"I'm a hockey coach" - "But what's your real job?"

     I was at Trader Joes the other day, checking out with my weekly load of groceries – if you haven’t become enamored by Trader Joes on Kingston Pike yet, check it out – and when the cashier checked my ID and noticed that I was from Ontario, Canada, as usual…. a conversation ensued. She wondered what I was doing so far from home and in between helping her stuff my bag with several containers of dark chocolate almond cookies, I explained that I was the coach of the Knoxville Ice Bears. Her immediate and completely honest response was; “No, I mean your real job. What do you do for a living?”

     I suppose “I’m a hockey coach” not being sufficient enough as a legitimate occupation around here shouldn’t surprise me anymore, but it did give me a template for my next blog, which I recognize is a little on the tardy side for all 11 of my avid followers. A hockey coach is still a coach during the summer, and whether or not they are on the ice running practices or behind the bench during a game, there is a lot more that goes into the “job.”

     So what do I do in the off-season? What does the coach of a hockey team do when there aren’t any games and there isn’t even a sheet of ice at the Civic Coliseum?  Well, obviously the main focus of the off-season is to prepare and plan for the following season. I’m not going to try and tell you that I spend all day, every day watching video and planning out each road trip or practice for next year, but there are many things that have to fall into place well before practices, rosters and road trips can be considered.

     For example, this morning I chatted on the phone for about two hours with several different players. Three of them were prospective new Ice Bears and two of them were returning players discussing contract terms and the direction of our team. Speaking to players, both new and old, is a part of my job that I still really like and look forward to. Sometimes conversations become a little repetitive or redundant, but most of the time the individuals you’re talking with share the same drive and determination for success in the sport, and that usually makes for some good conversation. I’ve never been the type of guy who enjoys talking on the phone though – in fact, I actually dislike it to be honest – but if you want to make a connection with players or you want to get real answers from guys and decide whether or not they’re the kind of person and player you want within your organization, phone conversations are a necessity. Then again, sometimes that isn’t possible…. such was the case last summer with Mr Bradley Pawlowski who used to call me from a payphone up in Marathon, Ontario and if I didn't answer, well, that was that. Thankfully I started saving the funny looking number that came up and was able to answer a few times. And for those who are wondering, yes…. They do still have real payphones, though I can’t imagine how many quarters it took Plow to call from Northern Ontario to Knoxville, Tennessee.

     After a few hours of hockey chatter, I hit the world of electronic mail for some legwork. I call it legwork not because it involves my legs in any fashion, but because it’s the only real unenjoyable part of my day and yet it’s an extremely important part of it to stay in contact and facilitate all the things going on in the cyber world. The bottom line is that in our fast moving society these days, multi-tasking and electronic communication are just the preferred method of most people and you either embrace it or you get left behind. (Waaaah, I have to answer emails every day, waaaah, I have such a tough job.) I know, I know. Save it you guys. My e-mail inbox is usually quite full with a multitude of different subjects and needs. This morning, I had seventeen messages from players looking for training camp spots. Six messages from player agents trying to land jobs for their clients. A couple from fellow SPHL coach’s concerning some player transactions. Two messages from companies looking to have the Ice Bears try out some products this coming season (a new grip tape for sticks and some spray that guaranteed the elimination of smelly hockey glove hands). Eight messages from parents of children attending our upcoming Youth Hockey Camp. One e-mail from The Golf Warehouse.com trying to sell me a set of wedges, one from an online dating website that said I’d meet the love of my life within a month or my money back and to top it all off; forty three messages from my mother ranging in content from a new tomato sauce recipe to a story about my dog Wyatt hunting for bullfrogs up at the lake. By the time my 4-fingered typing system got through all the responses to my daily inbox content, it was time for a late lunch.

     After lunch it was time to spend some time looking into a few of the Ice Bear’s corporate partnerships. Being in the SPHL and in this market, our operating budget is nowhere near that of the Predators or even some other lower level professional organizations. The KIB employee roster is made up of 7 full-time employees (that includes me) on a year round basis and when you come down to a game next season and see all that goes into putting on the show we do 28 times a year, it comes from the work of those 7 individuals. As much as I’d love to just be a coach year round and worry only about players, games, goals, penalty killing, etc…. I recognize that being a member of this small staff means that we all have to chip in a little bit outside of what our job titles entail.

     Next it was back to the phone for a few recruiting-type calls as I touched base with some contacts about players and got a few scouting reports from my network of help around the hockey world. This chewed up another hour or so and led me into where I am now, which is in front of the computer again banging out this blog.

     So I can hear it now – “so you talk on the phone and send e-mails all day coach? What do you have to show for it?”

     Well, I definitely have some updates for you guys who are reading this due to an interest in the team that I coach. Leading into the off-season it looked like we had the potential to lose a lot of familiar faces and though there will still be some recognizable guys not on our roster come October, there has been some pleasant surprises in that area as well.

