From the great white north to the sizzling south, Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario native Chris Mei is living his youthful dream of being a hockey coach more than 1,600 miles from home in Corpus Christi, Texas.
The 33-year old Mei has just completed his first season as an assistant coach with the Corpus Christi IceRays of the North American Hockey League.
While still a young player, Mei said he first caught the coaching bug from his late father, Don Mei.
"I always wanted to get into coaching, even when I was young and helping out my father and Dave Nocioli when they coached together in the old Soo Pee Wee Hockey League days. I never thought I would get paid to do it though," said Mei, who retired as a player following the 2009-10 season.
Mei, who first left home as a hard-nosed, 17-year old defenceman to play junior hockey with the Muskoka Bears on the recommendation of venerable, Sault Ste. Marie-based scout Charly Murray, later suited up at that level with the Parry Sound Shamrocks and Halifax Oland Exports before one season at the Atlantic Canada, university level with the Dalhousie Tigers.
He left Dalhousie and took a few years off from playing hockey to return home to Sault Ste. Marie to be with his ailing father and then embarked on a five-year, minor pro career, including four seasons with Corpus Christi when it was part of the Central Hockey League.
The Corpus Christi franchise left the minor pro, CHL to join the Tier 2 junior, NAHL in 2010.
The IceRays made a coaching change following the 2010-11 NAHL season, releasing erstwhile National Hockey League defenceman Brent Hughes and promoting Justin Quenneville to head coach. Mei was then hired by IceRays general manager Pat Dunn to join Quenneville's staff, which also includes Ryan Bennett.
Mei, Quenneville and Bennett were all teammates when Corpus Christi had a minor pro team.
Playing in the ultra-competitive, seven-team, South Division of the NAHL, Corpus Christi missed the playoffs by a mere two points during the 2011-12 season. (The NAHL is a 28-team, five division, league. The South Division features the most teams, with seven.)
Of note, Corpus Christi, with 57 points from 60 regular-season games, had a better record than two teams that qualified for the NAHL playoffs in other divisions.
A junior hockey hotbed, Corpus Christi had the second-best attendance from among the 28 teams during the 2011-12 NAHL regular season, averaging 3,055 fans per game.
As for Mei, who is also a certified firefighter and emergency medical technician while residing in Corpus Christi with his Texas-born wife, Megan, he professes to "love coaching. I enjoyed seeing the players develop over the course of the year and mature not only as players but as people."
Corpus Christi has five players from this season's team commited to Division 1, National Collegiate Hockey Association scholarships, including 1994 birth year goalie Anthony Stolarz.
The 6-foot-5, 200 pound Stolarz is rated fourth among North American-born goalies headed into the 2012 National Hockey League Draft, just behind Jake Paterson of the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League.
Paterson backstopped the Soo Eagles to the 2010-11 Northern Ontario Jr. Hockey League championship.
The Eagles have since left the NOJHL and will debut in the NAHL effective the 2012-13 season.