BOSTON, MA -- Some have been doing it almost their entire professional lives, while others joined later.
The one thing USPHL coaches have in common, however, is their dedication to the mission of making young men into better hockey players and better people.
That is certainly clear from talking to the coaches we reached out to for this article, who come from each level of the USPHL’s junior ranks and the 18U and 16U Divisions, as well.
Read on, as the coaches at the helm of some of the USPHL’s best teams talk about how they got their start, about their philosophies on coaching, and what they like most about coaching within the USPHL, the nation’s largest amateur hockey organization.
“I don’t think I ever decided to become a coach, it just happened.”
These are the words of one of the most successful junior hockey coaches in the United States, the New Jersey Hitmen’s head coach Toby Harris. He played for the great Jerry York at Boston College, before embarking on a pro career cut short by concussions. It was while he was still a player that he caught the coaching bug, eventually leading to him to becoming a co-founder of the Hitmen in 2004, and their head coach since 2007.
“My first ‘coaching’ job was at Exeter Academy Summer Camps. I began in the summer of 1997, and worked those camps for over a decade. It was an eight-week sleepaway camp with four two-week sessions,” said Harris. “After my playing career was ended prematurely, I could not get the game out of my system. I turned down jobs on Wall Street to work hockey camps, do skills sessions, and coach spring/summer AAA select teams.
“This game was in my blood and I was lucky to get the opportunity to do it full time,” added Harris. “I love my job. I love going to work, and I love competing every day.”
Justin Quenneville is seen here coaching the Metro Jets' USPHL Premier squad during their trip to the Bauer Cup tournament in China back in October. Courtesy Photo / Metro Jets
Another player whose injury ended up being serendipitous was Tony Horacek, a former Philadelphia Flyer and Chicago Blackhawk (1989-95), now head coach of the Palmyra Black Knights in the USPHL 16U Division.
An eye injury brought his playing career to a close. That same 1997-98 season, however, he was hired full-time by the Utah Grizzlies of the former International Hockey League, to be an assistant coach under Bob Bourne and former NHL head coach Butch Goring.
“I wanted to stay involved with the team, I still loved the sport and being a part of the success of the whole, and was fortunate enough to have been offered an assistant coaching position,” said Horacek, currently head coach of the Palmyra Black Knights’ USPHL 16U squad.
It was actually two years earlier that he got his first exposure to coaching, as a player-coach for the Indianapolis Ice (also of the IHL).
“I remember it being very challenging, exhilarating and fun when winning - not so much when not winning,” added Horacek.
The decision to turn to coaching was made very suddenly for Metro Jets (USPHL Premier) head coach Justin Quenneville. He was preparing for another playing season with the pro Corpus Christi Ice Rays, when their GM called him and asked him if he wanted to join the Ice Rays’ junior team as a coach.
“I was in my last year of a professional playing contract and knew I only had a few good years left in the tank,” said Quenneville. “I loved it down in Texas and the city was awesome. When [GM Pat Dunn] asked me if I had any interest in getting into coaching with the [junior] team, I was sold. Most people don’t get an opportunity to start at a high level and for a top organization.”
A few coaches started in the high school game before joining the junior ranks, including Garrett Strot, who is head coach of both the Premier and Elite teams for the Tampa Bay Juniors.
“I've always played hockey and started skating at age 4. When I was done playing college hockey, I just got right into coaching at my alma mater Osseo High School in Minnesota,” said Strot. “I started helping the JV team and remembered how much I enjoyed working with the players. I was then JV head coach for three years and then varsity head coach for 14 years.”
Rich Alger is a first-year head coach in the NCDC, running the bench for the Boston Bandits. He also got into coaching through the high school route, and it’s an experience he still draws on today.
“When I was done playing in college [at Boston University], a local high school coach asked me to help him on a volunteer basis,” said Alger. “I told him I’d come once a week to help out and I ended up coming that first day and stayed with him every day for six or seven years.
“Coaching with the Cape Cod Tech/Chatham High co-op team, we had a lot of different types of kids from different social backgrounds, a lot of hard-luck kids. That was a crash course in how to manage personalities. So much of what coaches do on a daily basis is finding what buttons to push with players, what motivates them, what shuts them off, and how to get the most of your guys. Those first coaching years with [head coach] Bill Jacques were hugely formative.”
