NORTH BRANCH, Minn. — If there is bad traffic during hockey season, Jacob Mars faces a commute of an hour each way from his home in Brooklyn Park, Minn., to the arena where his new team, the boys’ squad at North Branch (Minn.) High School, practices. With his background in international hockey, it is a drive that does not seem intimidating to Mars, who was recently named the Vikings’ head coach.
When coaching in Israel’s national hockey program a decade ago, Mars routinely made the weekly trek nearly 300 miles round trip from his apartment in Jerusalem to the Canada Centre, a hockey complex near the border with Lebanon, through a literal war zone.
“When I was living there, one of the many wars between Israel and Gaza started. There was a news report that Lebanon had gotten involved, and had fired a rocket into Israel, which landed right by the arena,” Mars recalled. “I got an email about 15 minutes after that saying, ‘Well boys, it didn’t hit the rink. See you at practice in a few hours.’ It turns out a couple Lebanese boys had loaded some forks into a firework, and shot it into Israel. The Israelis briefly thought it was Lebanon launching an attack.”
Originally from Eden Prairie, Minn., Mars fell in love with coaching hockey as a high schooler. Now 30, he has been an assistant coach and run the junior varsity programs at three high schools — Minnehaha Academy, Simley, and for the past five years Coon Rapids — prior to getting his first head coaching gig. Mars holds the highest level of USA Hockey coaching certification, and has coached in the Minnesota High Performance program since 2011.
“The level of coaching experience intrigued us, and then as we looked at his resume, we liked the amount of work he does in the off-season with high-level athletes,” said Matthew Lattimore, North Branch athletic director. “Checking his references, people just couldn’t say enough good things about his relationship building and how he worked with kids. He’s a transformational coach.”
Mars comes to a North Branch program that is clearly on the upswing. The Vikings made their first state tournament appearance in 2019 and went 17-8-0 last season, finishing second in the Mississippi 8 Conference before falling to rival Chisago Lakes in their playoff opener.
The game was at Chisago Lakes Ice Arena, which is roughly 20 minutes away from North Branch High School and is the Vikings’ home ice for now. According to Jason Zerwas, president of the North Branch Area Hockey Association, there is an effort underway to raise funds and get an arena built in the community, with hopes that their teams will truly be on home ice within the next three years.
Just as he was hired over video chat, Mars met with most of his team remotely last week, and likes what he has to work with. The Vikings lost eight players, but return their top three scorers in rising seniors Cody Croal, Jody Kerchner and Tucker Sachs. That trio combined for 137 points last season, giving Mars a good foundation upon which to build his system.
“As I told the boys, our three key principles this season are going to be: playing fast, physical and simple,” Mars said.
And if there is bad traffic on the way to the rink, he will certainly deal with it.