It's his first job as a head coach in the North American Hockey League and he's starting out with a team that is 16 points out of a Central Division playoff spot.
Still, A.J. Degenhardt is excited about his "tryout", as he calls it, as the interim bench boss of the Wisconsin-based Coulee Region Chill.
The 30-year old Degenhardt, a former Division 1, National Collegiate Athletic Association player with the Wisconsin Badgers, was tapped by primary owner Michelle Bryant last week to take over from the fired John Hamre as the main hockey man of the Chill.
"It's a situation that is an unfortunate way to begin as a head coach in the NAHL," Degenhardt told me in a weekend telephone interview. "Taking over a team 32 games into a season is not an easy thing to do but that's the way the hockey business is sometime and I am up for this challenge."
Without taking a direct shot at Hamre, Degenhardt said he hopes to "bring a positive attitude and some good energy" into the struggling Coulee Region program. "We hope to re-gather the season and see some success. I will try to control what I can on a daily basis and open up the lines of communication between myself, the players and the owner."
Degenhardt, who despite has young age has four previous seasons of head coaching experience -- two in the Tier 3, Minnesota Jr. Hockey League and two more at the midget major level with Team Illinois -- said he hopes to make enough of an impression as interim coach of the Chill to earn the job full-time for the 2013-2014 campaign.
"Like I said, I look at this as a tryout for me," he noted.
Degenhardt said he plans to hire an assistant coach this week and that he will meet with owner Bryant and discuss whether or not to bring in older players to make a run for a playoff spot in the Central Division.
With a record of 1-1 under Degenhardt, Coulee Region is 16 points out of the fourth-and-final playoff spot in the Central Division with 26 games to go in the regular season. The Chill, which had lost five straight games before Hamre was fired, has an overall record of 9-20-5 on the season.
A young team with very few 1992 birth year players, Coulee Region stands to return considerable talent for the 2013-2014 season led by scoring leaders Mac Jansen, Hunter Anderson and Andy Faust, defenceman Sean Lang and goalie Blake Cates. Jansen is a 1993 birth year and Anderson, Faust, Lang and Cates were all born in 1994.
As for Hamre, who had an extensive coaching background at the high school, junior and collegiate level before taking the Coulee Region job prior to the current season, he left the Chill in a reflective and philosophical state, responding to an e-mail interview request in his usual, professional manner.
"First of all, Randy, I thank you for your coverage of the NAHL, its players and our great game. Your coverage is fair, respectful of subjects, and enthusiastic for the game and players. Looking forward to continued contact in our great game.
"I'm humble enough to know and say I'm sure I made my share of mistakes in my years of coaching and as head coach and general manager of the Coulee Region Chill. That's on me. I'm also smart enough to know that hockey is and always will be a game of success or failure. There's no perfect player or perfect coach. I've been blessed to have been around the game long enough to know and say that hockey is bigger than any one player, coach or organization.
"All this said, I remain confident enough in my coaching skills to know I tried to implement a calibre of hockey coaching and player development to an organization that, in the short time of reflecting as now its former head coach, perhaps wasn't quite ready for, or in the position to, wait and enjoy the fruits of that style and our staff's efforts. This humbly, is my reflected opinion. I'm sorry I won't be a part of time bearing these philosophies out. That said, I wholeheartedly believe I have left the Chill organization in a state far better off, and poised for a much brighter future, than that which I found it in. I'm very proud of this.
"Coaching is a profession where you balance the present and the future. In the Coulee Region case, my years of hockey experience told me the scale was tipped to the future for the team and organization's sustainable success. If I have failed to realize expectations for the present it was because of a firm belief in a commitment to build a long-term foundation for the organization that hired me. I hope that will be my legacy to the next coaching staff and current ownership group.
"I do and did all I did out of reverence to the game of hockey, a game I truly love and respect, and to the development of the young men on the team. Hockey has afforded a lot of us involved a lot of great joy. I'm thankful for the efforts of the players and grateful for the opportunity to be involved in my time in the Onalaska/La Crosse hockey community."