Mitch celebrated for coaching career
By John Kemmeter
After 37 years of coaching hockey in Stevens Point, Rusty Mitch decided to retire at the end of this season.
Along the way he spent time as an assistant coach for the Pacelli High School and Stevens Point Area Senior High School (SPASH) boys hockey teams, as well as with the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) men’s hockey team, before he helped restart the Pacelli hockey program, where he spent the last 11 seasons as its head coach.
In his honor, Mitch’s wife Wendy threw a surprise party for the longtime coach at the Pacelli Catholic High School Faith, Arts, and Community Center Saturday, April 21, where friends, family members and former players gathered to celebrate his coaching career.
“It’s a game I’ve always loved,” said Mitch. “My mother got me hooked on the (Chicago) Blackhawks, from the first time I could watch television, I’ve been a big Blackhawks fan, and she’s the one who got me playing hockey as a youth.
“The opportunity came to coach, and it wasn’t anything I had planned on doing, but Jack Stoskopf got a hold of me when he was coaching Pacelli the first couple of years,” he said. “And just being around Jack really gave me the bug for what you can do, as far as helping kids learn the game, enjoy the game, and being able to be an influence for them in their lives.”
“There’s just so much I’ve learned over the years, and his way of coaching is completely different than anyone else’s,” said Pacelli co-op hockey assistant coach Cory Blake. “He’s not a typical coach that gets angry and blows up at people; he’s very calm, collected with his demeanor, and just a class-act person.
“He’s a role model husband, dad, and just a great member of the community,” he said. “I have more respect for him than anyone I’ve ever met.”
A sophomore goalie on the Pacelli hockey program’s first team in 1973-74, Mitch also played at UWSP, and began his coaching career as an assistant at Pacelli when a then-20-year old Jack Stoskopf was named the team’s head coach for the 1981-82 season after former head coach Linden Carlson left to take over the UWSP men’s hockey program.
The Pacelli hockey program was discontinued due to lack of players following the 1982-83 season, and Mitch and Stoskopf both went on to serve as assistant coaches at UWSP, while Stoskopf took over as the SPASH head coach in 1986, with Mitch joining his staff as an assistant coach for the 1989-90 season.
“It was nice to be able to start our careers together back at Pacelli, we’ve stayed very close for 37 years, and he’s one of my best friends,” said Stoskopf, a member of the Wisconsin Hockey Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “During the years we coached together, especially at SPASH in the 1990s, we were together every single day, and he was a calming influence for me, and I needed that.
“That was really valuable to our success, because you can’t have your head coach going off the rails as much as I did back when I was younger, without somebody who was a little bit older, a little bit more mature, much calmer, to say ‘Jack, let’s give this a little time, let’s give this a little space, let’s consider approaching this kid in a different way,’” he said. “The unique thing about him is he had the ability to help form me as a better coach over time, being the kind of assistant that he was. Whatever credit people choose to give me to my success, I have to definitely pass a lot of that stuff on to Rusty, just because he was always there and he was always supportive.”
Mitch worked with the SPASH goalies, and during the next 10 seasons the Panthers made nine trips to the WIAA State Tournament and finished as the State Runner-up three times.
“At SPASH, every game we went into with the belief that we were going to win, and for the most part we did,” said Mitch. “Jack devoted so much into hockey, and it was incredible.
“We had such talented teams and such good kids, and Jack put together such a good program,” he said.
“Rusty turned guys like Mikey Gresl, who played for Michigan State, into a phenomenal high school goaltender,” said Stoskopf. “He played goalie, but he studied the goaltending position, and he became a phenomenal goaltending tactician.
“In our heyday, when we’d win 20-plus games every year, we went to state nine years in a row, and you can’t do that without goaltending,” he said. “He was raising six kids, running the business, building a new building, and his contributions working with the goaltenders were just huge.”
A third-generation owner of Portesi Italian Foods and the father of six children, Mitch also coached his three sons and two of his daughters in youth hockey, and shared his love of the game with them, which included time spent on the ice rink in their backyard.
“I feel like I could skate before I could walk, because honestly all we ever had, it was hockey, hockey, hockey,” said his oldest son Michael. “And I think that stems from his mom, from my nana, she said (growing up in Chicago) she’d go to every Blackhawks game after school and she’d do her homework at the games.
“That translated to him,” he said. “And the boys, we fell in love with it, and it’s just been that way ever since.”
As Michael neared high school, Mitch was a driving force behind the return of the Pacelli hockey program for the 2005-06 season, as there were a number of kids who were in the Central Wisconsin Saints and Portage County Youth on Ice programs who attended Catholic schools and wanted to play hockey in high school, with SPASH the only program in Portage County.
Mitch served as an assistant coach for the Cardinals’ first two seasons as a JV program, then took over as the head coach for its first season of varsity in 2007-08, when Michael was a junior.
