It's been nearly a full year since Erik Largen was handed the controls of the Twin Cities Northern Lights in what would be his first ever head coaching job in junior hockey.
Almost 12 months later, it's obvious it won't be his last.
Using the same model he once lived as a Tier III goaltender in the Minnesota Junior Hockey League that parlayed his abilities into an eventual opportunity to play at the highest level of college hockey, Largen built what turned out to be one of the most dominant teams in MnJHL history.
His Northern Lights won 42 of 48 games this year, and then four of five in the Bush Cup Playoffs, knocking down franchise records at dizzying rate in a season defined by a motto made famous by late Oakland Raiders president Al Davis.
"Just win baby!"
"I hate to lose," said Largen. "I can't stand it. And I can't stand excuses. It doesn't matter who is in the lineup, I just feel that we should win games. I thought we had the talent to do that no matter who is in, who is out, who is hurt, or who was gone. For me, it's more a character trait than anything else. I just want to win really bad."
The attitude was infectious in Bloomington (Minn.) this winter, as the Northern Lights won early, and often in running away with an MnJHL regular season championship, and eventually a Bush Cup to boot.
The hope now is that it extends at least one more week. Twin Cities is making its fourth USA Hockey Tier III national tournament appearance this week. The Northern Lights will open Pool B play of the tournament at 4 p.m. Friday, March 30 against the Billings Bulls of the America West Hockey League at the Rochester Recreation Center in Rochester, Minn.
They'll also play a 3 p.m. game Saturday, March 31 against one of two possible opponents form the Empire Junior Hockey League, before finishing up pool play against the Seattle Totems of the Northern Pacific Junior Hockey League at 1 p.m. Sunday, April 1.
The expectation is to play again in one of two national semifinals Monday, April 2, and then again in the national championship game at noon Tuesday, April 3 - and it's a belief that stems from the message Largen has delivered to his guys from Day 1.
"That is the attitude you have to have," said all-MnJHL First Team defenseman Eric Shand. "You have to have a certain sense of swag that when you walk into the building you are going to beat the team you are playing against. We believe we are going to win, and that more than anything else is why we've been so successful this year."
Twin Cities has fulfilled that conviction with a lineup that has fluctuated some throughout the year, but wavered very little in terms of philosophy.
When Largen was hired late last spring, he went about building a team with as many "winners" as he could find. He did it by sharing his story with prospective players, which began with his days as a Tier III goaltender and ended with a chance to play Division I college hockey for the University of Alaska-Fairbanks.
His coaching background was equally impressive, having served as an assistant coach with the 2010-11 North American Hockey League champion Fairbanks Ice Dogs.
Combined, the body of work turned out to be an easy sell, and it attracted hockey players from all corners of the globe, many of which have come with plenty of ability in tow.
Shand (San Dimas, Calif.) - one of two Californians on the roster - had 28 regular season goals and has since added four more since the start of the postseason. Imports Lukas Sumerauer (Velesin, Czech Republic) and Gleb Kulikov (Dmitrov, Russia) have combined for six points in the Northern Lights five playoff games.
Largen also put five players on the roster from his native state of Alaska, plus a pair of Minnesotans in Spencer Franks (Andover) and Jace Childs (Savage) who each averaged over a point a game in the Bush Cup Playoffs.
"You look at our team, and you see depth," said forward Nick Edwards, a Brighton. Ill. native who had a 42 point season himself. "But what has made us a good team is we also have this mentality from the coaching staff that they expect us to win game. They get us ready to go."
There's been plenty of time to do that leading up to this weekend. Twin Cities wrapped up its Bush Cup championship March 18. It's been a waiting game ever since then, and the excitement has been mounting by the hour for Friday to arrive.
Sometime before the puck drops, there will be a speech, the details of which Largen said he had yet to finalize. Chances are he'll talk about the pride he has in the product they've become, and what they already are - "Champions," he called the team. - but there a maximum of five games to play. To win a national title, five victories might be a must.
Throughout their remarkable season, Twin Cities has already put together four winning streaks of at least five games. And like it was then, the message this week will be simple.
"Just win baby!"