Craig Larson was officially approved as Northern Lakes Lightning (Pequot Lakes/Crosby-Ironton/Aitkin/Pine River-Backus) boys’ high school hockey coach at a special Pequot Lakes School Board meeting Monday, Oct. 7.
The 38-year-old Larson will be a new face behind the Lightning bench, but he’s no stranger to many people in the area, including Shawn Chambers, whom he’s replacing as coach.
“I met Craig last year when he was coaching the (Little Falls) Flying Aces,” Chambers said of the Junior Hockey League opponent of the Breezy Point North Stars, which Chambers has served as assistant coach the past two years. “He has also coached at Minnesota Hockey Camps (Nisswa), so I know he has good hockey knowledge.”
Larson is also familiar with many players and parents in the Northern Lakes Youth Hockey program as he currently serves as its director.
“We’re busy organizing youth hockey rosters right now,” Larson said. “So it’s busy, but I hope I can meet some of the (high school hockey) players soon.
“But I’m excited because I’ve never had my own youth hockey program. I coached the high school team at St. Cloud Apollo for seven years, but I wasn’t in charge of the youth program. So it’s fun to have a chance to see the younger players who will eventually funnel into a hockey program that I’m developing. That’s what makes a program successful. You want to build a program from the foundation up.”
Larson, a 1994 Grand Rapids High School graduate, played hockey for Itasca Community College and later served as an assistant coach at Duluth Marshall before becoming head coach at Apollo in 2000. He left the Eagles for a full-time hockey position with the new Granite City Lumberjacks junior team in 2007. He later became coach of the Flying Aces for three seasons before stepping away from junior hockey.
“I’ve been living in the lakes area in the summer and working at the hockey camp since 2003,” Larson said of Minnesota Hockey Camps. “I love this area, and then I found out that the Northern Lakes Hockey Association was looking to hire a director to oversee the operations. I was hired to fill that role this summer.”
Larson said he’s excited about the high school season, especially since the Lightning will be switching from Class AA to Class A.
“Over the next few years we will have a shot at being a contender in Section 6A,” he said, “but there are some good teams like (St. Cloud) Cathedral, Alexandria, Little Falls and Wadena-Deer Creek.
“I’m just excited to get back into coaching high school hockey. That has always been my passion.”
Chambers enjoyed his experience coaching the Lightning the past six seasons.
“I knew Craig was looking to get back into high school coaching, and I’ve been an assistant coach with the North Stars,” Chambers said of the Breezy Point junior team. “I had intentions to come back (to the Lightning) this season, but everything fell into place. I did enjoy coaching (the Lightning) last winter with all of the seniors that I had coached since they were Squirts.”
One of the former Lightning players Chambers had coached was his son, Connor, who is playing junior hockey this winter at Odessa, Texas, of the NAHL.
“I hope to watch some of Connor’s games, but they often play on the same nights as the North Stars,” he said. “That will make it harder to go watch his games.”
Coach Chambers said three of his favorite memories as Lightning coach were “finally” beating Park Rapids last season, a close 3-0 loss to St. Cloud Tech in the Section 8AA quarterfinals at St. Cloud State University in the 2008-09 playoffs, and leading Little Falls 1-0 late in the regular season before losing in overtime in the 2010-11 season.
“That was a highlight,” Chambers said. “Little Falls was going to state that year, and we almost upset them late in the season.”
Pete Mohs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook.