The thoroughly modern marriage of Phil and Karin Housley - The Buffalo News

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The thoroughly modern marriage of Phil and Karin Housley

After 35 years, the Minnesota state senator and the Buffalo Sabres head coach still share a goal-driven lifestyle.

LAKELAND, Minn. – The words above the fireplace appear to be a Bible verse: VELIS ET REMIS 12:1.

They are not. The words are Latin, the numbers represent a date, and though the message is not drawn from the Bible, it may as well be. In the life of Karin and Phil Housley, velis et remis has been a biblical philosophy. It’s what drove them to stay together 35 years ago, when Phil was a teenager drafted by the Buffalo Sabres. That philosophy defines his Hall of Fame hockey career, his resilience as a coach even as his Sabres struggle through a disappointing season, and it defines Karin’s life since her husband’s playing days ended.

Karin Housley, standing in the living room of their three-story stone home on the banks of the St. Croix River, pointed to the words. “That is Latin for ‘full speed ahead,’” she said, adding that translated literally, velis et remis means “sails and oars” – as in letting the wind catch your sail, and churning your oars in the water as you move full speed onward.

Housley motioned to the 12:1. “I feel bad for the next person moving in,” she said, with a pitter-patter laugh she uses often. Those digits are actually a date: December 2001. That’s when this home, which looks like a scaled-down castle from the street and a beachside resort from the river, was built. Back then, Phil was winding down his playing career as Karin moved back to Minnesota with their four children. He retired in January 2004 and joined them full time.

“We finally felt like we got back here to Minnesota,” Karin said, “and it was going to be full speed ahead with the rest of our lives.”

It was. While Phil settled into an at-home role as dad, making breakfast for their youngest daughter every morning and coaching high school hockey in the afternoon and evening, Karin sped into the career she had long wanted. She built a successful real estate business, became a media personality and, later, a Republican state senator whose name has been floated as a future governor of Minnesota.

But Phil was still feeling that velis et remis too. After coaching high school for nine years at their hometown Stillwater High School, he leapt back into the National Hockey League. Today he is the Sabres’ head coach, but there was an in-between step. In 2013, Phil became an assistant coach with the Nashville Predators. He was based in the south, jetting the country, rarely home as he elevated his coaching career.

Karin, meanwhile, was balancing her real-estate business with her budding political career, which started a few months before the Predators hired her husband. (She took office in the Minnesota State Senate in January 2013; Phil was hired that May.)

He was back in the NHL. She was on the political hot track. Velis et remis, indeed.

It almost tore them apart.

•••

The Housleys at home on the banks of the St. Croix River in Lakeland, Minn. (Angela Jimenez/Special to The News)

I first met Karin Housley, who is 53, on a sticky July day in Buffalo. Less than a month earlier, Phil, who is also 53, had been hired by the Sabres to replace the fired Dan Bylsma. While Phil ran the Sabres’ prospects camp for young players, Karin spent time getting their living situation settled. They were in the midst of buying a condo on the Buffalo waterfront and living out of a hotel room in the Marriott HarborCenter, adjacent to the KeyBank Center.

Karin and I met at Panorama on Seven, the seventh-floor restaurant inside her hotel. She was wearing a brightly patterned dress and a set of long necklaces. The dress fit her personality: Fun, but not obnoxious. Personable, but not obtrusive. Energetic, but not frenetic.

“I think half the world has ADD,” she said, including herself in that pronouncement as we hopscotched through a conversation that spanned her work in the Minnesota Senate to her hope to become involved in the Western New York community. She mentioned a lunch with Kim Pegula in which the Sabres co-owner told her “Let’s work together.”

"She's such a happy person – have you noticed that?" Pegula told me in a separate conversation. "She's such a happy person, win or lose... She has a crazy schedule, and she makes the time, and she's so organized and thoughtful about everything, and she's always happy when she's doing it."

If Housley positions herself as a visible member of the Buffalo community, it won’t be an unfamiliar position. She is recognizable already in her Minnesota Senate district and around the state Capitol. In her five years as a legislator, she has satiated her hyperactive attention with an array of projects, from turning a private plot on the St. Croix into a public park to changing a law regarding the ownership of three-wheeled motorcycles for the benefit of a single business owner.

“This is the greatest career for anybody with ADD, because you cannot get bored,” said Housley, who, as a member of the Republican majority, chairs the Senate’s committee on Aging and Long-Term Care Policy. This legislative area is personal to her; her father, to whom she was very close, died two years ago, and her mother has Alzheimer’s disease. A family member financially exploited nearly $90,000 from her parents when they both were still alive, and was convicted and jailed. Housley won’t go into details, but acknowledged that it drives much of her work as a legislator.

