By Matt Mackinder -
The game of hockey may change seemingly on a yearly basis, but to ask Mike Vellucci to change his coaching style is something he’s never had to do – and his track record behind the bench of the Plymouth Whalers speaks for itself.
On Tuesday, Vellucci was named the Matt Leyden Trophy winner as the Ontario Hockey League’s coach of the year, becoming just the 10th coach in league history to win the award for a second time. Vellucci also won top coach honors in 2007 in guiding Plymouth to the OHL championship.
The Whalers lost in a five-game Western Conference final last weekend to the London Knights.
Ask Vellucci how he digests the honor, though, and he deflects all the attention to the Whalers’ players and to his own maturation process.
“This season was a lot of fun to coach,” said Vellucci. “We had great players, but what was awesome about it was that they all wanted to get better every day and they worked extremely hard. That makes the coach’s job that much easier when you have guys that take the game seriously and want to develop and make it to the next level.
“I think over the years, I’ve learned to lighten up a little bit (as a coach). I’ve matured having my own kids and know that life is bigger than wins and losses. When you’re younger, each loss takes longer to get over and I think now, they’re a little bit easier to get over. I don’t take any loss as hard as I used to.
Vellucci, who still remains the lone American-born coach to win the award, guided the Whalers to their 12th division title in franchise history with a 42-17-5-4 record in 2012-13. The West Division title marks the 46-year-old Farmington native’s sixth in 12 years behind the bench for the Whalers, who also made the playoffs for a record 22nd consecutive season.
“He’s been my coach for four years,” said Plymouth graduating captain and defenseman Colin MacDonald. “He can be tough, but he knows when to push guys. His results don’t lie and he’s continued to be a great coach year after year and always puts together successful teams. I’m really excited for him individually to win this award.”
“He did a lot for me, personally,” added Whalers’ forward Stefan Noesen. “He believed in me when nobody else did. He’s one of the best coaches who have ever worked in the league and you definitely learn a lot from him from start to finish. Mike always seems to know the little bits and pieces (that) people need to know in order to be successful. I think he knew right away (this season) that he had a great core group, and everyone got along, so he needed to find players that could fit the puzzle, but at the same time, get along with everyone.”
With a healthy dose of NHL draft picks on the roster this season, some who have already signed contracts, as well as highly-touted prospects, it would be easy to the casual fan to think that egos may emerge at some point during the year.
Not so, said Vellucci.
“The best thing I can say about our players this year is that they were so much fun to coach because if anyone was at that last game of the year against Windsor and Vince Trocheck was going for the scoring title and we had already sewn up where we were going to be in the playoffs and every single guy on that ice was trying to get Vince the puck to get the points he needed,” Vellucci said. “The last five minutes of that game, everyone was passing him the puck and it was great to see all the guys with no jealousy whatsoever. They all wanted Vince to get that award and it was great to see as a coach that all the hard work you put in to see that the kids understand it’s a team game and not individual and to be honest with you, (Trocheck winning the scoring title on the last day) was probably my favorite moment of the season.”
Another humbling aspect of Vellucci’s coaching honor is the fact that the award is voted on by his coaching peers.
“That’s really the best,” said Vellucci. “Getting the award from your colleagues that you go up against 68 times a year is very special and I think the coaching in our league has grown in the past 5-10 years where every night, you know you’re in for a battle.”
Looking ahead, Vellucci will be formally presented the award on June 4 at the Canadian Hockey League awards ceremony at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto and is the OHL’s nominee for the CHL Coach of the Year award.