Q&A with St. Lawrence Coach Greg Carvel
by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
In the spring, Greg Carvel officially took over as head coach at St. Lawrence, after one season as an associate coach with fellow alum Mike Hurlbut. Last season, Joe Marsh, the coach of 26 years, was taking a medical leave, but he decided to officially retire. Carvel, who has 12 years of assistant coach experience in the NHL, was a heady two-way player for the Saints in the early '90s, and is a native of Canton, N.Y., where St. Lawrence is located.
CHN: What's it like taking over for Joe Marsh, someone you played for and known for so long?
Carvel: It's a bit intimidating. It's humbling for someone I consider to be one of the icons of college hockey. He's in the pantheon, like Jack Parker and Jerry York. He's what college hockey is all about. It's so humbling knowing how many players he's affected at St. Lawrence over a quarter century. He wants the tradition and values he's created for so many years to carry on. I'm a special case, because I played for him and grew up in the same town. I got to know Joe as soon as he moved to Canton, when I was 13 or 14 years old. I had a friendship with him before I started playing college hockey.
For me, he was a perfect combination of passion and compassion. He got us to play hard. He exhibited his passion but we always knew he always put us first. He cared about every aspect of our life. That was a big part of it. He was the ultimate player's coach. He was our friend, but we never felt we could get away with anything. It's a program built on values. He's all that's good about college sports. He demanded a lot of us as people in the community.
CHN: What's been the biggest challenge in your transition back to the college game?
Carvel: The obvious thing is the level of the players. There's an adjustment to that. In the NHL, you just coached, broke down video, created practice, met with players and went home. Here, you wear a lot of hats and you don't get to spend a lot of time focusing on hockey. But I knew that coming back to it. But you put a lot of time into the other apsects to try to get quality kids in your program, developing character as well as as hockey players. So it was an adjustment.
I got lucky, I was fortunate. Joe helped me get into pro hockey. I was able to get pretty far up the ladder. But the entire time in it, the further I went, I was building a stronger resume to get back to the collegiate level. I talked to guys like (Dany) Heatley (who played two years at Wisconsin), they all just loved college hockey. I asked Ryan Shannon (Boston College), what was the worst thing, the best thing. He said the worst thing is, it only lasted four years.
It pays off at the end of the day — when a kid leaves after four years, you've made a difference to make their four years as special as it could be. Two of my seniors (from last year) called me and wanted to talk. You know your hard work makes a difference. In the pros, you trade someone, and you never hear from them again.
CHN: What did you learn most of all from the pro game that you can apply back to college?
Carvel: I was fortunate to work with Mike Babcock. Bryan Murray is someone I took a lot away from, just in terms of work ethic, being the hardest working guy, showing your players how hard you work. With Bryan, it was about communication and relationships with the players. I learned a lot from the best coaches in the world. I worked with coaches that got fired, and understood the reasons why. Usually, players weren't buying in and whatever other reasons. In 12 years up there, it was not just systems and Xs and Os, but also the intangible of coaching.
College is a pretty structured game now too. The difference is the skill level. The NHL is now almost boring because I know exactly where it's going to go. College, the skill is not quite there, so it's a bit more haphazard.
College is all out pressure. Teams are pretty aggressive on the puck, especially the penalty kill. In the NHL, most teams are not quite as aggressive. But everyone plays a real structured game. We're trying to do that at St. Lawrence. Joe was more of an emotional coach, and players just played real hard for him.
CHN: The use of video is something that's pretty standard now.
Carvel: It's standard. Joe's the first one to say, "Me and tech don't mesh real well." But his way worked for a real long time. He'd still be doing it, but ran into a bunch of health problems.
CHN: What was your first impression of him, at 13 years old?
Carvel: When he walks into the room, the temperature goes up a bit. Molecules start flying faster. He's a bigger-than-life personality. But even as young teenagers, he gave us his time and attention. And being in small town, he took me and Chris Wells (former SLU assistant, and currently the women's team coach) under his wing. He knew we had a chance to play college hockey. He really went out of his way to help us and mentor us and became our friend as much as anything. A group of my friends from high school are still good friends with Joe. Even at hockey schools, he gets so passionate.
