The United States Hockey League introduced six new head coaches to its respective benches this year, a substantial amount rarely seen in the 16-team league. Each coach brings a mix of their own talents and credentials to the job, and some have already made an early impact.
Rocky Russo has led the Lincoln Stars to first place in the Western Conference, and Tommy Upton has the Madison Capitols in second in the Eastern Conference six weeks into the season.
Russo previously spent 15 years in varying roles in USA Hockey’s only Tier II junior league, the North American Hockey League, before ascending to his current role, while Upton split time across the NAHL, USHL and NCAA in various coaching roles.
For Greg Brown, Chadd Cassidy and Matt Curley, their previous experiences were all as different as Russo and Upton. Their paths, some in professional hockey and others in youth hockey, all crossed across USA Hockey benches at some point.
It’s the small world of coaching, and the massive opportunity to be a head coach in the USHL, that has brought them together this season
Here are their stories.
Although this is Brown’s first head-coaching job, the rest of his resume indicates that he is more than ready for this position.
The 53-year-old former defenseman played 94 games over four seasons in the NHL, was an assistant coach for 14 seasons at his alma mater of Boston College and had been an assistant for the last three seasons in the NHL with the New York Rangers. He also played for USA Hockey in the 1988 Calgary and 1992 Albertville Olympic Games.
“My parents and many of my relatives were teachers, so I think I've always gravitated toward that aspect,” Brown said of becoming a coach. His brother Doug formerly played in the NHL, while another brother, Patrick, is currently with the Philadelphia Flyers.
In his first season with the Fighting Saints, Brown has the perennial Clark Cup playoff team third in the Eastern Conference, just three points shy of first place with three games in hand.
Brown’s coaching stints have also included various roles with USA Hockey, including as an assistant for the 2017 U.S. National Junior Team that won a gold medal at the IIHF World Junior Championship.
Regardless of the level — college, the NHL or, now, the USHL — Brown said he still applies lessons and techniques learned through USA Hockey.
Crossing over from being a player to a coach was fairly smooth for Brown, a two-time Hobey Baker Award finalist at Boston College.
“I think I can empathize with the players and relate to them because I’ve been in their shoes,” Brown said. “I felt like my relationship with the guys was very comfortable. I know what they were going through, having done it myself in the same situation.”
When the Rangers made a coaching change after last season, Brown was left looking for a job and that led him to Dubuque.
“I was familiar with the USHL and Dubuque from my days at Boston College, having recruited and scouted in that league, so I knew what a good league it was, how strong it was,” Brown said. “When the opportunity came. It seemed like it would be a great fit.”
Going from coaching the best players in the world in the NHL to the USHL, where the top players are at least two or three years away from that level, wasn’t a huge difference for Brown except for one aspect.
“The new part has been that being the head coach, which has been a great new experience for me and a different dynamic on the bench,” Brown said. “But as far as working with the players, it’s actually not that different. We had 18- and 19-year-old boys in college, we had 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds in New York and we have 18-, 19-, 20-year-olds here. So even though it’s a different league, you’re working with a lot of the same age group and go about doing your teaching with a lot of kids of that age in a very similar fashion.”
If there was ever a situation that seemed tailor-made, it was Cassidy as head coach at Northwood School in Lake Placid, New York, a position he held at the private high school since 2015.
But sometimes you just get that itch to see what else is out there, and that became clear this summer during conversations between the 48-year-old and his wife.
“We just felt it was time for a change,” said Cassidy, who was born in Lake Placid. “I was kind of feeling like I was ready for a new experience. We had really done a great job in developing the program at Northwood and got it to a really good place and it was time for a new challenge.”
Cassidy had been an assistant coach under Ron Rolston from 2006-11 for USA Hockey’s National Development Team Program team in Plymouth, Michigan, which played in the USHL. Cassidy followed Rolston to the American Hockey League’s Rochester Americans and became head coach when Rolston was promoted to coach of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres during the 2012-13 season.
“[The NTDP was] the best learning experience that I've had in my coaching career just in terms of working with high-level players, and really being able to focus on development of those players during that time,” said Cassidy, who helped the U.S. win two golds and a silver at the U18 level and a U17 silver.
What really drove Cassidy’s love of hockey was growing up in Lake Placid and being a kid when the “Miracle on Ice” happened in the small city in northern New York during the 1980 Winter Games.
“I was I think 7 or 8 years old during the ‘Miracle on Ice’ and I tell the story all the time,” said Cassidy, who played at Cortland (New York) State. “As a player, I think most kids grow up and they want to play in the National Hockey League. And I will be honest with you when I tell you that my aspirations as a player were always to play in the Olympics. Obviously, I never achieved that, which is a very difficult thing to do. But for me growing up in Lake Placid and being there witnessing the ‘Miracle on Ice’ — my dad and my grandfather were actively involved in the Winter Olympic Games — and that was the most special experience in my life.”
