There’s a new man in charge in Schenectady, New York, these days. Well, “new” if you consider that it is his first head coaching position in college hockey — not so new if you know that he had been the top assistant at Union for the last five years.
Kevin Sneddon, named Union head coach on August 16, took over the reins of a Skating Dutchmen program that is still only seven years into its Division I existence. Sneddon’s elevation came just four days after Stan Moore resigned to return to Colgate as an assistant. It’s been a long journey for the “new” head coach of the Dutchmen.
Sneddon, 28, became the youngest head coach at the ECAC Division I level when he was named. He has spent his entire coaching career at Union, following a stellar career as a defenseman at Harvard where he was a member of the 1989 NCAA championship team and a captain in his senior year.
The next fall he was an assistant at Union, but before that, there were decisions to be made.
“It was a harsh reality because I was drafted by the [NHL’s] L.A. Kings and I had planned on playing somewhere professionally for a few years — in the minors, or elsewhere,” said Sneddon about going into coaching. “I actually had dreams of going over to Europe to play hockey. Two weeks into training camp I had to have back surgery, so I really suffered that way. So I came back home to Canada and I had to come up with a position. Did I want to go back to play hockey or just let it go? It was a tough decision to drop the game.”
He went back to his native Ontario and started a career that did not involve hockey, but he soon found that he missed the game and began looking for a way to get back in.
“I owe a lot to [current Harvard head coach] Ronn Tomassoni. He just grabbed me one time and said, ‘Hey you’d be great at coaching. Why don’t you give it a try and go down to the convention and interact with the coaches and see if there are any opportunities?’ Fortunately there [were].
“It wasn’t like I graduated and I wanted to get into coaching. There was a void, and [Tomassoni] pointed me in the right direction. We got the ball rolling.
“I was interested in coaching, but I didn’t know it at the time.”
Sneddon and former teammate (and current GM of the IHL’s Orlando Solar Bears) John Weisbrod went down to the American Hockey Coaches Association convention and looked for opportunities.
“When I went down to the convention there were about five job opportunities,” Sneddon recalls. “There used to be a place where they would post the opportunities. Union was the only full-time coaching position available. They had one open for first and second assistant. I was interviewing for the second position and when it came interview time, I came down here and I was offered the position. I got a salary raise and a promotion to the first position even before I started here and that was awesome. [Then-head coach] Bruce Delventhal had a lot of faith in me.
“I looked at it as a challenge, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be, [but] I knew there was going to be a challenge.”
The coaching career of Kevin Sneddon had begun. In retrospect, Sneddon feels that that is exactly where he belonged.
“I was always one of those players that was always very interested in the moves of a coach. I had Bill Cleary as a head coach and Tomassoni for the last couple. I always admired coaches for how they motivated players. I was interested in what went on behind closed doors and what the key decisions are for a team.
“Also being a captain at Harvard, I had pretty good communication with the coaching staff and it’s a lot of responsibility…so I had a good taste of it.
“I was also the recruiting guy at Harvard. Allain Roy and myself were always the hosts so I learned a little bit about the recruiting. Tomassoni would give me the different angles to hit the players, so I had a taste of it without even realizing it at the time. When I look back at it, I always was interested in coaching, I just didn’t know it until the opportunity came along.”
That opportunity has led him through five years at Union, and now, for the Dutchmen, a new era has begun — an era with a definite Sneddon taste to it.
“I believe in hard-nosed hockey. I believe that’s Union’s style and that’s the way I like to play it,” he said. “You have to look at what you have, and what we have is the type of player where we have to develop a system to fit them rather than have them fit into a system.
“Our playbook, generalized, is ‘Simple is better.’ I don’t want them to think too much out there on the ice, I want them to react and adhere to the general principles. We don’t have any pure goal-scorers. Those are usually your scholarship kids. We have to generate offense, but we have to take care of our own end first. Defense first, and then we’ll worry about offense later.
“It’s starting to come together.”
It is not a job that is envied by many. Union is one of just two non-Ivy League schools in the ECAC (the other is Colgate), that do not offer athletic scholarships. That makes recruiting difficult — and different — for the Dutchmen.
“It’s tough,” admits Sneddon, who was the chief recruiter as an assistant. “Colgate does have preferential aid, so they are essentially scholarship, whereas we work on loans and work-study, and if it’s down between Colgate and us because we’re similar, they’re going to beat us right off the bat because it’s at least a difference of $17,000 a year right there. We’re really on our own island.
