Over 75 seasons in the MIAC, St. Olaf won the regular season title once, in 2009, and qualified for the N.C.A.A. tournament once, in 2006. That’s it.
The college, built on a hill about a mile west of downtown Northfield, is primarily known for its music program and a world-class choir whose annual Christmas Festival usually is broadcast on PBS. Northfield itself, local historians say, is where townspeople foiled an attempted bank robbery by Jesse James and his gang in 1876, an event celebrated annually.
St. Olaf’s president, David R. Anderson, showed a heightened commitment to athletics in 2015 by hiring Bowles, an associate athletic director at Maryland who is married to a Minnesotan, as the college’s first full-time athletic director. Last spring, Bowles let go the longtime hockey coach Sean Goldsworthy after back-to-back losing seasons. Needing to raise $6 million for the on-campus hockey rink, Bowles sought a high-profile replacement.
Wisconsin fired Eaves under similar circumstances. A renowned name in Badger hockey, Eaves won N.C.A.A. titles as a player for the famed coach Bob Johnson in 1977 and as a coach in 2006 and is also the program’s career scoring leader. But the Badgers were 4-26-5 — the worst record in the program’s history — and 8-19-8 in Eaves’s final two seasons. Season tickets sales had dropped by more than 4,000 since Wisconsin’s last Frozen Four appearance, in 2010.
“It was a tough couple of years,” said Ben Eaves, a former Boston College standout and minor league professional who coached last season at Culver Academies in Indiana. “The worse they did, the harder he kept trying, and the more hours he put in. We were like: This might kill him at some point. This isn’t going to stop unless somebody stops it for him.
“So part of our reaction was relief, then excitement: What’s next?”
Eaves and his wife spent a week in Hawaii at her cousin’s invitation. Then he started looking for work. Bowles figured he had nothing to lose by asking Ben Eaves if his father might be interested.
“Maybe it’s the East Coaster in me, but I’m always going to ask the question and be direct,” said Bowles, who is from Maryland. “They could always say, ‘No, not interested.’ But there was a mutual interest, which was exciting.”
Eaves knew the area from a 1990s coaching stint at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a boarding school in nearby Faribault that produced the N.H.L. stars Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews. After Eaves took an assistant coaching job with the Pittsburgh Penguins, his wife bought the lake cabin so Ben and his brother Patrick, now with the N.H.L.’s Dallas Stars, could finish at Shattuck. Eaves said he regretted missing that time with his family, and saw the St. Olaf job as “bonus time” with Ben. Both boys eventually bought cabins on a neighboring lake.
Before accepting, Eaves met with the four returning captains for coffee.
“We just wanted to know about him, what his intentions were,” said the junior defenseman Judd Loewenstein, who described the meeting as amazing.
“I left and I was speechless, because he was fantastic,” Lowenstein said. “He has more experience and knowledge of the game of hockey than anyone I’ve ever met. We went back and told the athletic director, this is a no-brainer, there’s no need to meet with anyone else. We were beyond excited.”
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