December 22, 2008 PRINT Bookmark and Share

It's a (Wo)Man's World

by Joseph Edwards/CHN Writer

James Brown once sang, "This is a man's world. But it wouldn't be nothing, nothing without a woman or a girl."

The late Godfather of Soul may very well have been speaking about assistant-coaching men's college hockey.

There's an abundance of second-in-commands, all with dreams of, one day, running their own program. Getting in the way is the finite number of head coaching positions available, and it's a rarity when one opens up. In recent years, a small fraternity has found a solution to the problem by following Brown's advice and looking beyond the scope of men's hockey to the women's perspective.

In fact, coaches like Brian Durocher at BU, Mark Johnson at Wisconsin, UNH's Brian McCloskey, Chris Wells at St. Lawrence, and RPI's John Burke all paid their dues behind a men's bench before getting to run a women's.

"I've had a long, hard run at being a head coach," says Durocher, who spent 26 years as a mens' assistant coach at AIC, Brown, Colgate, and his alma mater, BU, before being named the first head coach of the fledgling Terriers program in 2004. "I've run out of fingers trying to count the number of second interviews I've been on, and when you get to a second interview, you know it's down to 2 or 3 people."

Durocher's frustration is familiar territory among assistant coaches who aspire to climb the coaching ladder.

"As an assistant coach, you're always looking to be a head coach, looking for that opportunity," Johnson says. "I was fortunate enough to get it."

Johnson, a hero on the 1980 Miracle on Ice Olympic hockey team, was also a professional head coach in the Colonial Hockey League before joining the Wisconsin Badger's men's program as an assistant. When both head coaching positions opened up at Wisconsin, fellow alum Mike Eaves won the men's job, and Johnson the women's. Such a decision has served Johnson well, as his teams have had three straight 29-plus win seasons and have reached the National Championship game in each of those seasons, winning it all twice.

His success, as well as that of Durocher, McCloskey, and Burke have helped to pave the way for Wells, who is in his first year of women's hockey with the Saints.

"About a week after I took the job, I was able to talk to both Brians (McCloskey and Durocher), as well as John Burke, so I had a good idea of what to expect," says Wells, who cut his teeth at the mens' programs for 13 seasons at Colgate, Western Michigan, and St. Lawrence before Paul Flanagan left the Saints' women's program prior to this season. "You always think about the opportunities. My goal was to be a head coach. I always enjoyed watching the women play; I always told myself I'd entertain the opportunity."

McCloskey and Burke did the same, and have cemented their coaching reputations in the women's arena. McCloskey's six years as the Wildcats' head coach came after 13 years with mens' teams, while Burke has been at RPI since 1995 and took over the women's team in 2003; both have since become NCAA postseason fixtures.

One thing they've all had to do, however, is adapt to the women's style of play. The biggest factor between the two games is the absence of contact in the women's game, though the rules against checking open up the door for more finesse and freewheeling play, Durocher explains. Also, there is also a different mindset, as Wells says he has found the women to be much more receptive to being coached.

Of course, a background with women will help the transition along.

"I have three daughters, a wife, a female dog - I've been around ladies for quite a while," Durocher laughs.

It's a change that hasn't worn too much on Wells, as halfway into the season, his St. Lawrence squad joins Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and BU as top-10 ranked teams, giving each of their coaches another bullet point on their impressive resumes. This could be a big factor the next time a men's job opens up, but that means they'd have to go after it, first - and why would they, when they're already head coaches, and successful ones at that.

"This is a fantastic opportunity," Durocher says. "I could see myself finishing out my career here."

Wells echoes that sentiment.

"If you asked me back in March if this is what I'd be doing with myself, I wouldn't have believed it," he says. "I really enjoy coaching here. I'm entrenched in it. I'm not even thinking about [moving back to the men's side]."

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