“It is a battle, and we don’t go to battle with other teams for kids. We have to find the players that are not being recruited by other schools, or find the kids that are not being seriously recruited. We have to take them, make them believe they can do it, get them here and help them develop.
“If we put all of eggs in one basket, we’d be in trouble. We’d have to recruit a lot more players than, for example, a St. Lawrence would. They target 10 players; we have to target 50. So our phone lists are a lot longer than other schools because we have to have backup plans and backups to backups.
“It’s a matter of being organized and that’s where my assistants [John Micheletto and Kevin Patrick] come in. They get the picture. They want to stick their noses in on the top players, but they know nine times out of ten, the kid won’t even want to visit the school, and they understand that.”
Add in the recent increase in the number of Division I hockey schools, and the task is even tougher.
“We are discovering the hidden jewels, and it is getting tougher,” said Sneddon. “The MAAC will be a major force. A lot of those schools will give out scholarships and financial aid, and it’s just a matter of time before that league develops into a strong league. That’s going to take away more of our pool of recruits.
“The unfortunate thing these days is that money talks. There aren’t a lot of guys that are willing to pay for an education. That’s the cold harsh reality — if they can get a free ticket, they’re going to take it.”
It doesn’t just stop there for Sneddon. Once his recruits are in the fold, there is still a lot more work to be done.
“We’ve got to take players, bring them here, and then develop them. We have to have good coaches, and it’s not a knock against anyone else in the country, it’s just that we have to fine-tune players a lot more than a scholarship school would. We have players that want to improve and they have to want that.
“I’ve seen an increase not only in talent but in terms of the type of people that we attract here. We’re trying to attract the blue-collar type of hockey player that has been overlooked by other schools. They’ll come to Union because it is Division I, because it’s a great school and they have to have the attitude that they can prove everybody else wrong.”
Which brings us to Kevin Sneddon the coach. Once he has his team, how does he take what he has learned from the people with whom he has worked under, Bruce Delventhal and Stan Moore?
“Bruce was very much a disciplinarian and a lot of people knew about that. I took a lot of that from Bruce, every player has to be treated the same way. You have to be consistent with how you treat players, and with Stan I learned how to deal with people. He was so good with people, whether you were a fan, administrator or a player. He was very open to hear what they had to say and he took the time to talk to all of them.
“From a hockey standpoint I have my own ideas and I have taken from Bruce and Stan and myself and put it altogether. I am a player’s coach and the guys feel comfortable in coming to me. Today’s players are a little different these days than when I played; they have to be told what to do and what we expect from them. The days are gone of just slapping a lineup on the wall and if your name wasn’t on it, you just tried harder. They want to know what to do in order to get better. They’re not afraid to hear the truth — they want to hear it so they know what our expectations are.
“I have increased communication and I am a disciplinarian. I believe that everybody has to be beating to the same drum, and I’ve tried to gel our guys by putting them in those situations and getting them together. We won a national championship [at Harvard] and we had a lot of talent and we really gelled as a team. It wasn’t so much that guys were hanging out off the ice all the time, but when it came down to getting the job done, everybody was working together.
“That’s the thing that I am trying to preach here.
“You can accomplish a lot when you have 28 guys beating to the same drum, reaching for the same goal and putting aside their own individual goals for the team. I look back at my experience at Harvard and that’s one of the major things that it taught me.”
With a young team that finished 12th last season and is predicted to do it again this year by the ECAC coaches, there is no doubt that Sneddon will have his work cut out for him.
“First and foremost we have to make the playoffs. And I’ve got to be patient this year. We still have a young team, and we want them to learn from their mistakes and not do them over and over again. We want to gel as quickly as a team because it’ll be better off. That’s my goal for this year. Last year we started to gel at the end, and we’re starting to show signs right now.”
The “new” head coach of Union College has his work cut out for him, but he knows what he wants, and he knows what it will take to get there. “In five years here I have seen a lot go on. I’ve been through a few head coaches, I’ve seen rocky times, some tough seasons to great seasons, and there’s a lot I have seen in a short amount of time and I am comfortable with all my contacts on campus and with what we’re trying to do here.
“We have to get the team believing in themselves and learning how to win. We have to learn to play to win and not to lose, if we can accomplish that this year, we’ll have the bulk of players for the next three years. Our brightest days are definitely ahead of us.”