Clinton County

Hess stands tall in goal for surging Saints

When James Knutson took over as head coach of the Eau Claire Regis/McDonell boys hockey program, he knew he needed some help.

Senior goaltender Armand Hess has done what he can to help make Knutson’s first season as a varsity hockey coach a successful one.

Hess has been a big part of the surging Saints, a team that has won nine out of the their last 12 games and has its eyes on making another lengthy playoff push.

Hess is in his second season as the starting goaltender for the Saints. Last year he posted a 19-3 record in net as the Saints advanced a game away from the state tournament before falling to Eau Claire Memorial in the sectional finals.

Coming off two near trips to state, expectations have been raised for the Saints program. But with many new faces this year, Hess knew it would take some time for the team to hit its stride.

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“I think it was a gradual thing with this team,” Hess said. “Sometimes teams just flip a switch and change their whole system and record. But with us I think it was gradual, it’s been here and there throughout the season but we’re starting to put it together through a full game.”

Hess has done his part in goal, stopping shots and providing the type of leadership his team needs.

“He’s a great leader on and off the ice,” Knutson said. “He takes the kids under his wing. He jokes with them, has fun with them but also gets serious and tries to motivate them as well. He’s positive, but he’s tough on kids when he needs to be.”

Hess and fellow senior Daylon DeSouza were voted team captains at the beginning of the year and are leading by example. DeSouza leads the team on offense while Hess leads the team in net. Hess, DeSouza, Zach Gilles and the rest of the experienced Saints had to fight the urge of trying to do too much while their younger teammates found their niche at the varsity level.

“Our older guys had to realize that they couldn’t put too much on their shoulders and have too much to carry,” Hess said. “I think them taking it off their shoulders, working the puck to the younger guys (and) not putting it all on their back, I thought really helped. You can’t be a one-man team in hockey; it’s definitely a team sport.”

And in his second full season between the pipes, Hess has done plenty of learning of his own.

“I learned a lot with experience – when to cover the puck when my guys are tired, really just to control the game as much as I can,” Hess said. “I think that experience really helped me, especially with our young guys with what to do and what you need.”

But before Hess took over as the program’s starting goaltender, he had a good teacher. Former Saints standout goaltender Sam Nelson was a big influence on Hess’ development as a goaltender. Nelson now plays for the Rochester Ice Hawks of the Minnesota Junior Hockey League and Hess said Nelson’s guidance helped him once it was his turn.

“We used to go and train a lot together so I know a lot of the same systems he does for goaltending,” Hess said.

Hess hasn’t just been pushed during games, he’s also getting solid competition every day in practice from fellow senior goaltender Ben Walker.

“Those two, when they come to practice they’re always trying to get better,” Knutson said of his goaltenders. “They’re trying to give the guys the best looks they can, always push us to hit the net or hit their spots or do different things and every once in a while get on our guys (and say) ‘Let’s get going, let’s get serious here’. Both guys like to compete and are solid goalies.”

Hess also dedicated a recent 54-save effort in goal against Cedarburg to Mick Caron, a Chi-Hi senior player that was recently involved in a car accident.

Starting with a 3-2 victory over Lakeland on Dec. 29, the Saints have showed marked improvement. Offensively the Saints are getting more shots on goal while Hess has done what he can to keep the puck out of the net. The Saints earned a No. 5 seed in their sectional in the WIAA boys hockey playoffs and open play at Ashland/Washburn on Thursday, Feb. 19. A victory in that game would give the Saints their third consecutive regional title and could match them up with Eau Claire Memorial, the team that has knocked them out of the playoffs each of the past two seasons, in the sectional semifinals.

“We’re trying to be a little smarter as a hockey team out there,” Knutson said. “We’re all starting to click with me as a coach and those guys as players. The team is bonding better as well, just starting to click at the right time.”

Regis/McDonell rolls into its regular season finale with Somerset on Thursday at Chippewa Ice Arena looking to end the season strong. A victory over Somerset could move the Saints into a second-place tie in the Middle Border Conference, an achievement that looked unlikely a month and a half ago. It would also put the team at the .500 mark on the season with a 12-12 record, a mark that looked unlikely around the end of December.

But with an improving offense and a steady hand in goal, the Saints could surprise some teams in the playoffs.

“We definitely want to get to the .500 mark by the end of the year,” Hess said. “I think it’s huge to be at your peak right before playoffs. It’s where you want to be playing your best hockey, it’s do or die at that point.”

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