Commentary: Stories from coaches in the conference finals

So we head to the conference finals. When you’re a part of national college hockey broadcasts for nine years you build up some friendships with programs and coaches along the way. I could probably type a page on every coach in the conference championships and some personal story I have gathered along the way.

Here, I picked one from each league, hoping to bring out something about each you might not have known.

The mayor

A few years ago I used to joke with Chris Bergeron that if he ever got out of coaching he could run the Oxford, Ohio, Chamber of Commerce or be the city’s unofficial Yellow Pages. I actually nicknamed him Yellow Pages because any time we at CBS Sports Network were doing a game at Miami and needed something he knew where to send us.

When Shireen Saski needed her nails done, he knew (well, Mrs. B did) where to send her. When I forgot my tie, he knew where the Men’s Warehouse was. Needed this, needed that, he knew where to go and usually knew the person who owned the store. It was actually funny after a while.

Fast forward to September 2010. En route to Miami from Detroit with a scouting stop in between, I met Berge at Tim Horton’s by the campus of Bowling Green. Not surprising, he knew not only where it was but some other choices depending on breakfast needs.

Then, after only two months on the job and no games played yet he proceeded to explain to me what was needed at BG. He went player by player, situation by situation and challenge by challenge. The detail to which he had assessed his situation was impressive. Now, two years and an improbable run by the Falcons through the CCHA playoffs later, it is amazing how dead-on he was.

I wrote a USCHO column on BG last season and the theme from Bergeron was that success is a lifestyle and not a part-time pursuit. It is what he lived as a pro player and espoused as an assistant at Miami. It meant that being a first-line center, being a star player, being a future NHL player was about a commitment to being a certain type of person off the ice and on. It meant buying into the hard work demanded, the hours needed to assimilate the mental, physical, and emotional skills, and the ability to take the player you were and put that behind you to be the player you wanted to be. It meant that what you did off ice was as important as what you did on it.

I wouldn’t say I talk to Berge regularly, but we do talk occasionally. The message he has preached has not stopped and I’ve enjoyed the player-by-player updates I get from him on who he has brought in. Bergeron took over a program that wasn’t healthy and started with the little things. Culture changes, mind-set adjustments and “the process” became the new stimuli and in two years things have changed.

The best compliment he got was after a late-season game at home against Michigan in front of a raucous crowd, one of Michigan’s veteran players said to him on the handshake line, “This is incredible, Berge. You really built something here.”

He’s not even close to being done.

The jokester

I went to scout a game between Mercyhurst and Canisius at Buffalo State last season. Rick Gotkin is the Mercyhurst head coach, and he is one of my favorites. There might not be a funnier guy in college hockey (though John Kyle and Rob Facca are right up there as well).

So I go into the rink at 6 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game and go to say hello to Rick and the staff. Assistant Bobby Ferraris and I coached against each other in junior hockey (he actually knocked me out of the playoffs once) and equipment manager Mike Folga is someone I knew from my days covering the New York Rangers.

There is Folgs doing his thing, players are doing what they should, but there is no staff. “Where are they?” I asked. “It’s an hour to game time.”

Turns out there is a Starbucks right near campus and the group took the bus to go get coffee. Rick and the gang get off the bus to go in and order, leaving one player on board who was sick. The staff comes out five minutes later, no bus. Fifteen minutes, no bus. They knew the driver was going to turn around but hadn’t come back. Gotkin calls the player on board to ask where they are as it is 6:10 now. The player says the “driver couldn’t find a place to make a U-turn or get turned around; they went halfway to Buffalo to do so but will be right back.”

Gotkin told me this story as he got back with lattes, coffees and teas in hand. Telling me this as only he could in his still detectable New York accent and mannerisms, I was rolling. All I could say was, “No one thought to travel the coffee maker?”

Gotkin has done a great job at Mercyhurst. It is a program in a small area but yet managed to get a really nice new facility built that houses programs for the men’s team and also the successful women’s program under Mike Sisti. The Lakers are a team that believes in a fast-paced game and that is how Gotkin recruits. He wants skill and speed wherever he can find it. He led his group to a 20-15-4 record this season.

