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Published: Friday, 7 Sep 2018  
By: Stephen Heisler,

The North American Hockey League has a proven history of continuing to raise the bar when it comes to head coaches. Look for that trend to continue this season.

In the last two years that we’ve done this ranking, the top ranked coach has departed from his team. In 2016, John LaFontaine moved from Wichita Falls to Muskegon in the United States Hockey League. Last year, Joe Dibble resigned from Janesville to return to his home in Minnesota. 

So, the goal today is not to jinx this year’s top ranked coach.

Now for the disclaimer…

Before we get started please note that this article is less than popular with the coaches outside of the Top Ten. The way I see it, there are two kinds of junior hockey coaches; the developers of talent and the utilizers of it. It is always going to be our opinion that the best developers should always be on top of this list. Coaches that don’t return phone calls from college coaches, do their best impression of a farm animal, or are generally not somebody I really want to talk to with generally find themselves anchored near the bottom. 

Yea, sometimes it can even be a bit personal.

#24 Davey Boitz (17-18 #NR), Minnesota Wilderness: Boitz takes over bench boss duties after Tim Madsen moves up the ladder to Division III St. Scholastica. One of the first things the new coach did was toss Madsen under the bus in the team’s 24 in 24 edition. It’s no secret that Boitz is the primary reason why the many previous coaches moved on from the organization as the new boss has a long history of being less than easy to work with. I can’t see Boitz having a very good relationship with today’s player either and that’s the primary reason he is at the bottom of this list. 

#23 Al Rooney (17-18 NR), Chippewa Falls Steel: Al Rooney makes the move to Wisconsin after spending that last two years working as an assistant under Lone Star Brahamas’ boss Dan Wildfong and Austin’s Steve Howard. He also coached the NA3HL’s Texas Brahmas during the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons. It’s going to be very interesting to see if Rooney is more of a teacher like Howard or spirited like Wildfong. I’m guessing that it’s going to be a bit of a combination of both. 

#22 Simon Watson (17-18 NR), Topeka Pilots: Topeka has a new owner, name, and head coach. Simon Watson moves to the NAHL after serving as an assistant for the last four seasons for owner Lamar Hunt Jr.’s team in the ECHL. The biggest question will be how the new coach is going to adjust to the NAHL game and how he networks with the college programs. By all indications Watson is already way ahead of the learning curve on all those points. 

#21 Jason Campbell (17-18 NR), Shreveport Mudbugs: Jason Campbell takes over for Karlis Zirnis who has moved to the Great White North to take an assistant spot at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. While Zirnis moves from the swamp to the frozen tundra, he left Campbell with a community craving another championship caliber hockey team. That’s a tall order for any coach and even more so for a new head coach.  I know this; Campbell will be given every available resource to make it happen.

#20 Ryan Cruthers (17-18 NR), Corpus Christi IceRays: Ryan Cruthers moves from the United States Hockey League to Corpus Christi after Brad Flynn jumps to the major junior level’s Western Hockey League. Cruthers’ gulf coast adventure should be successful if his recent history is any indication. 

#19 AJ Bucchino (17-18 NR), Minnesota Magicians: The Magicians have turned yet another page and have placed their on-ice fate into the hands of AJ Bucchino.  The New York native played four seasons of minor professional hockey before taking over the Lakeville South High School job in Minnesota. Bucchino went 48-34-4 in three seasons and that include a trip to the State Tournament in 2017. Will the rookie NAHL coach be able to transition to the grind of the NAHL? We think so.

#18 Clint Mylymok (17-18 NR), Maryland Black Bears: Simply said, I don’t know a lot about Mylymok outside of the success he has had with the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League’s Notre Dame Hounds. The coach went 128-106-16-13 in 263 games coached in that Canadian league. He brings a tremendous amount of respect and history to the league and we look forward to seeing how he does. 

#17 Mike Letizia (17-18 #13), Johnstown Tomahawks: Simply said, Mike Letizia’s club took a giant step backwards last season. There’s no denying that the team seriously under performed on the ice on many occasions. Those issues are certainly player related but it’s the coach that sets the roster, it’s the coach that did the recruiting, and it’s the coach that must take responsibility for the shortcomings. I like Mike and feel he’s one of the league’s bright young coaching prospects, but last season was not a good one. Let’s see how the team rebounds this year. 

#16 Joe Coombs (17-18 #14), Jamestown Rebels: Coombs’ Rebels are moving into their fourth building in four years after abandoning the Philadelphia area (and south Texas before that) for the balmy metropolis of Jamestown in upstate New York. The knock-on Coombs has been his reliance on old-school tactics that generally rub today’s player the wrong way. Can Coombs make the adjustment needed to carry this team over the top? 

#15 Tom Kowal (17-18 #20), Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Knights: Tom Kowal’s Knights kind of plateaued in their third regular season before reaching the semi-finals of the Robertson Cup. Expectations for this year have been elevated despite continuous rumors around the organization. The team suffers from abysmal attendance despite on-ice success. Kowal is also an old-school coach that has been known to rub players the wrong way.

#14 Rocky Russo (17-18 #22), Amarillo Bulls: Rocky Russo’s Bulls finished his rookie season with a respectful 23-26-8-3 record. The fiery bench boss survived the first test and is expected to deliver a substantial improvement this season. Along the way he has learned that the league has changed from the days of Rocky and Bullwinkle vs Tony Curtale and the Tornado. Today’s NAHL game is faster, harder, and certainly better than ever. Russo has made that needed adjustment and his players are starting to buy-in as well. This is a big season for Russo. 

