By Adam Watts, Photography by Nick Friesen
Jon Ammerman wants to give back to his hometown. The Moorhead High School history teacher, third-year head boys hockey coach, and Moorhead native hopes that through his coaching and teaching he can give back to the community that raised him.
“I’m glad to be home,” said Ammerman who was a defenseman for the Spuds for three seasons and graduated from Moorhead High School in 2005. “I had a really good high school experience, one that I wanted to come back to. Not just hockey-wise but the school culture is a positive one. I wanted to give back to the community and the program that I was a part of.”
It is important to him to continue a legacy in Moorhead hockey of not only molding successful hockey teams, but good students and community leaders as well. He attributes this to his predecessors and mentors in the Moorhead hockey community including his former hockey coaches Dave Morinville and Terry Shercliffe. Ammerman hopes to create a generation of hockey players that will follow in his footsteps as a community leader and continue the success of Moorhead hockey the same way he is following his mentors.
“They’re a lot more than just hockey players,” he said. “They’re important to our community and our community has provided for us a lot and it is important for them to give back – not only now while they’re in high school, but after.”
A big part of Ammerman’s strategy to create hockey players who can give back to the community is an emphasis on academics. He, along with assistant coach and fellow Moorhead High School teacher Tony Kunka, check their player’s grades and attendance on a daily basis. This has proved effective as the Spuds won the academic state championship in Minnesota sporting a cumulative team grade point average of 3.81.
“The rink is just an extension of the classroom,” Kunka said. “It’s continually teaching. It’s still working with the kids. If it’s not the classroom, it’s the rink. You’re always trying to help the kids and make them good people and it’s all that we’re trying to do as a hockey program.”
Now the Spuds hope to follow up their academic success with on-ice success. Moorhead lost in the section championship game each of the last two seasons, missing the state tournament by one game.
Missing out on the state tournament was tough for the coach to take. Making the tournament is a personal goal for him as a coach, but even more than that he wants his players to have the experience of playing in a state tournament.
“I had that experience as a player and I know what that meant to my friends and my family and to the hockey community in general – to Moorhead,” Ammerman said. “And I want my kids to have that experience.”
In order to improve from the section championship losses of the past two seasons and to progress to the state tournament, the Spuds are focusing on fundamental skills and puck possession.
“We really focus here in Moorhead – this isn’t something I started but something we’ve always believed in fundamental skills,” Ammerman said. “Puck handling and puck possession are important. If you can’t handle the puck – if you can’t make plays, it’s tough to play at the next level.”
If the Spuds’ emphasis on fundamentals and puck possession work and they make the state tournament, they will be following in the footsteps of Ammerman’s childhood heroes.
“As a kid my favorite hockey players – that’s one thing that I think is neat here about our culture – my heroes weren’t NHL players, they were high school hockey players,” he said. “I remember as a kid going and watching Matt Cullen and Ryan Kraft and Brian Nelson and those players playing in the state high school hockey tournament.”
While he always knew that he wanted to come back to Moorhead eventually, Ammerman’s journey took him away from his hometown for several years. After graduating from Moorhead High School in 2005, he played a year of junior hockey for the Tri-City Storm and the Indianapolis Ice of the United States Hockey League.
After a season playing juniors, he earned a scholarship to St. Cloud State University where he played for four seasons from 2006 to 2010. After graduating with a social studies education degree, he immediately applied for a teaching job in Moorhead but did not get the position.
Instead, he took a job in Windom, Minnesota where he was appointed the head hockey coach.
“I was fortunate that I got to be the head coach right out of college,” he said. “So I was a 22 year old or 23 year old – however old I was – as a head coach at a high school. That’s not a thing a lot of kids get to experience.”
Coaching in Windom (population 4,646) presented challenges for the young coach; not the least of which was low participation. The hockey team had 15 total players in JV and varsity, including three goalies. Moorhead has over twice as many players, rostering between 35 and 40 each year, and had 65 try outs in 2015.
Another challenge was coaching players who were involved in a hockey program that Ammerman describes as being in its infancy. He had players that did not have the benefit of growing up in a program like Moorhead, which has been building a legacy for over 50 years.
“It made me realize that really you just need to slow down,” he said. “Kids in Moorhead, kids in Windom, kids in Edina, they’re all learning the same thing. Hockey is a simple game and teaching is the most important thing about it. The skill level might be different but the concepts are still the same.”
After two years in Windom, Ammerman applied for and was offered a teaching job at Moorhead High School. When he was hired he did not know he would be able to take over as head coach and just hoped to coach at the youth level.
“I came here as a teacher,” he said. “I just wanted to be closer to home. I knew that I’d eventually have an opportunity to coach somewhere, whether it’s youth hockey, or be an assistant or help out at some level.”
Fortunately for Ammerman, the head coaching position opened up as he returned to Moorhead and the young head coach was selected to fill it.
Since taking the job in 2013, Ammerman, who is now 28 years old, has brought a fire and passion to the position and is poised to continue Moorhead’s hockey legacy.
“He is able to relate to the kids,” Tony Kunka said. “He can get them fired up. That’s good. It’s the passion that he brings and it’s good for the kids to see that passion. Deep down, the kids see how much he cares about them.” FMSV