He is an excellent teacher, an upbeat coach and a tremendous human being. He has gotten Mercyhurst to the tournament before, once facing Michigan in an opening-round game. As he told it to me, “So I’m standing there on the bench and I’m looking at the Michigan bench and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I’m about to coach against Red Berenson. Wonder if he is looking at our bench and thinking, ‘Wow, I’m about to coach against Rick Gotkin?'”

Only Rick.

The wizard

Nate Leaman is a tremendous coach. When you look back at what he built at Union, what he has done as an assistant at places like Harvard and Maine, and in his time with the U.S. teams that have played in the World Junior Championship you have to be impressed.

In his first year at Providence, he has what had been an “also-ran” program 120 minutes away from winning the Hockey East playoff championship.

In a conversation with Leaman before a game they played on the CBS Sports Network this season at New Hampshire, Leaman said something that I thought about as they were knocking out Massachusetts-Lowell. His seniors had never been to the Hockey East playoffs and that the group in the room was committed to changing that this season. Now, they were going to experience playing at TD Garden.

No one started out with the challenges that Leaman did when he took over. He literally started from square one in many ways, but never backed down. Sorting through personnel, he faced the challenge of changing a culture that was built by the former coach Tim Army while his son Derek Army was still in the program.

Early on, Derek Army came to Leaman and said he was all-in and not to worry about him. He wanted to win, he wanted to be a part of the team and he wanted to be a leader. Once early in the season, after PC lost a real tight game, Leaman was in his office and Derek Army came to see him. Nate was taking the loss hard, and as all coaches do, would take this one home and think about it as he prepared for the next game the following night.

“So Derek comes in and just wants to check on me,” Leaman said. “He is a son of a coach, he knows how much these losses bother a coach and he came in to just offer words of encouragement and almost take the blame for losing. It was when I knew that the leaders were emerging and the group was going to be accountable.”

If there was ever a powder keg situation it could have been this one, but the Army-Leaman combo has worked for PC and Derek has been terrific. While the on-ice guys have helped, the off-ice guys have also. Alums have been made a big part of the program and Leaman regularly talks with them. When he got the job, two who called to say hello and offer words of support were two pretty big alums in Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke and New Jersey Devils GM/president Lou Lamoriello, who have four Stanley Cups between them.

“That was pretty cool; those were my first two calls,” Leaman said. “That set the tone right there to get the alumni involved because there is such a tradition and history of hockey at Providence College. Now the alums get a weekly update and they email back letters of support. We post those emails in the hallway leading to the dressing room for the players to see. It has made an impact.”

What has also made an impact is getting the seniors during the summer to work with the freshmen to get them assimilated to the school, the grind and the culture that is now Providence hockey.

Leaman has made the biggest impact and there is no sign of it being a flash in the pan. PC in the Hockey East postseason is here to stay for the future.

The classic

Mike Schafer is a classic.

The Cornell coach is a walking quote machine both on and off the record. He has a dry sense of humor combined with straight-ahead candor when talking about his team, his opponent or college hockey. Above all, he is a great gatekeeper of the history and integrity of the game.

I first met Schafer nine years ago at the Florida College Classic as the Big Red, Maine, Ohio State and Notre Dame were set to play in the tourney. I go into the coaches’ office and there is Schafer with his hand in a cast. Asking what happened (I was thinking a ski accident during the break) he says, “I broke my hand punching the glass behind the bench in a recent game. I just got really annoyed and smashed the glass. This is what happened.”

This is the same guy who someone had told me earlier that season had come out with his stick blade on fire before his senior season game against Harvard at Lynah Rink. I’m thinking this guy is absolutely nuts.

Nine years later there are few I admire more and one of the reasons is his consistency. Most coaches are pretty consistent in their beliefs in what they are doing, but Schafer is different. Through the many one-on-one chats or conference calls with the broadcast crew the week we do a Cornell game, Schafer has preached a very similar message. It is that hockey is a simple game, don’t complicate it, and be prepared to outwork your opponent. The other is that he team has been mislabeled.

“We are not just a defensive team. We can play offense also and we look for skill guys who can score,” Schafer told me during a discussion earlier this season before his team played at Yale. “I think we get a bad rap on that, that we are this big plodding team that just pounds you. Hey, we’ll pound you, but we do a lot of skill development and we go after skill guys when we recruit.”