Then there’s the less-serious stuff: When the singer Prince, a Minnesotan, died in 2016, she introduced a bill to make purple the official state color. It failed – some of her Republican colleagues considered it “frivolous,” she later said – but she wore purple to the Senate floor every day for weeks.

And she may not be done with the idea yet. Telling Housley that something isn’t possible seems to be the best way to guarantee she’ll do it.

One of Karin Housley's Minnesota state senator roles is to lead the Senate Aging and Long-Term Care Policy Committee. Here she meets in her Senate office in St. Paul with people representing consumers and providers. (Angela Jimenez/Special to The News)

In the 1990s, for example, the Housleys’ financial adviser angered her by talking down to her. She responded by challenging him. She started learning about investments on her own, then opened an investing club for women. After a few years of doing that, she pitched a book to a New York publisher and landed a contract. In 2001, Crown Business released a 278-page investing guide for women called “Chicks Laying Nest Eggs: How 10 Skirts Beat the Pants Off Wall Street … and How You Can, Too!”

During our meeting, I pulled out a copy of “Chicks Laying Nest Eggs.” I suspected Karin hadn’t seen one in a while, and I was right. She laughed that rat-a-tat laugh, joked about how she thought her political opponents might scour it for opposition research, but then turned serious.

“My first stepping into the world of bias was right with that,” she said, meaning the book. “People would say things like I got it handed to me on a silver platter, (or) the only reason they published it was because I was Phil Housley’s wife …  and then it continued.”

She said the same thing happened when she started her business, Karin Housley Real Estate,  in the early 2000s, and when she decided to run for office. Housley lost her first race in 2010, but ran again and won in 2012, and has held her seat since.

“You have to fight that much harder, and not in a whiny or combatant way,” she said. “You just have to be that much smarter, that much more organized, on your toes, always, and you have to dress that much more professionally. A lot more thought has to go into everything you do.”

•••

"Karin is almost a female version of Forrest Gump," says Frits Hoffman, an East Aurora-based businessman who has been friends with the Housley since the mid-'80s. Hoffman has several stories of Karin injecting adventure into everyday life. Among his favorites: A few years ago, the Housleys and the Hoffmans spent a weekend at an IndyCar race hosted by Mario Andretti. Karin made a few phone calls, and soon, the two couples were a part of Andretti's entourage for the weekend.

"It's amazing," Hoffman said, "and it's fun getting caught up in it with her."

When she started that investment club for women, Housley was also working on her master’s degree. (She never finished.) Later, when she called her father to tell him she was writing a book, he responded, “Another one of your thousand ideas.”

“One of them is going to hit, Dad,” Housley said. “One of them is going to hit.”

Years later, when she called her father to say she was running for Senate, he replied, “Well, I guess you can’t be a senator if you don’t try.”

So she tried. And when she lost the first race in 2010 by 606 votes, she tried again two years later – and won by 631 votes.

“Boredom is death to me, and I think to Phil too,” Karin said, “because you’ll see he has a slight bit of ADD also. On a quieter level.”

Both Housleys are intensely motivated – “We both really, really like to work hard,” Karin said – but their drive plays out in different ways. Phil has dedicated his life to a single professional pursuit: hockey. Karin keeps setting new goals. “He was fortunate to know what his was very young and to hone it to genius level,” she said, “where I just kept seeing shinier objects and going after that.”

For a while, that next shiny object seemed to be running for governor of Minnesota in 2018. The current governor, Democrat Mark Dayton, is nearing the end of his two-term limit, and Housley was lining herself up to run. But then Phil was hired by the Sabres “right when things were taking off for me in Minnesota,” Karin said.

There’s no practical reason she couldn’t be governor while he is an NHL coach. In fact, Karin added, Phil told her, “Go ahead and do it.”

But she is reluctant. Until the state Senate goes into session in February, she is splitting her time between Buffalo and Minnesota. When the Sabres are in town, she is here with Phil; when the team is on the road, she is in Minnesota.

Karin Housley and her daughter Reide take in the Party in the Plaza on Oct. 5 before the Sabres' 2017 home opener against the Montreal Canadiens in KeyBank Center. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

If she were Gov. Housley, she couldn’t do that. Nor could she do it even if she were running for governor. Plus, she said, “I really want to be a big part of this community and the team.” She is open to running for the less-demanding role of lieutenant governor. (She did that in 2014, and lost in the primary.) For now, a full-fledged gubernatorial run is on hold – but not ruled out.

