The Wetaskiwin Icemen have improved 49 points in the standings since Rick Gregory took over as head coach, and are one of the favourites to win the Capital Junior Hockey League championship this season
Dale Cory, Wetaskiwin Icemen
"Great guy, great coach, really cares about the players, the organization and the community. He's a great fit for this team at this time."
Grant MacDonald, in his second season as an assistant coach with the Wetaskiwin Icemen, can speak to the attributes of head coach Rick Gregory more than most people.
When Gregory, a partner in SIRRS LLP Law Firm in Wetaskiwin, moved to Wetaskiwin in 2006, he took over as head coach of the Wetaskiwin Bantam AA team, and, together with MacDonald, led the group of teenagers to a league championship and provincial gold medal.
After coaching Bantam AAA teams in Camrose and Leduc, Gregory was handed control of the Icemen hockey team in the summer of 2010, and the team has flourished ever since.
Wetaskiwin has risen from a three-win, seven-point season in 2009-10, to a 16-win, 37-point season in 2010-2011, to a 28-win, 56-point 2011-12 campaign. The Icemen finished with the second-best record in the entire league.
After failing to qualify for the layoffs for five-straight seasons, in fact, never even coming close, the Icemen made it to the post-season last year, upset Sherwood Park in the first round, and nearly took out the eventual league champion Beaumont Chiefs in the second round.
Much of the credit for the on-ice turnaround goes to Gregory.
"The key word for him is preparation," added MacDonald. "I would certainly say more than any coach at this level, he's more prepared than anyone else. He does his homework on who we play, and what to look out for with those particular teams."
There are many contributing factors to the turnaround experienced by the Wetaskiwin Icemen junior B hockey franchise in the past two years.
Behind the scenes, new directors have come on board to volunteer their time with the goal of giving junior hockey players a memorable experience during their time in an Icemen uniform. The product of that has been increased attendance, support at road games that exceeds every team in the Capital Junior Hockey League, and events like the Pack The Arena promotion Feb. 10, which saw close to 1,000 fans turn out for the final regular season game.
When things are working well behind the scenes, and in the boardroom, it's much easier for the coaching staff to focus on icing a successful product.
Thatís quite obvious when one watches what takes place on the Icemen bench during the heat of the battle.
As public address announcer and official scorekeeper at Icemen games, I get the opportunity to view first-hand what takes place on the bench, located only a few feet from the penalty box. A sense of calmness is always prevalent. When Gregory is unhappy with a call, he asks for an explanation from the referee as opposed to the yelling and screaming hockey fans may see from many coaches.
Players undoubtedly feed off that controlled atmosphere, resulting in Wetaskiwin cutting its penalty minutes from one of the worst offenders to one of the least penalized in 2011-12.
And Gregory rarely allows his emotions to get the better of him when he is mad at a players' performance, instead waiting for the right time and place to make his point. Gregory has learned that calling out a players' mistake in front of his teammates often erodes a players' level of confidence.
"I'm probably less emotional on the bench than when I started. Sometimes you need to be the calm amongst the storm. Sometimes they need a pat on the back and sometimes they need a kick in the butt. A coach needs to develop a relationship with his players. You need to get to know how you can best influence them, and how theyíre going to take to your coaching essentially. A lot of people don't handle criticism well, let alone a teenager," says Gregory. "With some guys, you can tell them right after a shift if they did something right or wrong, and theyíre willing to accept it. Other guys are really hard on themselves and you donít need to tell them every time they screwed up, especially when everybody in the building saw it, so you donít need to remind them when they come back to the bench."
It's never easy for a coach to develop a workable relationship with his players. Personalities donít always mesh.
"We try to preach to the players it's not personal. Itís just coaching, and a coach is there to hold players accountable. I kind of envision it as a kind of bank a coach has to run. If you are going to be taking withdrawals out of that bank every single weekend, there's not going to be a whole lot left in there come the end of the season. Sometime you have to make some deposits and let players know you are on their team and on the same side."
Rick Gregory, who grew up in Winnipeg, was a goaltender during his playing days. He played Midget AAA for the famed Notre Dame Hounds, Junior A with the Flin Flon Bombers and the OCN Blizzard, and NCAA hockey in Minnesota, where he was academic All-American.
Gregory knew from an early age he would have a place behind the bench when he was finished playing.
"From an early age, like 14, I was teaching hockey schools all over Western Canada. Iíve always had that in me. I really enjoy the personal relationships. Iíve coached teams that hardly lost and Iíve coached teams that hardly won. You really learn a lot, and I like the opportunity to influence young people, teach them a few things, and get them on the right track in life Ė not just in hockey," said Gregory. "It can be really rewarding when you see a player go from a certain situation in September to where he might be at the end of the season. I think players take a lot of confidence from the arena to their job, or their home. There are a lot of lessons you learn in hockey that can carry you through in life too. You learn to be mentally tough."
Given Wetaskiwin's success last season, the Icemen board of directors knew the key to continued success was locking up the services of Rick Gregory, who now has a contract through until the end of the 2013-14 season.
"With his credentials, it is clear why we approached Rick to take on the coaching ranks with the Icemen. It was understood from early discussions that if the club was able to take care of some off-ice administrative duties including fund raising, that we may be able to bring Rick on board to coach the 2010-2011 season," explained Icemen president Rob Dyck. "We managed to put together a strong board of directors that worked very hard to raise funds and started the ground work for the organization."
And now, the organization is ready to take on the rest of the Capital Junior Hockey League.
The Icemen will kick off their push to a CJHL title Friday, Feb. 24 when they face rival Beaumont in the league's Best of 5 quarterfinals.
It's a rematch of last year's quarterfinal series, which the Chiefs won in the final game in overtime.
"I think anybody from our town that goes out to watch our team play - win, lose or draw, will leave thinking, 'Man those boys are a pretty good team and they battled hard,'" summarized Gregory. "I put some high expectations on our players at the beginning of the year. This is where I thought we could be. I think weíre a pretty confident team that can win on any given night."
What Icemen players had to say about Rick Gregory
"Great coach, easy to get along with, gets along with everybody. He knows his stuff. He's got a great sense of humour with the boys. He's everybody's friend. He keeps the boys under control on the bench."
"Great coach, knows all his stuff, good guy. He knows what he's talking about, and kinda relates to us because he's younger."
"Good guy, knows what he's talking about, good inspirational guy for the team. Being he's a younger coach, he knows how to interact with us pretty well, so all the guys respect him. It's pretty easy to learn from him."