No league seems to be off the table for Canadian Interuniversity Sport programs when looking for their next head coaching hire

College sports in the United States are much more lucrative compared to their Canadian counterparts In part, this is because college sports in the U.S. are heavily supported financially, and winning is the ultimate goal. But men’s hockey programs at the CIS (Canadian Interuniversity Sport) circuit take winning just as seriously.

Several teams in the CIS are putting themselves in the best position to win by hiring head coaches with extremely strong résumés. Teams out of Mount Royal University, the University of Calgary, University of Regina and the University of Lethbridge have all hired coaches from either the WHL (Western Hockey League), NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) or the AHL (American Hockey League).

Hiring a coach who has been behind the bench at a high level holds more advantages than just his familiarity with advanced strategies. Knowing how to get the best out of their squad is an important key to success, especially at the CIS level – something that Mount Royal has benefitted from since hiring former NCAA assistant coach, Bert Gilling.

The Cougars’ coach just completed his second season behind Mount Royal’s bench and was recently named Canada West coach of the year for the second straight season.

Coach Gilling addresses his team before practice, outlining drills for the session ahead. Photo by Ashley GrantMeticulous with his preparation, when not at the rink, Gilling can be found in his office scrolling through game film and making notes to better prepare his team for the next challenge, the next game, or even just the next practice.

During practices, Gilling yells out set drills and the team gets to work, making the most out of their time on the ice. The head coach, and former defenseman for the University of Minnesota Duluth, skates around watching his team execute drills as well as giving one-on-one mentorship whenever the opportunity arises.

The Cougars have been improving steadily year after year since Gilling was hired, even appearing in the top ten rankings several times last season as one of the best university teams in the country.

A new era, a new belief

Mount Royal Cougars’ captain Matt Brown believes the attitude that Gilling brings to the locker room has been invaluable, and is one of the primary factors behind the team’s quick and vast improvements. Brown says one of the biggest differences between the team before Gilling’s arrival and after is: “the belief that we can be a national contender. Last year we got ourselves in the rankings a few times and made a pretty good push down the stretch to try and make it to the national tournament.”

Gilling says he was excited about the group before he was even hired, having spoken to several players while he was being interviewed for the position. He explains that he knew there was potential, and the belief that Brown speaks of is justified.

Gilling, a former defenseman for the University of Minnesota Duluth, plays a little defense during the Cougars practice. Photo by Ashley Grant“I looked at these guys and they’re prominent WHL players,” says Gilling. “They played for prominent coaches and prominent programs and they wanted more and they were hungry for more, they saw potential in this program and they were ready.”

The University of Regina’s men’s hockey program also made a high profile hire to place behind their bench by bringing in Todd Johnson, former assistant with the junior league’s Kootenay Ice. The university’s dean and professor of kinesiology and health studies Harold Riemer, who was involved in hiring the program’s head coach, supports the idea that hiring high-class coaches is essential to a team’s success.

“My own personal view is that if going to have athletics you may as well be good at it, and that begins with hiring good quality coaches who can recruit good quality athletes, and then put those pieces together and end up winning, and at least performing very well or being competitive, so you know, I personally believe it is an important piece.”

Assembling a competitive team

When asking collegiate coaches, or athletic directors what the key to building a winning program is, recruitment is one aspect that comes up time and time again. Riemer believes recruitment is an area that can see dramatic improvement when hiring a coach with experience with leagues such as the WHL.

Gilling coaches his team during a neutral zone passing drill at the Cougars’ practice. Photo by Ashley GrantPlayers that have played in the WHL, OHL (Ontario Hockey League), QMJHL (Quebec Major Junior Hockey League) or similar leagues are considered professionals, and therefore are unable to participate in collegiate hockey in the United States. Riemer explains that playing at Canadian universities in the CIS is an outlet that can attract players who are not going to play in other professional leagues like the NHL. Therefore, the relationships that coaches have with players in various leagues can help their university team land serious talent.

“To be competitive you need to attract high quality WHL players, and certainly having some background, either professionally or in the WHL, is beneficial in that regard because of the networks that you have from a recruiting perspective,” says Riemer.

It seems, though, that it is extremely difficult to have on-ice success without recruitment success, and vice versa. Gilling says that he joined very late in the recruitment process in his first summer with the Cougars, but was still able to sign a handful of talented players. Now that Gilling is established with the team, he feels a lot more confident that his program has a bright future.

“We’ve had one full season of recruiting, now that’s a four-year process, we’re not even done year two yet,” says Gilling. “So that’s a component of it too, you bring in highly motivated, committed student-athletes who are talented hockey players. The more success you have the more attractive you become to those better players as well.”

But with Mount Royal being a relatively new program to the CIS, building the team into a well-known program is another task the coach is in charge of. Gilling says that his experience with his NCAA team, Bemidji State University, helped him visualize what he had to do to be successful in that facet as well.

Gilling (left) calmly watches as his team fights to keep their lead against the University of British Columbia in game one of their first round playoff series. Photo by Ashley Grant“I have a very strong appreciation for the division one model of development and what they are doing, and I saw it evolve down in the NCAA … So I saw that in terms of what we are doing in terms of off the ice with strength-conditioning, the accountability with academic performance, the practice development, the game preparation, the video component.”

Brown, a former member of the Québec Remparts and Moncton Wildcats of the QMJHL, like many other players on the Cougars’ roster is familiar with playing for a coach that preaches operating in a professional environment. The Cougars’ captain believes that despite former experience playing in other highly competitive leagues, players on the team have learned a lot the past few years since Gilling was put in charge.

“I think we learnt a lot from last year, [Gilling] has been preaching a lot of maturity and this situation is a perfect example, winning Friday night (Cougars 3-1 game one victory over the University of British Columbia) and showing up Saturday to try and get the job done.”

During that game one win, Gilling was seen coaching to the end when the play got even more physical late into the third period. Gilling stressed the importance of keeping emotions in check. He leaned forward to be at eye level with his players, giving advice and keeping them focused on the ultimate prize. The Cougars’ players all echo a similar sentiment of how important that game management is throughout all three periods, and is one of the characteristics that makes Gilling a successful head coach.

Looking ahead to upcoming seasons

Gilling coaching individual players during the skate around before their practice session. Photo by Ashley GrantAs for the future of CIS teams hiring coaches with strong backgrounds, both Gilling and Riemer believe that it is a trend that will only continue.

“I think the trend of trying to find the absolute best person is going to continue,” says Riemer. “We just need to if we are going to be in this business and invest money into athletics and you want to be successful, and coaching is an important part of that.”

Gilling says that it can be difficult to tell what the future will hold for the league, but ultimately agrees with Riemer about the types of coaches that will be featured in the CIS.

“I don’t see the demand for quality head coaches going down anytime soon, and I do believe that’s the trend of that we are in right now … I think the trend of programs hiring high level, or coaches with unique backgrounds and strong hockey backgrounds, I don’t see that going the other way, I see that continuing,” Gilling says.

Thumbnail by Ashley Grant.

agrant@cjournal.ca

The editor responsible for this article is Michaela Ritchie, mritchie@cjournal.ca