It also taught him that a coach always need to be the best prepared person on the ice.
“I remember the first practice I ever ran for [Cape Cod Tech], because I ran out of drills inside of 20 minutes,” said Alger. “It was that first humbling moment of knowing that playing and coaching are totally different.”
The Jersey Shore Whalers have had a great start to the USPHL 18U season, going 11-2 in league play and being ranked among the top half of 18U AAA programs nationwide. Whalers head coach Stan Gutt has been a Midget or high school coach since 2000, and said that he believes the most important aspect of coaching is to continue learning the game.
“My view of the game has not changed much, but my knowledge of the game grows daily. I feel the main change from being a player to a coach is preparation. Coaches need to be prepared for every situation, either on or off the ice,” said Gutt. “As a coach you try and prepare your team as best you can, but you yourself cannot execute what you are teaching. That is what drives us coaches to coach.”
Nic Cota is one of the younger coaches in the USPHL, running the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs’ USPHL Elite team. Born in 1993, he played three years of junior hockey and then at the University of Southern Maine. He coached at Portland High School in Maine before joining the Florida Panthers as a member of their Junior Panthers program.
In Florida, he held the title of “Hockey Coach/Mentor.” He himself had a mentor in Florida in Jack Capuano, current assistant coach for the NHL’s Panthers. This season, Cota has coached the Monarchs’ Elite team to a 20-3 record through the end of 2018.
“My coaching philosophy is a combination of everything I have learned from my past experiences, and the coaches I’ve played for. I coach a fast style of play - moving the puck North,” said Cota. “Work ethic, commitment, and leadership are an important part of my coaching style. I want my players to be great young men on and off the ice. I want them to represent themselves, their families, and the Monarchs to the best of their ability.”
Finding the players who can fulfill a team’s mission statement like the one above is a full-time job in itself. This is especially true for a program that has the stature of the New Jersey Hitmen’s NCDC team.
“My view and knowledge of the game has changed drastically since I started, but my core values in terms of what I look for in a player, that player’s character and the type of person that he is has not changed and never will,” said Harris. “We recruit players that are serious about this game and serious about what it takes to become the better person and best player. My coaching philosophy is simple: come to the rink prepared. For the five or six hours you are here daily, your focus is on development, staying sharp and making gains.”
Horacek always draws on his NHL and pro experience when he thinks about the game of hockey - he was trained by some of the best, including Stanley Cup-winning coaches Ken Hitchcock and Darryl Sutter. His challenge is to translate that knowledge to young 16U players within the Palmyra program.
“Playing the sport builds a first-hand intimacy and understanding of what a successful room feels like,” said Horacek. “As a coach, your are responsible for the success of the whole, not just yourself. [You also understand] that without developing your players on a daily basis in an environment that challenges them consistently, you will not have growth nor wins. The two are indirectly correlated with each other."
In 2013, Quenneville joined his wife, who got a great job offer in Michigan, in the move north from Texas. He became the head coach of the Metro Jets that year.
“I always was a student of the game. I will never forget my first video session way back when video wasn’t really a thing coaches did. The game has changed so much in the last 10 years, and coaches need to evolve with it,” said Quenneville. “Everything is focused around speed and skill now. We focus 100 percent on development. People would be surprised to know that our philosophy does not preach winning hockey games or championships, whatsoever.
“We are a selfish program and deal in the industry of selfish players. Yes, every player in junior hockey is selfish about their goals and opportunities. Other coaches will be honest and admit that,” Quenneville added. “Instead of preaching coming together as a group, we teach better habits, skills and decision-making on the ice from Day 1. The goal is to see the players progress, learn through repetitions and expose that IQ in games."
Strot, who joined the Tampa Bay juniors six years ago, said that coaching made him so much more aware of the “why” in terms of what is happening on the ice. He also agrees with Quenneville that coaches at this level shouldn’t be worried about the “W’s” - those typically come with better player development.
“Coaching makes you think of why you are doing things a certain way, whereas a player may just do it because their coach said to, without thinking ‘Why we are doing certain things?’” Strot added. “My philosophy is about developing the players. I always felt that if you make your players better, winning will be the byproduct.”