When he returned to coach at Northwood, the school was playing in the same facility where the U.S. shocked the Soviet Union in the semifinals and beat Finland for the gold. While Cassidy’s stories still hold sway, the players he coaches now only have the movie version of 1980 to capture the drama.
“It is neat to kind of be able to talk about that all the time,” Cassidy said. “And as much as I have spoken about it over the years, I never get sick of it because it was such a phenomenal experience and it was such a phenomenal time, not just in terms of us winning the gold in men's hockey, but Eric Heiden won five gold medals and his sister [Beth] winning medals [a bronze] and all of the activity of the Olympics all happening within nine miles of each other in this tiny town in the Adirondack Mountains, which would never happen today.”
Now, he is coaching in Omaha and the USHL after leaving his hometown, and currently sits in a playoff position in the Western Conference early in the season.
“In many, many ways, it is way more difficult to play in the USHL than it is to play Division I [college] hockey,” Cassidy said. “The ability to coach this level of players in a league that has some really good coaches, to square up against those teams and those coaches every night is such a great experience for us. And it's such a great developmental ground, not just for the players, but for coaches as well. So it's been a lot of fun.”
Curley started coaching a group of five when he was just a kid: the team was his younger siblings, two brothers and three sisters, all within seven years of each other.
“We didn't have much for neighbors and so it was myself, my siblings and me, being the oldest one, always would be the one coordinating little games — 3-on-3 basketball or street hockey or kickball or baseball, whatever we're doing,” Curley said of his coaching origins. “Looking back on it now, it was very advantageous for me to cut my teeth and learn how to organize and cooperate, teach all of that to my younger siblings.”
Those skills carried over to his playing days in college at Clarkson, where he helped out with summer camps. After graduating from Clarkson, Curley spent two seasons playing professional hockey, including one with the ECHL’s Reading Royals, before turning to coaching. He latched on with USA Hockey as an assistant, winning an Under-18 gold in 2011 and Under-17 silver in 2012.
And yes, he did cross paths with Chadd Cassidy during his time and the two recently had a chance to catch up before the USHL season began.
“USA Hockey's been so good to me,” said Curley, 38. “I've been very blessed with the opportunities that I've had to be a part of what we do as the hockey body and as a hockey nation. I've been involved in anywhere between the district regional tryouts for kids, various districts, whether it's New York, Southeast, Pacific on a local level for the state level to the district level — more than a decade of doing the national camps.”
Curley gained international experience as head coach of two teams in Salzburg, Austria.
“One of the biggest lessons I learned from being there — and I think it goes across all ages, whether it's the young kids or young men or adults at the pro level, but especially for our age group of 16- to 20-year-olds — is the value of communication,” said Curley, who had players from several countries on his roster. “And I was in a situation for three years where English was not the native language, that terminology and phrases and just general language that you take for granted over here could get lost in translation and kids, maybe having English as their second or third language, and just the importance and the value of having clear and candid conversations, whether in front of the group or as individuals to make sure that you know that what you're trying to deliver to those kids that they understand.”
English was the language used to communicate because, Cassidy said, players regardless of country had the dream of playing in the U.S. and in the NHL.
Curley returned to the U.S. in 2018 to coach collegiately at Alaska-Anchorage. There were many challenges to the job, which factored into at least three college assistants turning down the position.
“I was really lucky to get that job in Anchorage and I know that I probably truthfully wasn't even qualified to do it, based on my credentials and certainly other candidates,” Curley said. “But I was lucky I got the opportunity and I'm very grateful for having had that. It was a great experience.”
The school voted in September 2020 to shut down hockey if it could not raise enough money to cover expenses for two seasons, a goal boosters have since met. The pandemic interrupted Curley’s final season and he decided to seek opportunities elsewhere, which led him to Des Moines and the USHL.
“I'm glad to see it's back up on its feet,” Curley said of the Anchorage program. “I hope it can do well. I have nothing but love for the state of Alaska, the city of Anchorage. I loved my time up there, my family and I absolutely loved it and I miss it.”
Curley said there were several reasons that led him to landing in Des Moines.
“One is the chance to be in this league,” Curley said. “I believe very strongly that this is the best junior league in the world. I know there's a lot of great ones out there, but the professionalism, the facilities, the coaches and the fans — and then of course the caliber of players. It's really second to none. It's an outstanding league for development.”
The early enthusiasm is paying off for Curley and his squad, as Des Moines currently sits four points out of first place in the Western Conference with two games in hand.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.