‘Jacks Willner Reaches 500 Career Wins [AUDIO]
Granite City Lumberjacks head coach and jack-of-all-trades Brad Willner reached his 500th USA Hockey junior hockey win Saturday night. The Lumberjacks beat Breezy Point 5-2 to reach the milestone.
Willner's hockey career began as a high school player in Richfield before taking him to a potent Lake Superior State team, where he played as a true freshman. From there, he was drafted into pro hockey by the New Jersey Devils organization.
A shoulder injury halted his playing career, resulting in Willner pursuing a career in coaching which was prompted by a call from Paul Pooley at Providence College.
"I was a 23 year old, so I was younger than some of the players out there," Willner said.
Despite the fact it was a Division I coaching job, Willner said it was still difficult to hang up the skates as a player.
"It was a tough choice, but to start off coaching Division I... I started right at the pinnacle as an assistant coach in college," Willner said. "My shoulder still wasn't fully healed just a month away from a season of pro hockey, and I wasn't physically ready for that."
After Providence, Willner was invited to return to his home state as an assistant coach under St. Cloud State head coach Craig Dahl in 2000, thanks to a connection with Doc DeCastillo, who he had met while recruiting in Omaha.
"They were looking for a defensive coach, and Doc told Craig Dahl to take a look at (me)," Willner said. "I worked at St. Cloud State for five years until Dahl moved on and Bob Motzko took over (SCSU in 2005)."
Willner applied for a handful of Division I head coaching jobs, but was told he didn't have enough head coaching experience, an unfortunate side effect of not moving up the coaching ladder conventionally.
"At that point in my career I had nine years in Division I as an assistant coach, but no experience as a head coach," Willner said. "So I took a step back and (coached) four years in Alexandria."
After four years behind the bench in Alexandria, Willner was approached by the Granite City Lumberjacks about taking the reigns of their program. He has been the coach for the past ten years, which have included four league championships, four division titles and Willner being named NA3HL General Manager of the Year in 2012.
In addition to the on-ice success, Willner has placed 38 players onto NCAA hockey teams over the years.
"Parents always say hey, we gave you a boy and we got back a man," Willner said. "I think that's what makes me proud, when they develop not only on-ice but off it as well."