CHN: But it wasn't a sure thing you would go to St. Lawrence, right?
Carvel: It wasn't for sure. I went to Hotchkiss (prep school) and almost committed to Yale early. I had visits to Dartmouth and Harvard. I thought I was an Ivy guy. But my first year at Hotchkiss, St. Lawrence played in the national championship game (1988). And being from Canton, there was not a pressure, but it was fun to be the hometown boy playing at St. Lawrence. And ultimately I wanted to play for Joe. I went there with the attitude that I'd make the most of the academics, and I did, I graduated magna cum laude, I was nominated for a Rhodes Scholarship — which didn't get very far, but the school appreciated the fact that I was nominated.
CHN: One big moment of your playing career I remember is beating Cornell in Boston Garden in the 1991 ECAC semis in overtime. Cornell wound up going to the NCAAs that year anyway, and you guys didn't.
Carvel: Well, we beat Cornell for the championship the next year, so I remember that more. In the semis that year we were down 5-2 to RPI. Chris Wells played on a line with me. And we looked at each other and made a comment like, "What are you doing on spring break?" — something to that effect. We banged out a couple goals, and Wells scored in double OT to win it. Then we won the championship game against Cornell.
I was fortunate. I went to two Stanley Cup (finals). But college is just a different ball of wax. You're committed to that team. You're not going to get trade, you're not going to get sent down. You're in it. And everyone pulls the same way. That's not always the case at the NHL level.
CHN: Was there a big personal highlight?
Carvel: My senior year, I had three goals and two assists in a game at Boston College. We tied 6-6. And I had a penalty shot against Cornell, and won the inaugural (ECAC) Defensive Forward of the Year.
CHN: How important was last year for getting acclimated?
Carvel: I feel fortunate I had that year to get involved. I laid some groundwork and got a foundation on how I'd like the guys to play. The guys know what to expect. With (Ryan) Flanagan and (George) Hughes, we have two potential First Team all-ECAC players. We didn't lose a lot. ... We have to have some expectation for ourselves. The last couple years St. Lawrence has been middle to low (in the standings). We have to be top half. That might be lofty expectations, but with Flanagan, if he stays healthy, you might see him as one of 10 Hobey finalists. With (Greg) Carey, we're trying to address with him some deficiencies. If he does, you might see him take off.
I wouldn't say offensively we'll score a ton, and I don't think we'll shut down teams either. We have some guys that are game changers that I think can be counted on to score big goals. If we just play solid hockey on both ends, we'll find ways to win games. We have enough size, speed and grit. We have to be better defensively and the goaltending (has) to be better. We've tried to address that with (former Union goalie) Kris Mayotte as our (new) assistant (coach).
I really like Matt Weninger as a goalie. He sees the puck well. His rebound control is his biggest issue. But he's athletic, he competes. I think he's got the fundamentals to be a good goaltender. Defensively, we can be a lot better too.
CHN: What's your philosophy on recruiting and what you can do at St. Lawrence.
Carvel: Certain schools you're not going to compete with, but there's a lot of kids out there that want a solid reputation. And St. Lawrence's academic reputation has taken off in the last number of years. We can offer a good package. We fill a niche for some kids. A lot of kids feel comfortable in a smaller setting. It's similar to Union in a lot of ways. If they can do it, why can't we? ... I can tell kids, "I've coached (Zdeno) Chara and (Erik) Karlsson. I know I can coach and help you develop and turn you into a pro hockey player." It's big sales point.
When coaches change, it can be a difficult situation. But when a coach retires and an alumnus comes in, it's not like there's two pools out there where half the alums are mad. (In this case), everyone is real excited and thankful to Joe and excited that an alum with the experience I have is here.
I'm going to swing the bat as much as I can and hopefully hit some home runs.