Phil Housley, who is more than halfway through his second season as the Buffalo Sabres’ head coach, is leaning back on the sand-colored couch inside his Lake Erie condominium. He is talking about the tribulations (10 in a row!) and trials (“Fire Housley!”) of leading a National Hockey League team.
Next to him sits his wife Karin Housley, a Republican state senator in Minnesota who is visiting him here for a few days. She talks about her latest big opportunity (running for the U.S. Senate) and her latest big fall (losing that race for the Senate).
Both live their lives in public and share each other's joys and sorrows in private. It’s all in the normal course of being married for 33 years and supporting each other as they aim for unusually high goals. He wants a Stanley Cup. She wants – well, she’s still figuring this out – but maybe a U.S. Senate seat, or perhaps a governorship, or maybe something completely different.
“We need to be there for each other for a shoulder to lean on, just to get the feelings out,” said Phil Housley, his fingers interlocked behind his head as he looked at the ceiling. “‘What’s bothering you?’” he asked, rhetorically. “We talk it out, and we feel much better after we’re done with that.”
They may need to be there for each other, albeit from a distance (he in Buffalo, she in Minnesota). But the Housleys don’t actually need to be doing this at all, at least not in a something-left-to-prove way. Phil, 54, is already a hockey legend. His 21-year career as an NHL defenseman, which began with the Sabres in 1982 and included seven more teams, has earned him a spot in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Karin Housley, who just turned 55, is already successful too. She was a television news producer in the '80s, when Phil played in Buffalo, and later wrote a book on investing for women, started a successful real estate company, and became a columnist. Today, Karin is in her seventh year as a state senator in Minnesota, where she has become a champion for elder care. That is largely driven by her own family’s experiences. Years ago, when both of her parents were alive, a relative financially exploited nearly $90,000 from them, and was sent to jail. That motivated her work as a legislator, as did her mother’s 12-year battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
(Jeanette Locke, Karin’s mother, died only a few days after this conversation, her family at her side. “My mom is free from her Alzheimer’s and dancing in heaven with my dad,” Housley tweeted.)
Karin and Phil have four grown children, each of whom seems to have found a place in the world, and a large house on the water in Minnesota that they’re soon swapping for a smaller house near their grandchildren.
They could stop, or at least aim a little lower, and avoid emotional aches like frustrated fans tweeting for your firing, or more than half of the voters casting a ballot for the other candidates.
But they don’t. They won't.
“There will be more failures,” Karin Housley said, her feet tucked beneath her, facing her husband. She smiled brightly. There was a hint of a laugh in her voice.
“There will be more failures,” she repeated, “and then you just get back up and keep going and find out what your next success can be.”
The Housleys communicate from a distance when they’re both at work, which is most of the time, or here on this couch if they’re together, which is when Phil has home games and Karin isn’t in legislative session.
Today they’re talking about the highs and lows of the year and a half, which is how long it’s been since they returned to Buffalo for Phil’s first NHL head coaching job. He starts listing them.
“Obviously, the 10-game win streak was exciting,” Housley said, referring to a stretch in November during which his young team, which finished last in the league the previous years, was dominant. “It was exciting for the city, it was exciting for our group.”
The streak was followed by five consecutive losses, and the Sabres’ fortunes have been mixed since then. Today, the team is fighting for a final playoff spot. If Sabres do make the playoffs, it will be the first time they’ve qualified since 2011.
“We’re facing a little adversity now, because of the expectations that grew off of that (streak),” Housley said. “But I’m still really proud of the group in the room.”
Phil’s work is hockey and with him being away from their home in Minnesota for all but a couple of summer months, he lives the sport. His assistant coach Steve Smith, who also played with Housley in Calgary in the late '90s, told The News a few weeks ago that Housley did “all he could do to change the culture” coming into the Sabres. But the work of transforming a losing team into a young and aspirational one is vigorous. “He’s really prepared,” Smith said. “He’s a hard-working guy, and he’s here early morning and he’s here late night. He takes pride in the little details.”
That all-consuming job means that as Housley keeps on listing highlights, most of which have to do with family, he’s largely talking from afar: They have two grandsons through their eldest daughter Taylor, who runs the real estate business, and her husband Jeremy. Their son Wilson recently became the head coach of a junior hockey team in Thief River Falls, Minn. (During the Sabres’ bye week last month, Phil visited the team and told them, “Guys, I’m really happy to see you play tonight. I didn’t come all the way from Buffalo for a loss, so make sure you dig in a little deeper.” They won, 2-1.)
Their daughter Reide has a job she loves in Florida, and is getting married in June. Their youngest daughter, Avery, who calls during the conversation but quickly excuses herself (“Hi! I love you! Bye!”) when she realizes her parents are with a guest, is taking a semester off from college in North Dakota to focus on her business, which is selling books.