After a few years, the program expanded into a co-op to include players from other schools that didn’t offer hockey, which included Amherst, Almond-Bancroft, Iola-Scandinavia, Wisconsin Rapids Assumption, Rosholt and Manawa.
“I was happy that he ended up getting that program going at Pacelli,” said Michael. “Especially at the Catholic schools, with how small the class sizes are, growing up with those guys for the whole time, it’s nice to be able to stay there and not have to go to a different school just to play a sport.”
Middle son Matthew was a freshman on the 2009-10 team and youngest son Daniel came along as a freshman in 2014-15, while each of the three Mitch brothers wore No. 5 during their playing careers, and each were voted as a team captain by their teammates by the time they were seniors.
“The fact that we all were all voted a captain by the other teammates was just a really cool thing, and it spoke to him as a coach and also a father,” said Matthew. “Just the way we all were raised through him in hockey and the way we raised each other through hockey.
“Just the endless stuff that I learned from my dad, and every obstacle that I hit, he was there to help me out through it,” he said.
Daniel led the Cardinals in scoring as a junior and tied for the team lead as a senior this season, which came to an end when Pacelli was knocked out of the playoffs with a 7-3 loss to Tomahawk Feb. 13.
Afterward, Mitch announced his retirement from coaching, following the last game for his youngest son.
“It was really exciting, being in the stands, watching my dad coach my brothers and thinking I get to do that,” said Daniel of growing up around Pacelli hockey. “I felt like they were so old, seeing them out there, and then I get up there and it’s so weird, because I still feel so young.
“But it’s a cool feeling, just being there for the last four years of his career, and wrapping it up together,” he said.
“I hate to be walking away from the game,” said Mitch. “I got diagnosed with Parkinson’s six years ago, and two years ago I just started having some problems skating, this year I couldn’t shoot or I couldn’t pass, and I just had some balance issues.
“And now it’s a challenge that I have now, can I put up or shut up about the stuff that I taught these kids about working hard and preparation?” he said. “There are a lot of things we have to prepare ourselves for, because life is not always going to be easy and it’s not always what we expect it to be, we’re always going to get challenges, and it’s accepting those challenges and fighting them and being successful against them that matters.”
Mitch said he was totally surprised and didn’t have a clue about the party last Saturday, where Wendy served as the emcee and introduced guest speakers that included former Pacelli hockey player and longtime friend John Rechner, Stoskopf, Blake, former SPASH head coach Mikhail Salienko, former Pacelli hockey coach Brian Winquist and WPCN play-by-play announcer Scott Krueger, while Michael Mitch read a statement written by former Pacelli hockey player Michael Jurgella.
“Hearing what everyone said about him is just the coolest thing,” said Daniel of his father. “I don’t really realize all of this good stuff about him, because I’ve had him through my whole life.
“And seeing that stuff, it really hits home,” he said. “He’s just a wonderful man and had a very successful career, and it was really cool to watch it.”
Mitch said it was truly a joy to be able to coach his kids, while he also thanked Wendy, as well as their daughters Kaylee, Sarah and Laura for their support over the years.
“Kaylee played with Michael in youth hockey for a couple of years, and that was fun to be able to coach her and just see her learn and enjoy the game and become a part of it, and she ended up being a manager of the hockey team at Pacelli,” said Mitch. “Laura played hockey for a number of years and I had an opportunity to coach her, and Sarah never really liked playing the game, but she would say that she’s the biggest fan in the family.
“And Wendy allowed me to do a lot of stuff, because not only with work, but with hockey I wouldn’t be coming home until six, seven o’clock every night, and she’d have supper ready, and she’d have to take care of all of the kids and do all of the stuff that needed to be done,” he said. “It is a total family effort.”
Mitch also said that Winquist, who he coached with at Pacelli for 11 years, was a great support for the program, which competed with the top teams in the state each year during the postseason, as Wisconsin only has one division for hockey.
Mitch said that at Pacelli it was all about getting the most out of the kids and being able to compete at a high level against a high-level team in the playoffs, while some of his favorite memories of coaching the small-school program include games where the Cardinals had a chance to knock off teams that were ranked in the Top 5 in the state during the postseason.
“We were the underdogs all of the time and we had limited resources, and sometimes those are more satisfying, because we were able to achieve things that nobody thought we could,” said Mitch. “(In 2013) against (third-ranked) SPASH, we scored in the first minute of the game and we were down 2-1 after the first, then we ended up being down 3-1 and came back and scored in the beginning of the third period to make it 3-2 (before losing 4-2).
“The next year at (fifth-ranked) Antigo it was 1-1 until about six minutes left in the game and they scored to beat us 2-1,” he said. “And in 2015 we were beating (eventual State Runner-up) Wausau West 2-0 after one period, it was 2-2 after two, and we wound up losing 4-2 in that game.
“And you don’t like to hang your hat on losses, but it was more than just the score of the game and wins and losses,” he said. “It was about some incredible memories that we’ve created, and the life lessons that you teach the kids of what they can accomplish when they put their minds to it.”