Sarsland resigns amid fire

by Bruce Strand
Sports editor

Tony Sarsland, one of the most prominent prep coaches in the state with 588 hockey wins at Elk River, abruptly resigned Friday, Feb. 10, under fire.

Sarsland’s sudden departure, which got metro-wide coverage, comes as he is the subject of an investigation by the school district, according to Casey Mahon, the school district’s manager of communications.

Former Elk River hockey coach strategized with his players during the heat of a game. File photo

However, Sarsland announced Thursday, through his attorney, Patrick B. Moore in an e-mail, that he has rescinded his resignation, according to a Star Tribune report. Sarsland also said that he had  returned to his teaching position at VandenBerge Middle School on Monday, coming off a paid leave of absence that started Feb. 10, according to the same e-mail.

The district has yet to say whether it will at any point grant Sarsland’s request to rejoin the team.

Neither side will divulge the nature of the investigation. School staff interviewed up to 20 hockey players as part of an investigation that began last Monday, the Star Tribune reported.

Ben Gustafson, who played for Sarsland a decade ago and was junior varsity coach this year, was named interim coach. The Elks have won their three games since then.

“The kids were shocked, of course,” said Gustafson, about a meeting he and the other coaches had with the players, “and they will go through a period of dealing with that, but as a staff, and as a team, we are all on board to move this ship forward. We will do all we can to continue to compete at a high level.”

Sarsland, known for his black, western-style attire and gruff, old-school methods, had been placed on paid administrative leave from his duties as social studies teacher at VandenBerge Middle School pending completion of the investigation, Mahon said.

Sarsland’s resignation was a short single sentence statement on email  that he was resigning immediately, Mahon told the Star News.

Mahon said players have been briefed and interviewed and there are no reports of student misconduct.

Sarsland, 64, won his 500th game in January of 2006 at Elk River Arena amid much fanfare, and was closing in on 600. His final mark is 588-277-26 in 27 seasons. Only three coaches in the state (two retired) have won over 600.

The current team is 14-8-2. Sarsland’s last game was an overtime win, 4-3 over Champlin Park on Friday, Feb. 3 in Champlin.

In the past 15 seasons, he took six teams to state tournaments with one championship, in 2001, and won or shared 12 conference titles.

The day after his resignation, the Elks sprang a big upset, beating No. 3 ranked Maple Grove 5-3 at home before a large crowd. Team co-captain Anders Franke said the team had “a chip on our shoulder” from losing their coach.

“That was truly something special — there was so much emotion,” said Franke, a four-year starter at goalie for Sarsland. “During the team prayer we always have, I almost broke down.”

Sarsland’s departure drew immediate attention from the metro dailies, TV stations and Minnesota Hockey Hub.

The Star Tribune listed the coach’s huge achievements, and added:

“But in Sarsland’s nearly three decades at Elk River, the program has been under the microscope for everything from the coach’s ability to control his anger, to the players’ rough style of play to accusations of recruiting.

“During a 1998 game, Sarsland threatened to break the nose and jaw of player Joe Bailey, an off-the-handle move that got him suspended for four games and nearly cost him his job.

“To keep his job, Sarsland had to work with a sports psychologist and attend anger management sessions.”

Fox 9’s Jody Ambroz, who visited Elk River Arena, reported that Sarsland resigned “amid an investigation into player complaints.”

Her report added:  “Some parents told Fox 9 they never saw it coming. Robert Kiersted said, ‘Tony’s been a good coach. He’s had a great career… It’s shocking to us.’ ”

And: “So far, 20 hockey players have been interviewed by the district staff. Parents say the students have been told not to talk about the investigation.”

The Elks’ interim coach, Gustafson, 28, played for Hamline University and has been on the Elks staff for four years. A physical education teacher at Salk Middle School, he is the son of Paul Gustafson, Rogers activities director and former Elk football coach.