In the heat of a big game, most coaches simply cannot be bothered by family. But there is an exception made when the Cassano and Engstrom clans are behind the bench.
A recent case in point came when the then-undefeated Minnetonka girls were locked in battle with Edina — a neighborhood and conference rival — which was also unbeaten. While the high school teams skated in the first period at Braemar Arena in Edina, some 20 miles away at a rink in Lakeville, Lee Engstrom kept one eye on his daughter’s practice, and another eye on his phone, watching his sister’s Skippers play.
“I’ll text her in between periods to let them know that Edina got forwards behind their 'D' a few times and to watch the back door on the power play,” Engstrom said, of the in-game messages exchanged with his sister, Tracy Cassano, who is in her second season as Minnetonka’s head coach. “We trade messages like that back and forth even if we can’t get to each other’s games.”
If Cassano needed in-person advice from a family member during the game, eventually won 3-2 by the Hornets, she would just look down the bench to her husband Mike, who is the team’s assistant coach. And when the Skippers aren’t playing, the brother-sister alliance works in reverse, with Tracy keeping an eye on the undefeated Lakeville South boys’ team where Lee is an assistant coach, and offering advice on what she sees from time to time.
Roots planted at the rink
The love of hockey began when Tracy and Lee were children, growing up just a long slap shot from a neighborhood outdoor ice sheet in their west-central Minnesota hometown of Willmar.
“We just lived and breathed hockey,” Tracy recalled. “We lived a block away from an outdoor rink and I can remember my mom walking halfway up the block to yell that it was dinner time. We’d walk home, eat dinner and fly back up there until lights out. When we couldn’t go to the outdoor rink, we grew up with an unfinished basement so it was roller skates and then Rollerblades and we spent hours playing roller hockey.”
About the only time they weren’t playing, either outdoor or in the basement, is when the Minnesota Gophers men's hockey team was on TV. They claim to have rarely missed a broadcast in the 1990s, even arriving late to a few family gatherings because one of Doug Woog’s teams went to overtime, but they would skip the Zamboni laps and the intermission highlights and analysis.
“In between periods we’d go downstairs and stickhandle and play hockey in the basement,” Lee said. “Then when the next period started we’d take our Rollerblades off and run up the stairs and watch the game again. We tried that at the end of games too, but we were told it was time to go to bed.”
Gopher fan to Gophers captain
Both siblings played in the Willmar youth hockey system on boys teams. While Lee progressed through high school hockey for the Cardinals, there was not a girls high school program in Willmar at the time, so Tracy went to the Twin Cities to play for the Minnesota Thoroughbreds, which was one of the pioneering female hockey programs in the state. Her work there, and a chance encounter in Upstate New York, allowed Tracy to live out a dream.
“There’s a picture at my sixth or seventh birthday, I got a Gopher jersey and just lived and breathed the Golden Gophers,” Tracy said. “There was no real girls hockey when I was a little girl and so to me, I was a hockey player and I was going to be a Gopher someday.”
Flash forward a decade or so, to a women’s Olympic development camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., where a teenage Tracy was invited to skate. As luck would have it, she was placed on a team coached by Laura Halldorson, who had recently been hired as the University of Minnesota’s first women’s hockey coach.
“I worked out that she wanted to recruit me and I had dreamt of playing for the U and that’s how it went,” said Tracy, who played forward for the Gophers from 1998-2002.
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Halldorson had scouted Cassano (then Engstrom) as a member of the Thoroughbreds, and said getting to know each other in Lake Placid was a nice bonus. By Tracy’s senior year with the Gophers, she had been named a co-captain, and Halldorson saw then some of the traits that have made her a successful coach.
“When Tracy was a co-captain with Laura Slominski, it was one of the most fun seasons that we had, in large part because of those two captains doing such a great job of leading by example,” Halldorson said. “They’re both so humble and team-oriented people. It was wonderful. She had a good grasp of not only the players’ perspective but the coaches’ perspective.”
Slominski would go on to coach the Edina girls program for seven seasons, with five state tournament trips.
Belonging behind the bench
Not even 20 years out of college, Tracy is in her fourth high school head coach position. She started at Rosemount, where she spent four years as the head coach (with Lee as an assistant), leading the Irish to the 2011 state tournament.
She and husband Mike, who is originally from Colorado and played college hockey at St. Olaf, met there and are still high school teachers there. After two seasons running the Chaska/Chanhassen program, Tracy and her brother, Lee, reunited behind the bench in Burnsville, where she was the head coach of the Blaze for six years, including one state tournament trip in 2014.
With both parents coaching and three children playing hockey at various levels, the Cassanos admit they are indebted to friends who provide the kids with plenty of rides to and from the rink during the season.
“We rely on help from other people,” Tracy said. “It really is a village and a community that allows us to live out our passion.”
Lee went on to have his own head coaching gig, spending three years running the Shakopee program. He said that his current role, being an assistant coach in Lakeville, while living in Lakeville, is much more family-friendly.
After leading the Skippers to the state tournament and a third place finish last season, Tracy’s team looks poised to contend once again in 2021. With 10 seniors gone from last season’s team, it’s a young squad which includes the first eighth-grader Minnetonka has had on the girls varsity.
But the Cassanos used the delayed start to the season wisely, having virtual meetings with the team to go over systems and strategies in a classroom setting before they were allowed to hit the ice. The loss to Edina is the only blemish on their record.
“We’re playing really well right now,” Tracy Cassano said. “The kids were super excited just to get started, with all of the pauses and delays.”
And getting occasional in-game advice from little brother can be helpful as well.
“I never know if she’s going to look at it, so I just throw it out there,” Lee said, with a laugh. “But after that (Edina) game she called me and said everything I sent her was spot-on.”