The career path for hockey coaches often mirrors the “squiggly line” that players traverse during the various stages of their development. Rarely do coaches seamlessly jump from youth hockey to high school to college to the professional ranks or from assistant to head coach in a perfect, orderly scenario.
The legendary Mark Taylor, who in his 22nd year at Hobart College won the program’s first NCAA Division III national championship this past spring, understands the road hockey coaches must endure. He began his coaching career in 1987 with single-season stints at Middlebury College, Brown University and the University of Vermont. From there, Taylor coached at Cornell University, then U-Mass Lowell, before finally finding a home for the past two decades in Geneva, N.Y.
Taylor talked with USA Hockey about his journey to being named the 2023 AHCA Division III Men’s Coach of the Year.
USA Hockey: How did you get into coaching?
Mark Taylor: I’d have to give credit to Brian McCutcheon, my former college coach. When I was playing in Sweden after college, I had gotten injured and had time off to think about what was next for me. I think Brian recognized that maybe I had some qualities to be a coach and he got me thinking about that side of the game. Then following the season there was an opportunity at Middlebury College with Bill Beaney.
I had gotten a taste for coaching prior to that when I was in college. A youth team had a situation mid-year where they needed coaches and myself and another classmate filled in for a bit. It was a real eye-opener, in a good way. It showed me the important role the coach plays in the lives of the kids. So, maybe the seed was planted then. At that time, I was playing for another great and influential coach, Terry Martin. I had really good people that I looked up to. I coach how I do because of all I have gained from all my coaches. I always feel that I have a lot to give back.
USA Hockey: Tell us more about your journey as a coach.
Mark Taylor: I started at Middlebury College with Bill. His success speaks for itself, but more than being one of the best coaches of this time, he’s a great guy. He’s more concerned about producing winners as people than winners as hockey players. That, I believe, is his secret to winning. They say good coaches are good thieves, and I’ve certainly stolen that model from him.
The next year I got an opportunity to work with Bob Gaudet and Scott Borek at Brown. I learned so much, not from just those two, but also from the experience. We laugh about it because we won our first game, then lost the rest. However, that year started the turn-around for the program and I believe it was three years later that Bobby and “Bo” had Brown back on the map. Scott showed me how to be passionate and truly invested in recruiting. Bob is another quality person that proved that you could be a passionate and competitive coach, and at the same time, be a real quality family person.
From there I went to Vermont with Mike Gilligan, who anybody in college hockey knows is one of the best people in the business. Good guys like him are easy to work for and recruit for, and they attract good players. I really didn’t want to leave Vermont, but the opportunity came to be united with Brian McCutcheon at Cornell, which is a special place.
Cornell was a place where I put down some roots, got married, and had my first child. I was fortunate to work with good assistant coaches there like Casey Jones, who is now at Clarkson, Kevin Hamlin, who is now at Windsor, Karl Williams, who played and later coached with us, who went on to Alaska. Being around better people just makes you better and I was fortunate for that.
The next move was to UMass-Lowell, where I teamed up with Norm Bazin, Tim Whitehead and goalie coach Ed Walsh. That was another great experience, and we all grew from each other and with each other, and certainly had some successes.
And all that led me to Hobart College. It was an opportunity to try and do something special at a place, like I saw Bill Beaney do in Middlebury. I wanted to try and bring that to Hobart College. Also, as a young father, I wanted to make sure I was also doing that part of my life the right way, and it’s a little easier to do that as a head coach. As a head coach, you also are able to surround yourself with quality assistant coaches that definitely make you better. Everybody has something to bring to the table, so you are going get something from them. As you help them develop, you develop.
You learn and grow from your experiences, but just as much from your relationships, because you stay connected with those people. Loyalty in this game can be really strong, and your close circle is always trying to help each other so you can continue to grow.
USA Hockey: How did you learn, grow, develop and find new opportunities to advance?
Mark Taylor: You have to be observant, keep your eyes and ears wide open, and really think about what you’re hearing and seeing. After you’ve done that it’s good to speak up and engage. Maybe your idea is good, and the listener would really be rewarded. Or maybe not, and you’ll be corrected and not go down the wrong path. I’ve always felt you can always get better, and I am always looking for ways to be better at where I am at and who I am, first and foremost. I was brought up to work as hard as you can, take pride in your work or job and be a good teammate. And, if it was meant to be, a good opportunity would present itself. I believe opportunities will come to those who work hard and do good work.
USA Hockey: What advice do you have for youth hockey coaches?
