P.K. O’Handley had already trained young players and served as an assistant college and professional coach when he returned to the United States Hockey League for his second assignment as a junior hockey head coach.
There was no reason to believe when he came to Iowa prior to the 2002-03 season that coaching the Waterloo Black Hawks was anything more than another stop along the coaching trail.
But as he nears the completion of his 15th season in Waterloo, O’Handley continues to lead the Black Hawks and achieve milestones along the way. The latest of those was his 500th regular-season win with the club this past Friday in Madison against the Capitols.
“[Waterloo] wasn’t going to be the place I was at for so long,” said O’Handley, who came to the Black Hawks after four seasons as an assistant with the Florida Everblades in the ECHL. “I remember we left the Carolina Hurricanes organization and their minor-league team in Naples, Florida, and came to Waterloo and we were only going to be here a year or two.
“Here we are 15 years later, and hopefully we’ll continue to be here because it has become a pretty special place.”
O’Handley, a Wisconsin native, built strong ties with the Black Hawks and found a long-term home in Iowa.
“There have been opportunities to leave, but maybe experience gives you wisdom,” said O’Handley, who thought more about coaching professionals when he first returned to the USHL. “This became a pretty good place. We have a great building, great resources. … I think I’m coaching at one of the purest levels of the game with some of the best young talent in the game.
“And, we’re only an hour away from our son, daughter-in-law and now grandchildren. As they came along, there became more and more reason to stay.”
O’Handley staying worked out for all involved. His teams have been consistent winners, helping him reach the 500-win plateau.
“I’ve been fortunate to accomplish some milestones, but you don’t do those without really good players and really good people around you,” said O’Handley, who exactly a year earlier had become the first coach to win 600 total USHL games with a St. Patrick’s Day victory that the Black Hawks pulled out with less than a second remaining. “When you look at the longevity here, I think we were able to create a culture of professionalism, a culture for expectation of success and a culture where hopefully winning matters.
“I think winning does matter in development. You have to win the right way. It doesn’t always work out the way you want it to, but probably the thing I’m most proud of in 15 years is that we’ve averaged more than 33 wins a year. To do that in the USHL is difficult and to be able to do it over a long period of time, I think says volumes about our players over the years, our hockey staffs over the years, our office staffs over the years, and really our fans. This is a very unique place.”
Like O’Handley, many Black Hawks players have found success in Waterloo.
“There’s an expectation of work here from our fans down to our players and I think that aids in development,” O’Handley said.
The Black Hawks kept working in the milestone win when they put 20 shots on goal without breaking through in the first period and reached the midway point in the game still trailing, 1-0.
“When you look at the race we’re in, we needed a win, we hadn’t played well in that building and they were playing extremely well,” O’Handley said. “When you’re down 1-0, you’re thinking, ‘Oh man, what do we have to do to score?’ Their goalie was playing exceptionally. I’ve got to give our guys credit, we kept with it.”
Alex Limoges scored the tying and go-ahead goals and Shane Bowers added a third goal in the final 10 minutes of the second period for a 3-1 lead.
The Black Hawks won again the next night and are 35-14-2-2, second-best overall in the USHL in points and third-best in winning percentage for a shot at the Anderson Cup as regular-season champion.
Contending on an annual basis has become a given for O’Handley and the Black Hawks.
“I’m really lucky to be in this spot for so long,” O’Handley said. “I’ve said this along the way, ‘If this is where it ends, this is where it ends and I’m good with that.’ But I don’t have any plans to stop coaching. I’m going to stay in the game. It’s been my entire life.
“Hopefully, Waterloo wants me for a long time, but I’ll never say never to maybe a pro opportunity if that ever came. Maybe that’s not going to come. I enjoy it here. We’ve got a good thing going.”
The latest round number is just one more reminder of that.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.