Tom Upton was determined in a forced year away from actual coaching to find a way to make himself a better coach.
The Madison Capitols benefited from that determination, advancing all the way to the Clark Cup Final in the team’s return to active United States Hockey League (USHL) competition with Upton at the controls, at last, in the biggest coaching assignment of his 12-year career.
Without the responsibility of coaching behind the bench as the Capitols chose to sit out the 2020-21 season due to the pandemic, Upton sought to improve with other duties that come with the position of general manager. With the highest-level coaching task of his career secured, he sought to still become better at that job as well.
“I’m not a feel-sorry-for-yourself guy,” Upton said of the decision to scrap what would have been his first season with the Capitols. “That’s not how I was raised by my parents.
“So, when that happened, with us not being able to participate last season due to COVID regulations and our roster, our players, being taken by other teams, I tried to find a positive in that.”
With no players to coach, but a future roster to build, Upton tried to get a jumpstart on 2021-22.
“I treated it like a lot of things in life when negative events happen,” said Upton, who focused on the positives of the situation, like owner Ryan Suter’s commitment to the staff during the downtime.
One major positive was being able to spend more time on the 2021 USHL Draft than much of his competition.
Upton put to use the experience he had from drafting, scouting and recruiting during his time as an assistant coach.
“If I’m not coaching, I’m going to go out and work my tail off and make sure I’m as familiar as I can be with this younger age group around the country, not only for this draft, but for future drafts. I thought it was a great opportunity to do that.
“I was excited about the opportunity to get out on the road and grind and really get to know all the players around North America and even the world.”
At the same time, Upton did not want his coaching skill set to become stagnant. An avid reader, Upton dove into leadership topics. He picked up the phone to call coaches he knew and ask questions about systems.
And, just as he did in preparation for the draft, Upton hit the road.
“I got to go and spend some time with some Division I staffs around the country — learn from them, watch their practices, sit in on the meetings,” he said.
Although he did not necessarily know who they would be, Upton felt an obligation to his future players.
“My biggest goal for last year with not coaching is that I knew I still had to develop,” he said. “I don’t think, as coaches, we should demand for our players to develop and not be open-minded and evolving and changing and developing ourselves.
“For me, I want to coach in the NHL one day,” he said. “So, I knew I couldn’t possibly be the same coach as I was when our team got shut down 12 months from now.
“I needed to be better. I needed a way to develop, but I didn’t have the luxury of coaching games in the USHL.”
The results seem to indicate the efforts worked as planned.
Madison went 30-29-3-0 for fifth out of eight teams in the Eastern Conference, but was ready to perform at any even higher level in the Clark Cup Playoffs.
By winning seven of 10 games, the Capitols made their way to the Final where they beat the Sioux City Musketeers in the first game of the best-of-five series. They went on to lose the next three, two by one goal, including one in overtime, but the growth and progress shown was a testament to all the hard work Upton had put in the season prior.
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
Photo from Madison Capitals Twitter