The start of the 2017-18 CHL season saw 18 new coaches in 60 markets. Since that time, two more coaches, Jody Hull in Peterborough and Mario Durocher in Val d’Or, have moved. That means one-third of the league has a different coach behind the bench than they had at this point a year ago.
Here’s a look at some of the most successful new coaches:
10. Trevor Letowski, Windsor Spitfires: Letowski is no stranger to being a head coach in the OHL’s Western Conference. An ownership change in Sarnia three years ago is the only reason he was briefly without a job.
Coming into a season as the defending Mastercard Memorial Cup champion is not easy, especially knowing you’re staring a rebuild in the eyes. Letowski made the most of his roster early in the season, building up currency before veteran players were dealt away. There’s still Michael DiPietro to build around in goal while GM Warren Rychel continues to retool from their Cup win and sanctions levied against the program back in 2012. Letowski’s experience and attention to detail make for the perfect combination to lead a successful rebuild.
9. James Patrick, Kootenay Ice: New ownership and management in Kootenay started with the hiring of Patrick, a name coach fresh off a long stint as an NHL assistant. GM Matt Cockell also surrounded Patrick with former NHLers Jon Klemm and Roman Vopat to make Cranbrook a destination for developing players. To further the player experience, Kootenay has hired support staff ranging from a nutritionist to a sports psychologist. The number one thing a player looks for when committing to a team is the head coach, and Kootenay hit a home run with Patrick, who should help end their brief two-year absence from the playoffs.
8. Dan Lambert, Spokane Chiefs: One of the most proficient defencemen in WHL history, Lambert has had success previously coaching the Kelowna Rockets to an Ed Chynoweth title in 2015. He preaches an up-tempo, offensive-minded system that’s based on quick puck movement and transition. Previous bench boss Don Nachbaur was definitely “old school” in his approach on and off the ice. He had plenty of success, but it was time for a change. Lambert encourages puck possession and creativity and it is only recently the players have adjusted and embraced this philosophy. The US Division is a beast, but the Chiefs are an organization with perpetual winning expectations. Lambert’s previous stint in Kelowna was no different and he’s continued with that concept in Spokane.
7. Troy Smith, Saginaw Spirit: A late hire after the departure of Spencer Carbery to Providence (AHL), Smith had previous head coaching experience with a rebuilding team in Kitchener. When things didn’t work out, he moved on to a dual role in Hamilton, then took a year out of the game before being hired by Dave Drinkill in Saginaw. Saginaw is holding its own in the difficult Western Conference, and is in position to make a push for home ice in the first round of the playoffs. The Spirit have gotten the most out of OHL journeyman Mason Kohn (who played for Smith in Kitchener) and a rookie group which is headlined by first year draft eligible Blade Jenkins.
6. Billy Burke, Niagara IceDogs: Nepotism was thought to be the main reason behind the hiring of Burke in Niagara, with his parents Denise and Bill as team owners, but the IceDogs have been at or near the top of the OHL’s Central Division standings all season long. The addition of Ted Dent to the staff has made a difference, but Burke has done a great job handling a young team amidst the noise surrounding the family-run operation. The Dogs have been equally as good at home as they’ve been on the road, they play hard and have proven they can beat the league’s best. Niagara has regularly given up the first goal in games, though, which is an area they must improve on. While regular season placement doesn’t ensure playoff success, it’s hard to argue with their results to date.
5. Matt O’Dette, Seattle Thunderbirds: The T-Birds got back on to the radar last season, winning the Ed Chynoweth Cup mostly because of their 1997-born players. Steve Konowalchuk earned an NHL job, while all-world Matt Barzal may end up winning the Calder Trophy. Add in an ownership change, and O’Dette has had a lot to deal with in a short time. A former Florida prospect, O’Dette has worked his way up the ladder, beginning his coaching career in the ECHL where he had a successful run as a player. He’s worked the past four seasons for the understated Konowalchuk and now finds himself in the middle of the perennially tough US Division. What makes Seattle’s push for a top three spot in the division so impressive is the fact it’s leaning on two goalies who had a combined 430 minutes of WHL experience coming into the season.
4. Jay Varady, Kingston Frontenacs: With the departure of Paul McFarland to the NHL, GM Darren Keily and President Doug Gilmour put their heads together, while Varady’s inquiry peaked their interest. Varady spent the past four years in the USHL, and prior to that was a mainstay on Everett’s bench as an assistant for eight years. As the Frontenacs have gone all-in with several acquisitions leading up to the OHL trade deadline, the pressure is on Varady. Having said that, without Varady, the Frontenacs would not have been in this position in the first place. Scoring more, playing better on the road and leaning less on Jeremy Helvig down the stretch are keys if the Frontenacs are to make a deep run into the spring.
3. Dan Price, Victoria Royals: Returning a solid veteran core, the Royals were considered pre-season contenders in the BC Division, with the caveat that a rookie coach could steer the ship. To date, it hasn’t been a problem, in fact long-time GM Cam Hope felt so strongly about the job Price has done, that he’s tweaked the roster all season, including adding the likes of Tanner Kaspick and Noah Gregor, two established veterans. The Royals are the highest-scoring team in the conference, have been deadly at home and currently sit in a favourable in-division playoff spot. Price comes from a lawyer background with a wide variety of interests away from the rink, which make him relatable to today’s youth.
2. Jim Midgley, Halifax Moosehads: After six years as an assistant, five of them in Halifax, Midgley inherited a Mooseheads team that has three potential first-round picks. While its base is young, the expectations never change in Halifax: win a title or bust. Moving from assistant to head coach can be a daunting task, where once you were playing the role of the good guy, you now have to be the bad guy. Halifax has played two goalies, and just about everyone in the group has improved their year-over-year numbers, which is the mark of good coaching. Midgley has a solid support group around him with the likes of GM Cam Russell and owner Bobby Smith.
1. Dennis Williams, Everett Silvertips: At one point in November, the Tips looked as if they were going to go into rebuild mode, but things changed when Everett went on a nine-game winning streak. The Silvertips struggled through the first month of the season with Carter Hart on the shelf and adjusting to the new systems brought in by Williams. Upon Hart’s return, Williams leaned on long-time assistant Mitch Love to implement some of Everett’s old systems used by former coach Kevin Constantine, which is never an easy thing in your first year on the job. From that point forward Williams has been able to blend his style with that of Everett teams of the past to put them in position to win the US Division.