It’s a family traditionGary Cranston taught his sons well. “Our dad taught us at a very young age: You give more than you take,” Joe Cranston, head coach of the UW-River Falls women’s hockey team, said. “That’s why we’re here; that’s why we’re successful.”
By: Bob Burrows, River Falls Journal
Gary Cranston taught his sons well. “Our dad taught us at a very young age: You give more than you take,” Joe Cranston, head coach of the UW-River Falls women’s hockey team, said. “That’s why we’re here; that’s why we’re successful.”
Joe Cranston and the Falcons will play for the national championship at this weekend’s NCAA Division III Frozen Four in Middlebury, Vt. His older brother Matt is fresh from winning a state championship as head coach of the St. Croix Valley Fusion girls’ hockey team, a collaborative effort between River Falls, Baldwin-Woodville, St. Croix Central and Spring Valley high schools.
They are the only head coaches their respective programs have ever known. The Falcons won the Northern Collegiate Hockey Association championship and tied a school record with 20 wins this season, while the Fusion became the first undefeated state champion in Wisconsin girls’ high school hockey history with a record of 23-0-1.
But despite all the success, they both say it’s been a bittersweet last few months.
“I’ve coached games this year that I don’t even remember,” Joe said.
Gary Cranston died of cancer on New Year’s Day.
Matt Cranston played four years of hockey at Fergus Falls, Minn., High School where he went up against Roseau and the line of Neil and Aaron Broten and Butsy Erickson as a junior in the 1978 sectional final game.
The Brotens and Erickson went on to careers in the National Hockey League while Cranston played one year at Bemidji State University before hanging up his skates and transferring to UW-River Falls in 1981.
Joe took his older brother Matt’s No. 11 jersey as a freshman at Fergus Falls in 1979 and went on to play junior hockey with the North Iowa Huskies of the USHL. Eventually he also ended up in River Falls, pursuing a degree in elementary education.
“Joe was playing junior hockey in Iowa and he would come to visit and we started fiddling around with guitars,” Matt recalled.
The brothers eventually formed two-fifths of the popular local group Burnt Toast in the mid-to-late 1980s along with Jim Purintun, Jason Higgins and Dan Holter. The group played mostly old bluegrass and country covers but the Cranstons contributed some original songs, including “I Hate Cats” and “The Man in Blue,” two of the band’s most requested tunes.
Matt eventually received his degree in agricultural economics and began a career with Land O’ Lakes working the St. Croix County area as an agronomist and consultant while Joe graduated and took a job teaching third grade and coaching hockey in Somerset.
By the late 1980s and early ’90s, more and more girls across the country were playing hockey, thanks in large part to River Falls native Karyn Bye Dietz and the USA women’s Olympic hockey team.
A group of women at UW-RF got together and started a club program, and by 1999 the university granted it varsity status and hired Joe Cranston as the team’s very first head coach.
“I wouldn’t have taken this job if it wasn’t to build a strong program,” he said. “It’s always fun when you can take something and build it.”
Matt Cranston, meanwhile, had three young hockey playing daughters with no choice but to play with the boys.
“I started coaching youth boys here when there weren’t any girls teams; the girls had to play with the boys,” he said. “Myself and a few others eventually split the girls and boys and every year we added another girls’ team.”
Matt helped foster the original relationship between the River Falls and Baldwin-Woodville hockey associations that eventually evolved into the Fusion beginning with the 2005-06 season.
“It was a huge deal to get that together with all four schools; to convince every school board that this was a good thing,” he recalled. “The last school to vote on it was River Falls.”
Joe Cranston said girls’ and women’s hockey has come a long way in 10 years.
“When I came to UW-RF 10 years ago to coach the college team, this year’s Fusion would beat that team,” he said. “The high school team right now is better than the college team was 10 years ago. That’s a huge accomplishment. It’s fun to be part of that growth and development.”
Matt said it may take awhile before the numbers are there for River Falls to have its own girls’ team, but he said the coop approach gives many more girls the chance to play high school hockey.
“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity for that one girl from Spring Valley, or that one girl from St. Croix Central, to be able to have this experience. I got a text message from one of the Baldwin-Woodville girls yesterday and she said: ‘Thanks for making my dream come true.’ That couldn’t have happened without us being a coop.”
Both Matt and Joe chuckle at the pearls of wisdom uttered through the years by their dad, Gary.
“He used to say; ‘A good goalie gives the illusion of a good coach,’” Matt said.
“Or; ‘If you’re first line is as bad as your third line, it gives the illusion of depth,’” Joe recalled.
Gary Cranston was a pioneer in Fergus Falls’ hockey. He started girls’ hockey in northern Minnesota in the 1970s and coached youth hockey for 30 years.
“He taught us to have respect,” Joe said. “Respect for everything: Your opponents, your coaches, the locker rooms, the arena. Be appreciative of the fact you’re able to be in that environment and don’t take it for granted.”
“There it is right there,” Matt said. “Ninety-five percent of everything I say, and am, is him; in hockey and everything.”
Matt, Joe and Gary Cranston also worked a concession business together, traveling to state and county fairs in the summer selling everything from shaved ice is to Scotch eggs. It was an easy source of part-time summer work for many of the UW-RF players. And the bond between the players and the elder Cranston was evident at Gary’s funeral.
“All the girls on the team were very close with Dad,” Joe said. “He’d come to practice and they all hugged him. We all worked together in the summer. There were about 30 Falcon players and alumni at his funeral.
“I know my team talks about him a lot,” he added. “They’ll say, let’s win this game for the G-Man.”
After Gary Cranston’s death on New Year’s Day, the Falcon players and assistant coaches presented Joe with a framed No. 11 jersey with “G-Man” across the back. It will eventually hang inside Hunt Arena.
Joe Cranston sounds a lot like his father when he talks about the coach of the year awards he and Matt have won.
“That’s a team award,” he said. “Being a coach of the year has everything to do with being lucky enough to be with a group of girls that accomplished something great.”
Joe and his wife Sue have two sons, Roy and Walter, and a daughter, Irene. Roy, a sixth grader, and Irene, a second grader, are named after their great grandparents, Gary Cranston’s father and mother. Walter is in the fifth grade, and they all play hockey.
“I think just growing up in our households, that’s a given. You play hockey,” Joe said. “But the kids do everything else too. Piano lessons and school plays; lots of other activities.”
Matt and his wife Amy have three daughters. Lily was a junior and Alice a sophomore on this year’s Fusion state championship team while Sally will be a freshman on the team next season.
“We’ll have them all on the same line,” Matt joked. “Nothing but Cranstons.”
Butt Matt isn’t kidding when he talks about how lucky he and Joe are.
“We’re best friends and we’re brothers,” he said. “We’re about as tight as any two brothers can be. It’s a neat deal; we’re always together. And we like it here. We love this town and this area. It’s the real deal.”