One skill guy he had credits Schafer for the post-NCAA success he had in his career. That is Ryan Vesce. The diminutive Vesce was pure skill and speed who played most of his pro career in Europe but was an outstanding collegian, finishing his career at Cornell on a line with Matt Moulson and Byron Bitz and playing the left point on the top power-play unit.

“I came in with skill, but Schafer taught me how to play without the puck, and that was a huge part of the pro game, especially in Europe,” Vesce said in a chat we had a few years ago. “He is a great teacher. He encourages you to use your skill, but he demands you play well away from the puck and few guys teach you how to do that better than him. He does a great job preparing you for life after hockey either as a player or in life.”

When you look at Moulson of the Islanders you see one of the skill guys that has come through the program. Then there is Ryan O’Byrne, who is a big defenseman who can play physical and move the puck. There are a few Cornellians around the NHL. And one, Dallas Stars general manager Joe Nieuwendyk, was just enshrined into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

One story about Cornell comes to mind from this season. It is the Friday morning after former Cornell goalie Ben Scrivens just won his NHL debut for Toronto, and the Big Red are all fired up. We are staying at the same hotel in New Haven as Cornell, and I’m in the gym. The fire alarm goes off (it’s about 9:30 a.m.) and they have to evacuate the building. By the time I got out of the gym, climbed 11 stories back to my room (elevator shut down) to get a jacket and my wife, then walked 11 back down to the lobby the alarm is off.

Shireen Saski, Ben Holden and myself — the broadcast team that night — are in the lobby at about noon to chat with a few of the Cornell players to get some game notes when Schafer arrives from a run. We joke about the fire alarm. With a “cat that just ate the canary” look on his face, Schafer tried not to laugh as he explained what happened.

“Sorry about that, that was us,” he said. “At the team breakfast someone burned an omelette and it set off the fire alarm. Our bad.”

The piece of work

Scott Sandelin is a piece of work. Great guy, great competitor, great coach. The best part of the Minnesota-Duluth coach is his ability to be a regular guy.

Sandelin is one of many coaches that comes from the Dean Blais foundation of coaches from their playing days at North Dakota. There is a good chance he and fellow NoDak alum Jason Herter run into their NoDak brethren from Grand Forks this weekend as the connection to the Fighting Sioux staff is pretty strong.

Sandelin has won a national title as a head coach and an assistant coach. Sitting in the lobby of the McDonald Hotel in Edmonton, Alberta, during the World Juniors, I asked him about his string of titles.

“It’s funny because North Dakota won a national title the year before I got there and the year after I left,” said Sandelin. “One year it was Eddie Belfour coming in and Tony Hrkac coming back, pretty good timing for [Gino] Gasparini and Dean [Blais], lousy for me. Before I got there they had a few good ones, five or six who played in the NHL.”

That team in 1981-82 — the year before Sandelin arrived — was loaded, featuring Phil Sykes, Troy Murray, Cary Eades, Gord Sherven, James Patrick, Rick Zombo and the combo of Jon Casey and Darren Jensen in goal. In 1987, led by Belfour’s 29-4 record, the team won a title with Hrkac and Bobby Joyce putting up 98 goals and 205 points combined. Teams don’t score that much in a single season any more.

Sandelin’s sense of humor was on display that afternoon in Edmonton following Team USA’s 11-3 pasting of Denmark in the opening game. While spirits were good, Sandelin was irked as he ran the penalty kill that went 0-for-3 vs the Danes. I brought it up light heartedly, asking what adjustments need to be made.

“Probably killing one tomorrow night, that would be a 100 percent improvement, literally,” he said.

If you ever want to talk hockey, learn about the game and have a laugh or two in the process, Sandelin is your guy.

Final note: Sandelin’s Minnesota-Duluth team is trying to become the first back-to-back national champs since Denver did it in 2004 (the famous 91-second penalty kill while down six-on-three) and 2005 (beating North Dakota in Columbus in the all-WCHA Frozen Four). Denver did it on the heels of Minnesota’s wins in 2002 and 2003, beating UNH and Maine (tying the 2002 game against Maine in the final minute and winning in OT).