     As our front office released last week, Mark Van Vliet has decided to return for one more season. This was fantastic news for me when Mark let me know and it didn’t take us long to figure out a contract for him. Mark loves Knoxville and is engaged to be married to fiancĂ©’ Anna Fisher this coming October. The couple have plans to relocate back to Canada after the hockey season, but due to the length of time it takes after the marriage for Anna to become a Canadian citizen, it made sense for them to stick around here while all the paperwork was completed. Mark’s on-ice impact basically goes without saying as he will continue to set the bar for offensive production from a defenseman and his leadership and experience in our locker room can never really be measure. Mark loves to win, hates to lose and walks an emotional line when he plays the game…… that emotion helps keep his teammates accountable and I’m very happy to have that element back again.

     Once Vlieter signed for another year, the pieces started to fall in behind him. The day after we added Mark, I also signed his D partner Jeremy Klaver for another season as well. Jeremy is one of those guys who could easily be playing at a higher level and probably continuing to climb the ladder of professional hockey, but he has found a niche in Knoxville and values the commitment the organization has made to him over the uncertainty of being in the ECHL or elsewhere. The two of them together give us a defensive pairing at the top of our depth chart that will play big minutes and be counted on enormously. I think Mark and Jeremy give us the best puck moving, puck possession D-pairing in the league and I know exactly what I’ll be getting from them night in and night out.

     Since both Mark & Jer’ are offensive defensemen, it was time to add some balance to the back end. That balance was quickly established when the previously mentioned Brad Pawlowski re-signed with the Ice Bears. Getting Brad back means several things, most of which I don’t even have to reiterate. He’s one of the toughest players in the league, he plays a physical game and makes playing Knoxville not-so-fun for opponents. I’m going to be looking for more from Brad this year though, and heading into his 3rd season as a pro the expectations are going to be higher. I’m hoping Plow can stay healthy this year, play more minutes for us and continue to establish his cult-like following around this city. For anyone wondering; he has not cut his hair or beard since he left in April and could be cast in the next season of VIKINGS on the History Channel with his current look.

     Up front and in terms of our forwards, things have been going relatively slowly with regard to returning players. At the conclusion of last season I know there was a lot of speculation about David Segal’s career and whether or not he would be back. With a slew of continued injuries piling up, the health concerns were certainly warranted and I highly doubt many players at this level have put on more hard miles and endured more physical duress than Seags. That being said, David has indicated that he wants to play again and though pen hasn’t been put to paper yet with a contract agreement, I would guess that it’s only a matter of time before #28 is officially welcomed back for another year.

     Some of the other players from last season who I’ve been chatting with over the summer and are in the mix for new contracts to return to Knoxville are Jon Higgins, Nate Peterson, Peter Neal, Ben Souders and Brett Valliquette. These aren’t the only guys who are potential returnees, they’re just the only ones that I can really comment on informatively right now. We’ll have a handful of players attending ECHL or CHL camps and at this point in the summer that is their focus point. It’s hard to talk SPHL contract with a player who is dead set on making it elsewhere sometimes, so that is a slower process.

     As you can see, there is still a lot to fall into place and number of holes in our roster that are going to require filling. We’ll be a different looking team, especially with our group of forwards and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Change is good and I’ll continue to look for the right pieces to help make us a better hockey team than we were and one that will help us continue to work towards our 4th championship.

     Too many times I think people look for mass changes when goals aren’t accomplished and I will admit to having the same thoughts in the moments immediately after defeat, but that’s not always the case. I think it’s important to remember that you have to maintain the pieces and assets that helped you have success as well as eliminate the pieces that held you back. How many times have sports teams “got rid of” certain guys and then found themselves in need of that exact type of player during the next season. As fans and as the coach, we have to remember what players made us good in certain areas and not just what we were missing.

      So change is good…. Yes. But a complete overhaul isn’t what this group needs right now. The Ice Bears were a great team last season that came up short and we are going to return a solid core and the changes will come in the supporting staff that gets added to that core.

     I hope everyone is having a great summer, as we’re pretty much at the halfway point of the off-season and hockey season will be upon us before you know it. Please come and join us this weekend on Saturday from 11-2 down at the Coliseum for our 2nd annual Fan Fest and Open House. We’ll have some ball hockey set up for the kids, some deep discounted merchandise from last season, locker room tours and then the unveiling of our new 2013-2014 jerseys, which look fantastic. Actually, they may be my favorite design in 12 seasons.

     Also, don’t forget the Ice Bears Youth Camp which will kick off Monday morning out at Cool Sports. We’ve had a great surge of registration the past few weeks and I’m excited to see all the kids out there joining myself, Vlieter, Seags, Jamie Ronayne and Steven Barnard on the ice. There is still time to register your child if you’re interest, just send me an e-mail and we’ll get it taken care of.
Hope to see you guys this weekend,


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