Alger, of the Bandits, remembers very well playing junior hockey in New England with the Boston Junior Bruins, back when they and the Springfield Pics were the only two junior teams in the area.
“I’m a big proponent of junior hockey. I played for the very first Junior Bruins team and it was a great model even back then,” said Alger. “I like the practice time, I like the fact we’re able to train a few times a week off the ice. I feel like that is all a part of what we as a league in the USPHL can offer.
“The level of play in the USPHL is always humbling - regardless of where you happen to be in the standings, whatever week and whomever you’re playing, if you don’t show up, you won’t win,” Alger added.
Gutt agrees about the USPHL as a whole featuring tough draws every weekend, forcing the hand of coaches to be on their toes in terms of preparation and player development.
“I feel, from top to bottom, the USPHL 18U Division is one of the best in the country,” Gutt said. “All the coaches seem to come prepared, and if you don’t bring your A game, any team can beat the other in this league.”
Being part of a multi-tiered organization like the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs, Cota has seen all of the different junior levels of the USPHL this year.
“I have been very impressed with the level of play throughout the USPHL. The NCDC level has surprised me the most, as I feel it is a very high level of hockey,” Cota said. “The Premier league is a competitive level and I hope to see that league continue to produce NCAA-caliber players. The USPHL Elite is a great entry level league for young players to develop their skills in order to continue moving up the ladder.”
“The coaching in the NCDC is top notch. Every coach in this league cares,” added the Hitmen’s Harris, about the top, tuition-free junior level. “They care about their players. They care about winning. They care about development. It is not easy to win in this league because the coaching staffs come to the rink so well prepared for what’s ahead.”
Hitmen games are just one segment of a fully regimented and diverse schedule of development that Harris and assistant coach Jim Hunt, a former NCAA Division 1 head coach, put them through each week.
“A week in the life of a Hitman is pretty intense,” said Harris. “We skate five days a week - including Monday with our power skating coach and Friday with our skills coach. On top of that, we have three team lifts a week, two yoga sessions as well as boxing and team video. We spend about 22-25 hours per week training our players.”
Horacek gets his Palmyra 16U team together on the ice three times a week, and there’s also a gym session once per week and video session every other week, a demanding schedule for players still in high school eight hours a day. It’s all necessary, because Horacek knows each weekend’s battles will be equally grueling for 51 minutes.
“The USPHL 16U level has some very good teachers, coaches and programs throughout,” he added.
Along with an intense development program, the Metro Jets’ Quenneville also builds in a winning mentality to the weekly schedule.
“We believe in taking one week at a time and the approach of coming to the rink and getting better everyday. This is a better way for them to learn how to win rather than us teach them how,” Quenneville added. “To say it lightly, these kids are treated like pros. We give them the tools, and the ones that use them succeed faster.”
Tampa Bay’s Strot has a similar type of schedule, but it’s times two, as he coaches both the Premier and Elite Division teams. Plyometrics, skill sessions, video - it’s all part of the week working up to the (typically) Saturday and Sunday games.
“Coaching both teams makes for long days, but it is definitely worth it,” added Strot.
Long hours at the rink, time away from their own family and the mental and physical toll of a season are all part of the sacrifices these coaches make. In the end, they don’t do it for themselves - they do it to make young men into better players and better people.
“The biggest thing for me personally,” said the Bandits’ Rich Alger, “is I kind of err on the side of doing the right thing by the kids. We’ve asked our kids to put faith in us in Bridgewater, taking them from their homes and families. We do the best we can with the guys we have recruited. We coach them, train them and put them in the best positions to succeed and be promoted to higher levels of hockey."
“Maybe it’s me being a father,” he added, “but you think of how you would want your own kid to be treated.”
Stan Gutt, Jersey Shore Whalers 18U head coach.
Nic Cota is thrilled to get the chance to be a rookie head coach in the USPHL, running the New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs' USPHL Elite squad. Courtesy Photo / New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs
Toby Harris and longtime assistant coach and mentor Jim Hunt worth the New Jersey Hitmen bench during an NCDC game. Courtesy Photo / New Jersey Hitmen