“That’s what you do when you’re married,” she said.

If Housley does decide to run for higher office, the Sabres ownership will back her decision.

"That would be great," said Kim Pegula, noting that she wants to be careful not to "promote" Housley in a political sense, but is supportive of her aspirations.

"Anytime we have great success from anyone associated with Buffalo in any way is, I think, just another feather in Buffalo and Western New York's cap," Pegula continued. "For her to kind of move up the political ladder and to have even bigger aspirations than what she's already achieved now would be great. I think it would just be a huge boost for our area, as well as her constituents in Minnesota. But I would be really proud of her and would encourage her decision, and we would support it as ownership, as an organization, and give them the flexibility or support or whatever it is that she would need for her to accomplish that."

•••

The Housleys started dating in seventh grade.

“One date,” said Phil.

“To a dance,” Karin added.

“Did it go well?” I asked. We are in the Housleys’ living room – the velis et remis room – in Minnesota. It’s a cozy space bathed in natural lighting. Karin, in a black-and-white sundress, is sitting on a patterned upholstered chair. Phil, in a golf shirt and shorts, is leaning forward on the couch. His reddish hair still has the color of his youth, and right now, my question seems to have sent him back to those awkward junior high school dance days.

Phil, smiling through pursed lips, shook his head decidedly no.

“No,” Karin said. “No, it didn’t. I thought he ended up kissing somebody else, but he didn’t. But I thought he did, and then –”

“It was seventh grade!” Phil cut in. They burst out laughing. “You know? It was just one of those things.”

Karin and Phil stayed in the same crowd, though, and started dating again during their senior year of high school. “She was good at English,” Phil said. He was softly smirking; she was laughing.

“That’s sooo bad,” Karin said, as Phil began explaining: It’s his senior year of high school, and he is away at the World Championships, playing for Team USA. He had a big paper to write for his advanced composition class on the legalization of marijuana, but set it aside while he was away. When he got back to Stillwater, he asked the teacher for an extension.

“No, you have three days,” she told him.

“So I asked her” – he was looking at Karin now – “and she helped me with my paper and I got an A-minus.” (“Helped” is a euphemism, I later learned. Karin actually wrote the report for him – and got a B for her paper on how computers would one day be in every household.)

“From right then, I guess I just liked the company,” Phil said, with a hint of tenderness.

“I thought he was funny, and he was so cute,” Karin said. “So cute. I could never really pinpoint what it was, but you were funny.”

Phil is looking slightly uncomfortable. “That’s a little too mushy for me right now,” he said. “Not you,” he added, nodding to Karin. He looked at me. “The question.”

But there is mushy sweetness to their story. Phil was drafted out of high school by the Sabres in 1982. He moved to Buffalo, impressed in training camp, and made the team. Phil was only 18, the youngest guy on the team, still a kid. A kid who missed his girlfriend back home. “We kept talking on the phone for hours, and wrote letters, and finally she came out to live with me,” he said. “Which was not …”

Karin piped in: “Our families were not happy.”

“Especially her mom and dad,” Phil said.

“I didn’t have my degree yet,” Karin said, recalling her parents’ concerns. “And I needed to be married.” She lets out a small, chirpy laugh.

This 1982-83 hockey card shows the Phil Housley many Sabres' fans remember: a drafted-fresh-out-of-high-school rookie who would help lead the team to the second round of the NHL playoffs in his first season. (Angela Jimenez/Special to The News)

When Karin moved to Buffalo in January of 1983, her parents told her she was on her own. They didn’t give her a ride to the airport. They didn’t come to visit. Karin and Phil had good times in Buffalo in those days.

“We were a little bit of rebels,” Phil said.

“We were just fun,” Karin added.

They started setting up their lives, too. Phil became a steady, reliable and quietly impressive player: rarely flashy, but so good and consistent every year that, by the end of his career, the sum total of his success ranked him among the all-time greats. Karin, meanwhile, enrolled at Erie Community College, and later the University at Buffalo. She paid her way by waitressing and used to babysit for Phil's older teammate Bill Hajt and his wife, Jean. The Hajts had a computer and printer; Karin would come over to write papers and watch the Hajts' four kids. (Their son, Chris, is now Phil's assistant coach on the Sabres.)

"Karin was at our house many times," Bill Hajt recalled. "We were one of the first families to have a computer, and she spent a lot of time on the computer, and then she'd come over and babysit the kids. She was always very respectful."

