If there is a large youth hockey event going on around the state of New York, chances are Joe Eppolito played an integral role in getting it set up.
For the last 27 years, Eppolito has worn many hats at the state level as well as nationally with USA Hockey. His capacities have included being a longtime high school coach, New York State Amateur Hockey Association (NYSAHA) board member, USA Hockey district director, national tournament committee member and many more.
A former teacher, Eppolito is big into helping hockey players and coaches hone their skills. That led to his role with USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program (CEP).
For all of his tireless volunteer work on and off the ice, specifically within the CEP, Eppolito was named the 2021 Walter Yaciuk Award winner.
“I was honored and humbled and more than anything else surprised and a little shocked,” said Eppolito, who isn’t one to talk about himself and his achievements.
USA Hockey National Coach-in-Chief Mike MacMillan has known Eppolito since Eppolito first started working USA Hockey events in 1997. MacMillan is happy Eppolito is being recognized for his hard work.
“I think it’s awesome,” MacMillan said. “He exemplifies what the Walter Yaciuk [Award] is about, which is service to the coaching program. For coaches across not only New York but across the country, he’s always been such a positive influence on the program and so supportive of what we’re all trying to do to make coaching better.”
Added USA Hockey Director, Coaching Education Program, Mark Tabrum: “He’s been delivering the message to coaches in the state of New York for that entire time and even this past year when we were delivering our coaching clinics virtually, he was involved with that. He’s been a person who’s jumped in, helped deliver the message, make coaches better, which in turn develops better youth hockey players. He’s been an integral part of the whole process.”
Teaching within the CEP has always been important to Eppolito. He’s proud to play a part in the evolution of the highly successful program.
“It continues to evolve in a positive way on a yearly basis,” Eppolito said. “So, I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in all kinds of changes in coaching education, all with the goal to make hockey coaches and players in the United States better. I’ve lived through the Initiation Program, to the blue puck, to small area games, to the ADM and now to the coach developer aspects of the CEP. Those elements are just proof that USA Hockey is doing everything they can to make sure they provide the best educational program for their coaches across the board.”
Eppolito, who lives in Clayton, New York, got his first taste of hockey outside of playing when he was refereeing and volunteering. He had a daughter play hockey, so he was heavily involved in the Thousand Islands Youth Hockey program in western New York. For 34 years, Eppolito was a teacher at Thousand Islands High School. He became the school’s boys’ hockey coach in 1986 and held that position until 2016.
In 1994, Eppolito was asked by a local hockey organization to investigate a new USA Hockey program called the Initiation Program.
“I went to this training and didn’t think I was going to learn much, then I had my eyes widely opened to the benefits of being involved in USA Hockey,” Eppolito said. “I ended up taking on the role of the New York State Amateur Hockey Association Initiation Program coordinator in 1994 and from then on I’ve been involved in coaching education.”
To this day, Eppolito is still on the NYSAHA board and has been a USA Hockey district director since 2003. He has served on USA Hockey’s Executive Committee and was a USA Hockey liaison for the coaches section for just under 10 years.
Eppolito has always been a big advocate of girls and women’s hockey, trying to grow the game. He has been a NYSAHA girls and women’s section coordinator since 2000 and is also in charge on the girls side on the NYSAHA Player Development Committee.
“I’ve had the opportunity through the girls and women’s section to be involved in being a lead director at national championships, so I’ve done 17 or 18 girls national championships through the years,” Eppolito said. “I’ve also been able to help work at the national player development camps on the girls side, just as a camp director and more administrative in nature.”
Being involved in so many hockey-related activities, how does Eppolito juggle it all?
“I love it,” Eppolito said. “I’m into it and I’m happy to be a part of it.”
“He’s that tireless volunteer,” Tabrum said. “He’s always involved in volunteering.”
Volunteering in whatever capacity has always been key for Eppolito.
“I guess it’s a part of my family makeup, my family heritage,” Eppolito said. “My grandfather for years was a longtime legendary coach, teacher and administrator, so he passed his love of those professions to me. My dad was a community leader, activist, lifelong volunteer in every cause imaginable for the betterment of our community and I think those family traits have been passed down. Volunteering will always be an important part of my makeup and my family’s makeup.”
Due to the pandemic, the CEP clinics shifted last year to virtual classrooms and Eppolito played an integral role in making those successful in New York.
“The energy and the passion that he brings to the clinics and to any room that he’s in while embracing being a good role model and a good coach have always been what stands out to me,” MacMillan said.
At 62 years old, Eppolito feels like he still has quite a bit of time to volunteer for state and national hockey activities. He also has another reason to stick around the rink.
“I think my coaching career will be extended, because I have a 17-month-old grandson and I’m absolutely sure he’ll be involved in hockey,” Eppolito said. “I’ll probably be back attending his practices and helping move cones.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.