#13 Layne Sedevie (17-18 #13), Bismarck Bobcats: Layne Sedevie is ranked in the same place as last season because of his success in the previous seven seasons with the program. NOT making the playoffs is one thing but seeing the team all but come completely apart on numerous occasions was difficult to watch. Today’s player has been completely transformed from those that came into the league eight years ago. These kids are more focused on individual development than in any time in history and it’s not always going to be easy to get them all onto the same page. The smart coaches will figure out a way to keep these kids engaged, the other guys will likely find themselves on the outside looking in. Sedevie is one of the good guys and I can’t help but believe he’s going to get the Bobcats back on the right track this season.

#12 Tyler Renette (17-18 #21), Springfield Blues: Tyler Renette’s first season as an NAHL head coach must go down as a complete success. The Blues dramatic improvement from 2016-17 (59 pts) to 2017-18 (72 pts) was good enough for a playoff appearance.  The Blues’ traditional late season collapse was avoided sending Springfield to the playoffs for the first time in years. Good job coach.  Renette’s group looks for another jump this season.

#11 Craig Doremus (17-18 #18), New Jersey Titans: Craig Doremus continues to get the job done despite a situation where the team gets minimal support from the community. The coach has been able to consisantly get the most out of his players when it was needed most. 

#10 Josh Petrich (17-18 #23), Kenai River Brown Bears: How does the coach of a last place team make such a huge jump into the top ten of this list? Josh Petrich did the impossible task of completely changing the culture of the organization. In a single season the new coach erased the stench that the previous coach left on the team. In a nutshell, this coach made going to his team’s games more entertaining for the supporters, more enjoyable for his players, and more work for every opponent. Hey, that’s success by any stretch of the imagination. So, what are the expectations for the coach’s sophomore season? Nothing less than .500 and the playoffs. Why not, he shopped for all the groceries and should now be able to cook up a great result. 

#9 Greg Gatto (17-18 #17), Odessa Jackalopes: Greg Gatto has evolved into becoming one of the league’s best coaches. His dedication to the development of the prospective student athlete has been enhanced each season and the team has responded with on-ice success. We are expecting something special to come from this season.

#8 Joe Lovell (15-18 #15), Northeast Generals:  Joe Lovell made a believer out of me before the start of last season. I got a bit of an inside view of how the coach communicates and relates to the players and the rest is history. There’s no question, the first Generals’ season was all but completely disastrous, but what Lovell was able to accomplish last season is remarkable. I’m excited to see what happens this season.

#7 Dan Wildfong (17-18 #8), Lone Star Brahmas: Dan Wildfong is having a blast. He gets to coach in the same arenas he played in. Fans (both home and away) have first hand knowledge of his good and bad sides, and opposing coaches are full of respect because they know. Yes, Wildfong is the king of the NAHL’s south division until somebody knocks the crown off his head. As for his coaching style…he gets the job done with a mix of old school toughness and the tremendous ability to get the most out of each player.   

#6 Steve Howard (17-18 #19), Austin Bruins: Steve Howard has worked his way up this list with a sold dedication to the development of each players’ game and character. The coach delivers, and expects, accountability from the staff and players. Boys, that’s all you can ask for and it looks like his team has completely bought into the concept as well. This second season will be memorable.

#5 Scott Langer (17-18 #7), Aberdeen Wings: Scott Langer is the sleeper coach. He’s Bear Bryant without the hat. I’ve watched him standing on the back of the bench, arms crossed and just watching the flow of the game. His vocal direction is crisp and directly to the point. As a result, the players know exactly what the expectations are and consistently deliver. Langer’s teams have always been competitive in the regular season, that has never been questioned, but could this be the year where the monkey get’s knocked down and Langer raises the cup? 

#4 Gary Shuchuk (17-18 NR), Janesville Jets: Gary Shuchuk replaced last year’s #1 coach (Joe Dibble) late in the off-season and promptly delivered one incredible season. To have that kind of success, and to be able to identify and relate to a group of players he had minimal contact with before the season, is an incredible accomplishment. Simply said, Shuchuk delivered exactly as advertised, the Jets’ coach is certainly a leader of men.

#3 Trevor Stewart (17-18 #3), Fairbanks Ice Dogs: Trevor Stewart has one of the toughest jobs in the NAHL. The expectation is always going to be a championship, regardless of the excuses. When the Ice Dogs are rolling, nothing can get into the way. Why is he at #3? With all those resources and support, not getting to the final and raising the cup means it was just an OK season and that means just an OK coaching job. No worries Fairbanks’ fan, the Ice Dogs have reloaded for another huge run. 

#2 Moe Mantha (17-18 #2), Brookings Blizzard: Moe Mantha turned in another remarkable coaching performance last year. Mantha had to play 45 different players (including nine goalies) because of injuries and other issues. To make matters worse, an assistant coach tried to undermine Mantha’s leadership before the veteran leader cut the cancer out of the equation. The expectations have been elevated for this season and Mantha is more than up for the challenge.

#1 Marty Murray (17-18 #6), Minot Minotauros: I could almost cut and paste last year’s thoughts about Marty Murray onto this year’s list. Dude just gets it. He’s the ultimate been there and done that coach. He’s been on the buses running across Canadian prairies and airplanes in and out of New York City. He was great as a player, but I think he’s even better as a coach.  He turned in his best effort during last season’s Robertson Cup final run, absolutely outcoaching opponents all the way to the end. A developer of talent? Yes. A leader of men? Yes. The best coach in the NAHL? Yes. Let’s just hope he’s not on a plane to another job tomorrow.

Author: Stephen Heisler from
Stephen Heisler has spent a lifetime in the game of hockey. Stephen is also working with individual teams, coaches, and players as a director with Victorious Hockey Company. Stephen, his wife Deysi, and four children reside in Orlando, Florida.

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