Lakeland Union High School activities director Don Scharbarth may be retiring this summer, but he's going out with a bang.
Lac du Flambeau native and recently hired Lakeland Hawks Ice Arena manager Jake Suter has been tapped to be the new man in charge of guiding the Thunderbirds after spending the past two seasons as an assistant coach with the Madison Capitols of the USHL.
Lakeland approved the hire at Monday's board of education meeting. Suter replaces longtime bench boss Ken Thanig, who chose to resign last month.
"I took a job running the rink here in town and I spoke with (former rink manager) John Dwyer back in March and he said the position would be opening, so I applied for that," Suter said. "I ended up getting that job and it was just the right timing with the Lakeland coaching job opening. I decided to throw my hat in the ring and things worked out. I feel very excited and very fortunate about the opportunity."
If the Suter name sounds familiar, that's because it should. The Suter family is practically U.S. and Wisconsin hockey royalty.
Jake's father and Northwoods resident, Gary, was 17-year veteran in the NHL, while his uncle, Bob, was a member of the "Miracle on Ice" 1980 U.S. Olympic team and another uncle, John, played defense for the University of Wisconsin like this two brothers. A cousin, Ryan, is currently one of the top defensemen in the NHL, playing for the Badgers and in two Olympics.
Jake Suter played defense for the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and played one professional season in France before getting into coaching.
When his father retired to the Northwoods, Suter spent sixth through eighth grade with the Lakeland Hawks and attended one quarter at Lakeland as a freshman before moving on to play junior hockey in Madison.
Having lived in the area, Suter is familiar with the Lakeland community and wants his new hockey team to reflect that on the ice.
"I think Coach (Tony) Borden and Coach Thanig have done a great job of building a good, solid program here," Suter said. "I hope to build on what they have instilled and take it to the next level and establish an identity - a blue collar, hard-working identity - that will represent the kids well and the Lakeland community as a whole. That's how our team is gonna be. We're never going to have the skill of some of the bigger cities because we're a smaller community, but we'll always be the hardest working team on the ice."
The desire to create such a mentality on the ice is one of the things that jumped out to Scharbarth during the interview process.
Suter is also going to be reliant on scouting and watching film, an area he was in charge of during his time with the Capitols, which also excited Scharbarth.
"We just think Jake brings some things to the table that we need to propel us to the next level," Scharbarth said. "One of the other things we're excited about is the Suter name. We're going to see dad at practice and some uncles show up once in a while so we're pretty excited about the whole concept."
During his tenure as a player and a coach, Suter has picked up a plethora of hockey knowledge that he wants to put to use next winter.
One of the things he wants to focus on is learning how to get the most out of each individual player.
"Once you get to experience hockey from behind the bench and coach, you learn a lot and you learn everything that goes into it," Suter said. "The biggest thing I think I've learned is you can't coach every single player the same. Each kid needs to be told things differently and every kid learns differently, but as a whole everyone learns the same thing."
Suter should have plenty of talent to work with once the season begins.
The T-Birds finished 11-12 last season, but return some talented young players, including leading scorer Bret Benson, who tallied 49 points, along with Max Toijala, who was second with 38 points as a freshman.
"My goal and our staff's goal isn't going to be to wait a few years before we're good and competitive," Suter said. "We want to be competitive right away. Some people may think I'm crazy, but there's not a doubt in mind that we can turn this around quickly rather than having to wait a few years."
As the new rink manager, Suter will also have an active hand in the youth program, something he is passionate about, particularly since the Hawks eventually feed into the T-Birds.
"I want them to be doing the same systems we are so when the kids come to high school they'll know it already," Suter said. "I care just as much about the youth as I do about the high school. That's why I came up here. I want to build that up to where every kid has the opportunity to come out and play hockey."
As for the question on the mind of many people, Gary Suter is expected to take on a role as an assistant with the program.
"He won't be a full-time paid assistant, but he'll be helping out," Suter said. "He'll be at the practices and games as much as he can because he's got some other things going on. He's the first person I asked when the job came open if he would be willing to help me. We both care a lot about the hockey here in the community."
Nick Sabato may be reached at email@example.com or via Twitter @NickSabatoLT.