainly did not have the experience to bring that many teams but every year you start that journey with a new group. As long as that’s fun, I’ll keep doing it.  The day that’s not fun is the day I will find something else to do.  Lee and I have talked about it, half joked about it, it would be kind of fun in my last year is to coach with him in some capacity.  I’ll push pucks for ya Eagle. 

MNHockeyTv: Wow! 

LS  You know the feeling is mutual.  We could do that together.  I think the same thing.  Every year is year-by-year now and you got to throw in staying healthy as one thing and my wife’s thoughts on everything and she’s not really fond of cold winters all the time and she just left me to got to Mexico for 10 days a little bit a go.  

KP  Ooooh.   

LS  There is a group I would like to see through.  There is a bantam group that’s got (Mike) Crowley’s kid and some good kids that I like the parents and they are kind of hoping that we stick around through it.  Then it’s starting to feel like it’s somebody else’s time to be the guy. 

MNHockeyTv  Guys, that is wonderful stuff.  Lee, I know you have got to get to dinner and I know we can’t keep your lovely bride waiting any longer.  Ken, I’m…

LS  I’m folding laundry as I speak.   I am not getting away with doing nothing.  Believe me. 

MNHockeyTv  Guys, congratulations to both of you.  You both incredible ambassadors to the game and what makes Minnesota High School hockey special is having people in positions like you.  You’re members of a dying breed which Ken referred to as the teacher coaches.  For all of us, we understand the value that you guys bring not only in the classroom but also from the classroom, to the locker room and the rink.  The kids are all blessed to have you and are treasures and appreciated by all.  Congratulations. 

LS  Hey Wags, I get first word on saying this. I’ve known you since I started.  No one has had more passion for the game and come up with more creative ideas to make our sport more visible for others.  No one has the history and knowledge of what has happened in high school hockey, at least for sure in the southwest corner than you. It’s been an honor to be, you are a part of our journey for sure and I know Ken would say the same thing. 

KP  I can’t top that!  You rock Wags!  The voice is a muscle.  

MNHockeyTv:  (laughs)  The voice is a muscle.  It’s been an honor to be lockstep with you guys.  I couldn’t ask for anything more in working with you two and all the coaches.  Thank you for your kind words and I am humbled by them. I don’t know how much all of you know how much I love covering your kids because they all have passion, character, and love the game so much.  The high school kids do not play for money and work their tails off for all of you coaches, their teammates and their community. How could I not want to be around that?  

How could anyone not want to be around that.  Tuesday night is a big game for both teams but there is no championship on the line.  What is on the line is each shift matters at this time of the season as it transitions to the postseason.  Two teams with two great coaches will square off in what should be an incredible game as both coaches and friends will meet at center ice to shake hands at the conclusion and certainly, celebrate their friendship.

Career Coaching Wins

Lorne GrossoRochester Mayo70744231
Roy NystromAlbert Lea70550224
Mike Randolph*Duluth East, Cathedral65119630
Willard IkolaEdina61614938
Jeff LindquistBloomington Jefferson, Blake59932333
Jim O'NeillCretin-Derham Hall59331641
Tony SarslandElk River58818926
Larry RossInternational Falls56616926
Bruce PlanteHermantown54719723
Tom SaterdalenBloomington Jefferson54516723
Mark LoahrTotino-Grace53833531
Cliff ThompsonEveleth534269
Bill Lechner*Hill-Murray53026732
Gordy GenzRoseville52926123
Ken Pauly*Benilde-St. Margaret's, Minnetonka50625434
Lee Smith*Eden Prairie50220938
Wes Bolin*Woodbury49737644

*Denotes Active coach