Mark Taylor: My advice to youth hockey coaches is very simple, but important. Embrace the responsibility you have above winning a game or championship. Youth coaches are more important than pro coaches or college coaches because they impact so much of what eventually comes our way – those quality people added to society away from the rink.
I am probably coaching because of my Peewee coach Arlie Parker. He made a group of kids feel real good about themselves and about each other as teammates, and fostered a love and appreciation for the game. Memories of hanging out in a barn locker room just off the edge of a frozen pond, having laughs with my buddies and teammates, are as seared in my mind as is the moment of winning a national championship. That’s evidence enough to me how important youth hockey coaches are.
USA Hockey: How should coaches navigate the highs and lows of a long season?
Mark Taylor: For me, navigating the highs and lows are much easier when you have a solid focus, belief or values in what you know is most important overall. If my team plays full effort and with compete and good character, and we don’t win, I’m not getting low at all from that. Yes, I’d be a little happier after a win, but in terms of having high highs and low lows, fortunately, I haven’t experienced those in a long time and I think that’s because of what I hold myself and my team to be important. That isn’t to say we don’t celebrate winning and our goal is to try and win everything, but in terms of how we feel about ourselves and how we go about those goals, we evaluate that in other terms.
USA Hockey: How can coaches get the most out of players?
Mark Taylor: The players know I am as passionate about achieving our goals as they are, and they know to give the best of their abilities and go about things the right way. We compete. Compete is at the forefront of who we are – grit, determination, perseverance, intensity, tenacity, toughness. These things are more in the forefront of our conversations than talent and skill. Competitive people want to be pushed. They want expectations and those are the type of people I look for to bring into the program. I know that if they came here for those reasons, I better emulate those expectations. I think it’s simple to get a lot out of someone you believe in, then they’ll believe in you. You work hard for them, they’ll work hard for you. Sacrifice for them, they’ll sacrifice for you.
USA Hockey: What are your tips on building a great team culture?
Mark Taylor: I’m constantly working on the culture to keep it, to improve it and to make it better. We use the word “Arete,” the pursuit of perfection. I know our culture, our game and I will never be perfect, but we can sure as heck try to be. To have a good culture you must really be committed that it’s important to you and really truly want that good culture. Then, be relentless and work hard at creating that good culture. I coached Paul Coffey’s son here, and he (Paul) shared this advice: “When it’s going good, work harder, when it’s not going good, work harder.”
Don’t forget that as a coach, working at it means learning what good cultures look like, learning how those cultures were established and day-to-day trying to find opportunities to keep adding to your culture. It won’t happen overnight, but I believe it can happen pretty quick. A house can be built in a year and someone else can build the same house in a couple months. Usually there are two factors: how many people are working on it and how hard are you working? Engage everyone within your program.
USA Hockey: Do you use small-area games in practices? Is there a favorite drill/game?
Mark Taylor: I don’t really have a favorite drill, it just better be something that translates into how the game’s played or develops skill sets that are needed. There are drills I hate, that foster skating around aimlessly or stickhandling with your head down that’s just about you and the puck.
We have sets of drills or small games we use regularly to improve and reinforce things that we believe in and are in our identity. For example, how we play between the top of the circles of each end, or how we play below the top of the circles in the offensive zone. I have a series of drills that we do to reinforce how we play along the goal line, corner to corner, or how we play in the slot at each end and how we play along the walls and in the corners. I like to utilize everything from the traditional one-and-done standard drill, to the continuous drills, the small games, the scrimmages. All of the styles have a place. The overriding factor for me: is it relatable in the game and do the guys have fun competing at what they are doing?
USA Hockey: How can we get more coaches involved?
Mark Taylor: That’s probably better answered by someone that sees the whole picture and knows the numbers. I do feel strongly, though, that we need to keep doing everything we can to get the right people coaching at our youth levels. I think it’s important. We need to find ways to get former players involved in coaching. Not that you have to be a former player to be a great coach, because that’s been proven time and again by great coaches that didn’t have much playing background. But if someone has played, they have a head start, and also hopefully have a desire to give back. Unfortunately, some of the craziness around minor sports has been a deterrent for good people getting into it. The more we can squash that out around our game the more we will attract the right people. Also, we need to keep beating the drum for those individuals to look past the crazy stuff and give back the good stuff. It’s for the good of the game and the good of the kids. I’m optimistic that the uptick in women's hockey can only help this. More women are playing the game and I think that is helping increase more women coaching the game.