Editor’s note: In Part 2 of a three-part series looking at the lives of NCAA Division I men’s hockey assistant coaches, a look at how recruiting has become a year round job, and the toll that takes on assistant coaches. Part 1 of the series — which covers the challenges faced by modern day assistants, and how their jobs compare to others in the game — can be found here.
DULUTH, Minn. — When Derek Plante stepped down as assistant coach at Minnesota Duluth back in 2015, one reason cited by the Cloquet native was he’d seen his recruits play more than his own children in his five seasons on the job.
“It’s a very time-consuming job,” Plante, now a development coach with the Chicago Blackhawks, said in 2015. “I want to be able to spend a little more time with my family, which I haven’t gotten to do in the last five years.”
For anyone who has been an NCAA Division I men’s hockey assistant coach in the last decade, they know the feeling. While the games will eventually come to an end in any given season, recruiting never stops.
Coaches once had the summers to themselves just like the players they coach. But now — when the world is not in the midst of a global coronavirus pandemic — coaches find themselves in the Midwest scouting junior tryout camps, or in Buffalo, N.Y., attending USA Hockey select camps.
Newly hired St. Cloud State associate head coach Dave Shyiak, who has spent 16 seasons in the NCAA as an assistant or associate head coach in addition to his eight seasons as head coach at Alaska Anchorage from 2005-13, watches just as many hockey games out of season as he does in-season.
“Back when I started, in probably my first seven years at Northern Michigan, you didn't do much in the summertime in terms of recruiting because there were no USHL camps,” said Shyiak, who was an assistant coach and associate head coach at his alma mater under Rick Comley and Walt Kyle for 10 seasons (1995-2005). “There were some USA camps and then you do a couple home visits in July. And you weren’t recruiting kids as young as you are now.
“The age of recruiting has changed and the amount of time spent recruiting has changed. It’s more now than it’s ever been.”
Goodbye payphones, hello summer camps
Shyiak, who spent the last six seasons (2014-20) as the associate head coach at Western Michigan under Andy Murray, replaced Mike Gibbons on Brett Larson’s staff at St. Cloud State this offseason. Gibbons retired after 24 seasons as an NCAA Division I assistant coach, including the last 13 seasons under Larson and Bob Motzko at SCSU.
Gibbons also got his start under Comley at NMU, coaching there for five seasons from 1983-88 before working two years under Mike Bertsch at Colorado College (1988-90) and four seasons (1990-94) at Denver under Frank Serratore. In his 13 seasons away from the NCAA, he coached in juniors, the American Hockey League and at Eastview High School in Apple Valley, Minn.
The job has changed so much over the years, Gibbons said. For instance, the advent of computers and cell phones means he no longer has to fight over the one payphone in Wilcox, Sask.
“I remember when you’re driving having to pull over into a parking lot and waiting for someone to tell her boyfriend, ‘No you go first! No, you go first! Ok, I love you!’” Gibbons said. “You’re sitting there waiting for a payphone.”
Recruiting, while big, was just a small fraction of the job in those early days, Gibbons recalled. Many of the duties now handled by full-time employees — academic advisor, strength and conditioning coach, director of operations — were done by assistant coaches. Gibbons said he was always the strength coach.
Oh, and he taught part-time at the universities as well, having to find his own substitute when he went on the road.
“We were almost like half teachers, half coaches,” Gibbons said. “That made it not as easy and not as full-time.”
But Gibbons did have his summers off. He’d still put in some work at hockey camps and schools, but used most of it just to recharge his batteries. That wasn’t the case when he joined Motzko’s staff in 2007, however. Despite wearing fewer hats, Gibbons said the work was more intense and it never stopped — especially with recruiting.
In addition to all the in-season recruiting — high school games on Tuesdays and Thursdays, junior leagues in the U.S. and Canada on the weekends — Gibbons and his fellow coaches spend the end of May and all of June scouting and recruiting at United States Hockey League tryout camps.
July is time for USA Hockey’s select camps. There’s also the Minnesota High Performance camps and leagues.
Come late August, it’s time to visit junior camps in Alberta and British Columbia. September is the North American Hockey League Showcase.
Gibbons said one summer when the Huskies were short an assistant coach, he spent 27 days on the road in June, 20 in July and 15 in August.
“I could coach another five years if I could do what I’m doing right now, which is sitting on my dock and go golf when I want, and not make any phone calls I have to make,” Gibbons said. “That’s impossible in today’s world.”
Recruiting a physical, mental grind
While tedious at times, Gibbons said he loved getting out on the road to recruit. He loved meeting people.
But he’d find himself up at night over a recruit that got away.
Former Bulldogs associate head coach Jason Herter, who stepped away from the Bulldogs this spring after nine seasons, said the same thing. Though Herter would not only wrack his brain over a recruit that got away, but over a missed opportunity to be out recruiting, even when coach Scott Sandelin would tell him to take some time off.
“It wears on you,” Herter said of recruiting. “Maybe at times I wasn't as smart as I should have been about how much I could go, but you always feel that need to be out.
“If you decide to take a week and miss an event and be with your family and go to the lake, take vacation or do anything like that, you feel like you missed out and let your program down. A lot of the time away from home is that inner competitive drive from individuals — just in coaches, in my opinion — that feels the need to always be out, and to impress their bosses and get the players and show that they're working.”
Because of COVID-19, college coaches aren’t missing anything this summer staying home with their families. All of this summer’s camps have been either cancelled or postponed. On top of that, the NCAA has banned all in-person recruiting since shutting down the season in March. The current Division I ban now runs through the end of August.
If anything good can come from this coronavirus, Herter said he hopes programs realize they don’t need to be out recruiting all summer long.
Gibbons has his doubts, pointing to the NCAA’s recent rule changes that went in place last summer to slow down the recruiting process. Programs can no longer make contact with a prospect until Jan. 1 of his sophomore year, and can’t make a verbal offer until Aug. 1 prior to the prospect’s junior year of high school. That hasn’t stopped coaches from still scouting Select 15 camps, or Bantam elite leagues, because just being there lays the groundwork for future recruitment, Gibbons said.
“The only way you’re going to have less and less going on is if they legislate no contact rules,” Gibbons said. “The nature and competitiveness of college recruiting, there is always going to be something to attend.”
Up next: In the finale of a three-part series looking at the lives of NCAA Division I men’s hockey assistant coaches, what impact would a possible third full-time assistant coach make if the NCAA would allow it?