The joke was on Jack Witt. Only he didn’t know it.
As he has done in previous years, Witt had distributed materials regarding the selection of USA Hockey’s Walter Yaciuk Award, which goes to someone who has made significant contributions to the Coaching Education Program as a volunteer.
The difference was Witt had retired from his leadership position on the selection committee that he held for the previous 12 years, having moved from Michigan to Texas, and figured this was his last official act as he handed over duties during this meeting.
Everyone else on the April 18 virtual call knew what was going on. Knowing Witt’s straightforward approach, there was an opportunity for a little fun.
“He doesn’t always catch humor,” chuckled Mike MacMillan, USA Hockey’s national coach-in-chief. “So, we talk for a couple seconds and I said, ‘Jack, we really thought it was important for you to be on this call because we really want to know how you feel about being the Walter Yaciuk Award winner?’”
That didn’t quite register for Witt.
“He didn't miss a beat,” MacMillan said. “He said, 'I don't know, I haven't won it, but I can do some research and get back to you and let you know what the other winners thought.’ I had to abruptly stop him, and I said, 'Jack, one more time. How does it feel to be the Walter Yaciuk winner?' It just went right over his head [the first time], so he got it.”
Witt will be honored June 9 at the President’s Award Dinner in Denver.
So, what did it mean to Witt to be named the Walter Yaciuk Award?
“Part of the criteria for the award is service to the coaching program over a long period of time,” said Witt, who moved to Austin, Texas, to be closer to his grandchildren. “I actually started being an instructor in 1996, so I'm coming up on my 30 years of involvement the coaching program. It definitely gives you some perspective.”
His hockey resume is deep. Witt has been key in developing USA Hockey’s Coaching Education Program since he started coaching in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1984. Since attending his first clinic in 1986, Witt has since been either a coach and/or held a role with a local or state organization or USA Hockey. Among the positions he has held with USA Hockey are a Coaching Education Program instructor (beginning in 1996), Michigan coach-in-chief (2000-21), Playing Rules Committee member (since 2002), Officiating Task Force (2021-22) and Youth Council subcommittee on officials (current).
It isn’t just the X’s and O’s and the details of being a better coach that made Witt the only logical choice winner for the award this year. It was how he dealt with people and grew the number of volunteers.
“I think one of the things that I'm proudest of are some of the people I've engaged and brought into the program,” Witt said. “I was very proud of the staff that I worked with in Michigan and I'm learning that there are a really good number of quality people here in the Rocky Mountain District now who I'm very happy to work with. I've actually recruited a few of them here as well.”
Those volunteers might not have joined if it wasn’t for what Witt brought to the table.
“There's so many things that make him special. Let's be honest,” MacMillan said. “He's been a go-to guy in the state of Michigan forever. He's so passionate and so caring about other people and really about educating coaches to make coaches better. That's a passion of his and it doesn't matter who it is, he wants to give them the tools and resources to be the best that they can be when they work with the kids in our country.”
Witt, who retired from his career as an IT professional, became a leader on the local level out of opportunity. He was coming along at a time when the Coaching Education Program was in its infancy and USA Hockey needed people at the grassroots level to help train and educate others. So, Witt took the leap and volunteered to be a leader, which obviously worked out well for him.
“I tell coaches this when I meet them,” Witt said. “I say, 'Don't be afraid to volunteer for a leadership role in your program. You never know where it's going to take you.' I stepped up to a couple of things. ... Never knowing all of the good things that would happen because of that.
“It was, on average, I would say 20 hours a week. It was like a part-time job. But it was all worth it and the people I met and the things I got to do.It's just been a tremendous experience.”
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