Phil looks to Karin. “The highs for me is her constant being the rock of our family, but also putting her name in the hat and taking a risk, something that she was very passionate about: the U.S. Senate race,” he says. “She worked tremendously hard. I was very proud of her, even though she didn’t get the result we all wanted …
“So, just in a nutshell, that’s what I think the highs were.”
“And then there was the low,” Karin interjects. They both laugh. They both laugh a lot together.
“Yeah,” Phil acknowledged. “But you’ve got to be proud of the numbers. The amount of votes she got is quite remarkable.”
In her race against appointed incumbent Tina Smith, a Democrat, Housley got nearly 1.1 million votes. Smith, who was appointed to the Seat earlier in 2018 after it was vacated by Al Franken in the midst of sexual misconduct allegations, won with just under 1.4 million votes.
A Housley victory was always a longshot — no Republican has won statewide office in Minnesota since 2006. But when Housley decided to enter the race one year ago, she caught the attention of national Republicans as an “aggressive fundraiser,” said Chris Grant, a Buffalo- and Washington, D.C.-based GOP operative who was the campaign’s general consultant. Housley raised nearly $5 million in the space of year, and most after June, which Grant calls “a Herculean task.”
The money spent on campaign advertising and Housley’s travels to campaign spots paid off in name recognition. Her campaign’s data suggests that the majority of Minnesotans now know who she is.
Smith’s victory gives her two years to fill out Franken’s term. The seat is up again in 2020, a presidential election year. Republican leaders, believing that President Trump’s candidacy may lure more conservative voters to the polls, think that Housley would benefit from that turnout and are hoping she will run again.
“She showed in 2018 that she knows how to put a race together, and she put a better race together in half the time than a lot of candidates, and raised more money,” Grant said, calling her “an incredibly strong candidate in 2020.”
Now Housley has to decide whether she wants to be that candidate. When Phil Housley was first hired by the Sabres, Karin had been mulling a run for the Minnesota governorship. She initially decided to shelve the idea so she could spend more time in Buffalo, support her husband, and become part of the Sabres’ presence in the community. Early in Phil’s first season, though, she acknowledged she was still considering a gubernatorial run.
By late 2018, when it was apparent Franken would be resigning, she switched plans and decided to take her shot. That meant as Phil was working through a frustrating and disappointing first season (the team won only 25 of its 82 games), Karin could only listen from a distance. "For me to be helpless to do anything, just to listen to Phil talk, how hard that was on him and then me being so super busy, that was tough,” she said. “But we made it through that.”
If she runs again, the campaign will be longer and likely more intense. This one had its bad moments, including the revelation in October of a 2009 post from her personal Facebook page in which Karin Housley critiqued the posture of Michelle Obama, comparing it to a chimpanzee. Critics called her words racist; Housley countered by saying the post, which was part of a conversation with her sister, was referring to something her mother used to tell them to get them to stand up straight.
If she decides to run, Housley will need to be ready for more criticism, more travel and more distance. She seems willing to do that if she can envision an electoral path to victory — something that is difficult, at best, given the heat of today’s politics.
“I’m still listening and weighing and seeing where things go politically, if the numbers are there. I am really proud of the million voters I did get, but I’m going to need more than that — and are they physically there in Minnesota?” she says. “That’s what I’m looking at.”
Phil is publicly supportive of his wife’s ambitions. He appeared – smiling but silent – in a hockey-themed campaign commercial, and wore a red “Make America Skate Again” cap on the campaign trail. On Election Day he chartered a plane home to Minnesota after a Sabres practice so he could stand by Karin’s side that night, and was back in Buffalo early the next morning. But he fastidiously avoids political talk outside a tight circle of friends, and he resists prognosticating on a 2020 Senate run. “I think she ran a great campaign,” Phil said. “I just don’t know if it’s doable. That’s all I’m going to say about it. I think it’s just a tough ticket. So, that’s why we’re going to talk about it.”
While Karin’s next big shot is open-ended, his focus is singular: Building the still-young Sabres into a Stanley Cup contender. Housley knows that 10-game win streak created expectations of greatness — expectations he has, too, but is tempering with patience to allow his young team to grow. He knows fans have questioned his job status; it’s the sports equivalent of political criticism: Take the job, or run for the office, and be ready to hear the bad stuff.
“You know at some point, something is going to be charging at you,” he said. “So what do we do? We talk about it. We listen to each other. We vent to each other.”
At one point, Karin Housley asked the question that seemed to need asking: "Why don’t we rest on our laurels?”
“We’re too young,” Phil said.
“Yeah, we’re too young,” Karin says. “We will someday, right?”
“Oh yeah,” Phil said, his voice emphatic. “I mean, there’s going to be a point where we want to enjoy the grandkids, we want to travel, spend some really meaningful time together.”
But that day will have to wait. Both Housleys have work to do.