Phil, too, was respectful and – even as one of the best players on the team – deferential, Hajt added.

"Both knew their place," he said, "yet both were very mature."

The Housleys married in 1985. Even before earning her communications degree from UB, Karin went to work as an an entry-level producer for WGRZ and WKBW, juggling a nascent media career with motherhood. (The Housleys' first two children – daughters Taylor, who is now 30, and Reide, 27 – were born in Buffalo.) That ended in 1990, when Phil was traded to the Winnipeg Jets.

Phil and Karin Housley on their wedding day.

“I had big dreams of being big in the media, and then he got traded to Winnipeg,” Karin said. “We had to really look at what was I doing with my career and how long was his career going to last. Did I just want to give all of that up and be a stay-at-home mom and raise kids?”

The Housleys made something of a compact: She would go “all in as a full-time hockey wife/mom,” but as soon as Phil retired, it would be her turn to have a career. For the next decade, Karin and the couple’s eldest three kids – Taylor, Reide, and Wilson, who is 26 – followed Phil around the continent. (Their fourth child, Avery, was born in 1997.) He played in eight NHL markets (Buffalo, Winnipeg, St. Louis, Calgary, New Jersey, Washington, Chicago, Toronto) and Karin and the family lived in most of those places.

“That was his 21 years,” Karin said, “and then I got the next 10.”

During that decade – approximately 2003 to 2013 – the Housley household had a different look. Every morning, Phil made breakfast for Avery and drove her to school — simple dad tasks that he could never do during his playing days. In the afternoon and evening, he coached the boys hockey team at nearby Stillwater High School. Within the community, that coaching job was a big deal; high school hockey in Minnesota is akin to high school football in Texas. But altogether, he was living a normal, routine, low-key life.

Karin, on the other hand, was in and out at all hours, leaving on short notice for real-estate calls, hosting a radio show, writing a newspaper column, and eventually becoming involved in politics.

“There was a little competition, I guess,” Phil said.

“But not like outright competition,” Karin added.

“We pushed each other,” Phil clarified.

They cheered each other on, too. Phil and the kids joined Karin for parades and door-knocking during her Senate campaign, and she was there for him as he coached at Stillwater (their son Wilson was on the team) and in the USA Hockey program.

In 2013, Phil coached the USA to a gold medal in the World Junior Championship and was an assistant on the bronze-winning U.S. national team. His coaching credits, combined with long NHL career, led to three NHL job offers. He accepted the position in Nashville and, after a decade at home, left.

“You always have goals, whether she wants to build a real estate company or become a senator, or for me it was having a new challenge and coaching in the best league in the world,” Phil said. “When you peel away the layers, there are things you want to do.”

•••

The family dynamic, by then, was starkly different than during his playing career. Three of the four Housley kids were grown, and Karin had both her real estate business and her Senate seat. But Avery Housley was 15 at the time, still in high school, and had grown up with her dad around.

“Avery had me here all that time, getting up with her, so that was an adjustment,” Phil said. Avery was excited for him to take the job, he added, “but I don’t think she realized – or we didn’t realize – how time away was going to affect us. That was tough.”

Karin, now, was juggling two cities and two sets of family responsibilities – one in Nashville with her husband, and the rest of her life in Minnesota, with her still-young daughter. With her dad gone all school year, and her mom often in Nashville, Avery had to become a highly independent teenager and often stayed with her sister Taylor, who is 10 years older.

“It wasn’t really hard for me,” Avery said by phone from North Dakota, where she is a sophomore in college. “I knew my parents needed to be together. They need time together. They’re in love.”

But even together in Nashville, Karin and Phil weren’t connecting. He was focused on coaching, and would come home at night, lean back in a reclining chair, gaze at the television or fall asleep. He was tired.

Karin, too, was absorbed in her careers, and the possibilities of what she could do as a senator, or beyond. While Phil chilled in his recliner, she sat on a couch. They may have been separated by feet, but emotionally, the couple was still several states apart.

“What the hell are we doing?” Karin remembered thinking to herself. The Housleys were self-aware enough to realize a couple of truths: First, they were disconnected with each other emotionally. “It was just checking in,” Phil said. “It wasn’t the deep conversations you used to have as a couple.”

Second, they were startlingly OK with that. They weren’t miserable individually. They weren't unhappy with each other. Karin and Phil were simply co-existing.

“We had long, serious conversations,” Karin recalled, “like, ‘How are we going to do this?’ And, ‘How can we make it work?’ Or, ‘Do we just separate and go our separate ways and (have) independent lives? What do we want for us and our family?’”

