For Steven Reinprecht, every new hockey season in the last half-decade started with the seeming likelihood of being his last, until the eventual realization of how good things were for him and his family.
The time to call it a career, however, came last spring for the former University of Wisconsin captain. A new path, born in the days when he was building the foundation of his extensive playing resume, was just around the corner.
Reinprecht played 18 seasons of pro hockey — the last six in Germany — but always had a next step in mind from interactions he had with the Badgers coaching staff.
He played for Jeff Sauer and assistants Mark Johnson and Pat Ford from 1996 to 2000, and random chats with Johnson stand out to him as formative in planting the seed of a follow-up career in coaching.
“It seemed like he had such a cool job because you got to help players, help people,” Reinprecht said. “The college age is such a neat age to coach in the sense where players are pretty raw. They have a lot of skill but they can be fine-tuned. And you’re trying to teach them as people also.”
Reinprecht’s first coaching assignment brings him back to Madison this weekend when No. 8 Denver visits for a non-conference series at the Kohl Center.
He’s a volunteer assistant with the Pioneers, a foot-in-the-door role that offers Reinprecht a transition from being one of the guys in the locker room to being one of the guys in the coaches’ room.
Reinprecht has called Denver home since he played for the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche from 2001 to 2003, and he planted the seed of being part of the staff with two previous Pioneers coaches before his playing retirement finally allowed it this season.
Walking away from his playing career wasn’t easy, however, even as he passed his 42nd birthday last May.
Reinprecht has his name on the Stanley Cup (from the 2001 Avalanche) and counts more than 700 NHL games and five teams on his statistics. His last six seasons were for the Nürnberg Ice Tigers in Germany, where he led the league in points in 2014-15.
“(It) was a slow decision because we were having such a great time in Germany that hockey was just a part of it,” said Reinprecht, who’s married with three children. “I could have been done earlier, but the life experience was such a good thing that we kept playing.
“For me, it was a tough decision in the sense that there was a lot more than hockey that I was leaving behind when I stopped playing.”
One big regret
Around here, Reinprecht is remembered as the catalyst of the 1999-2000 Badgers team that won the Western Collegiate Hockey Association title, the program’s third and most recent regular-season crown.
He led the nation with 66 points as a senior, was the WCHA player of the year and ended as runner-up for the Hobey Baker Award.
There are good memories in there, Reinprecht said, but there’s one big what-if. UW, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA West Regional, lost to Boston College in the quarterfinals, with the Eagles shutting down the line Reinprecht centered with David Hukalo and Dany Heatley.
“We had such a good team,” Reinprecht said. “BC had a great team also. They beat us that night, but it’s one of those things where you put it in a best-of-7 (series), you never know what happens.
“But it’s just one of those things that you look back and you’re like, ‘Man, I really wish I could have a do-over with that game.’ Because we thought we had a pretty special team and you never know what can happen.”
Reinprecht is one of 17 former Badgers men’s hockey players in the UW Athletic Hall of Fame. His induction in 2014 is the last time he was in Madison, however, and he hasn’t seen a game at the Kohl Center in about 15 years.
His final game with the Badgers doesn’t define his memories about playing for the team.
“Truthfully, whenever I think about my time at Wisconsin, I smile because it was such an amazing experience,” Reinprecht said. “I’m so happy with my decision to go there and play hockey there that there’s nothing I would have changed.”
A UW connection
Days after his UW career ended, Reinprecht signed a free agent contract with the Los Angeles Kings. In February 2001, he was traded along with defenseman Rob Blake to Colorado to bolster the Avalanche’s title run.
In his final of three seasons with the Avalanche, 2002-03, the team brought in a new assistant coach who was a year removed from the end of a long playing career. Reinprecht thought Tony Granato was a great communicator with players.
“He’s been through what you’re going through,” Reinprecht said of Granato, who was elevated to Colorado’s head coach in December 2002. “He had been through it all, come out the other end and now he wants to give back and help the player. You could see that he cared about the development of the player. He was a really good coach, and I was really lucky to have him.”
Granato, now in his third season as the Badgers’ coach, remembers Reinprecht as fitting the coaching profile that he’s now living.
“There’s certain guys that you know are thinkers and understand the game a certain way that would do well in coaching,” Granato said. “And he would certainly be one of those guys that, as a coach, you could see that he was on a path to eventually being a coach.”
Right now, that path involves Reinprecht observing how first-year Pioneers coach David Carle and assistants Tavis MacMillan and Dallas Ferguson — both former Division I head coaches — plan and execute practice drills.
“I’m just really happy to be able to help out where I can,” Reinprecht said. “And for the most part just really excited about the experience I’m getting from being around them.”