They decided to make their marriage work again, but as Karin pointed out, they also realized “that’s going to take work and it’s practicing a new mindset.” One of the key moves came via a bit of shopping on Karin’s part. One day in Nashville, she told Phil, “You can’t be in that recliner.”

He wondered why. She explained: “I know you’re tired. I just need your knees next to my knees. We just need to be touching, you know? You can sleep, and we don’t have to talk, but we just have to be touching.’”

Karin had a replacement in mind: She had found a tan-colored electric couch that reclines. “He has his side and I have my side,” Karin said. “He could recline and watch his Fox News or his movies or whatever, and I could just be next to him. We didn’t have to talk. Just being next to each other and having our legs touching, you know, it was just quiet comfort. That was the beginning.”

This may look like Karin and Phil Housley relaxing on the couch, but it's also a picture of a married couple showing off a piece of furniture that they say strengthened their marriage. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

Phil smiled as his wife told the story of their couch. “That was a great move,” he said.

They started talking more regularly and deeply. Instead of just checking in by text, they made sure to connect by phone a couple of times a day. They talk about more than their careers; they discuss issues, the kids, the future. If they have something tough to talk about, they bring it out – often with the preface, “I have something on my mind” – rather that stew on it.

The solution wasn’t perfect. More togetherness for Karin and Phil also meant more time separate from Avery, who was finishing high school.

“I went down more the next two years just so we could spend real, quality time,” Karin said, speaking with an uncharacteristic softness. “So Avery was the one that kind of suffered.”

Phil, whom Avery says “is like my best friend,” interjected. His voice was louder than Karin's.

“She had the best of it,” he said.

Phil is talking about Avery, their one child who had the benefit of having both parents full-time at home for most of her childhood. He was, and is, very close with his youngest daughter.

He continued: "And then – for those nine years, it was great.”

Avery, speaking separately from her parents, said, “I’ve told them, ‘You don’t have any reason to feel bad. I was doing just fine. You guys left me with a lot of responsibility, and I did pretty well, I think.’ ”

Last summer, Avery lived in Kentucky, where she earned about $12,000 selling educational books door to door. At times she was frustrated and homesick, but when she called her parents, they encouraged her to stick it out. It was difficult, because in their conversations, Phil would talk to Karin about how much he missed Avery – especially when he got word that she might be on the road again next summer.

“She is not going to Kentucky next summer,” Karin recalled Phil lamenting. “I miss my Pumpkin Pie!”

To which Karin reminded her husband, “Well, she’s her own person, too.”

When they are together, the Housleys often pull out a yellow pad and write their plans and goals. The previous evening, they were sitting on their dock that juts into the St. Croix, waving at boats passing by and scrawling plans for the next few months on a yellow pad.

They wanted to find a time to get the entire family to Buffalo. That’s a challenge: Taylor and her husband have a toddler, Louis, and an infant, Archer, who was born in October. Reide, their second daughter, splits her time between Florida and Minnesota. Their son Wilson is a senior at Arizona State University, and Avery is at school in North Dakota. All told, Thanksgiving seemed like a natural time to fly everyone to Buffalo – and so it went on the notepad.

Karin and Phil Housley show their grandson Louis Pass, 2, Aiple Park in Stillwater, Minn. The park is a piece of privately owned land on the banks of the St. Croix River that, with Karin's Senate support, became a public park with city, state and county funding. (Angela Jimenez/Special to The News)

Karin and Phil talk, too, about the more distant future. She would still like to run for governor, but given the likelihood that the next one will serve two terms, she will probably wait eight years. Phil would like to coach for at least 10 years, and it’s unlikely that they will need this large home anymore. The Housleys spent all summer readying it for sale, but have since considered holding onto it as a place where their family can converge. Or maybe they’ll just take everyone on a two-week cruise every summer. They have time to decide on that.

For now, it makes for substantive, real, true husband-wife dialogue.

“I have to say, we have our best conversations now that we’ve ever had, and it’s not even if she’s here or we’re together,” Phil said. “We found that way to communicate.”

They credit the couch, which at the time, was still at their condo in Nashville, as being the catalyst.

“We love that couch,” Karin said. “That couch is coming with” the Housleys to Buffalo.

A few days later, Karin texted with an update:

“Funny story. We sold the condo in Nashville, and the buyer was wondering if she could buy the couch. The. Couch.”

So are they selling?

“Oh no,” she wrote back. “We gave her the TVs instead.”

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