On the Rink with Gootz: Coaching the Danbury Whalers

By Guest Blogger Chris “Gootz” Hoeler

Sometimes opportunity knocks on the door of your life and offers itself to you…other times it kicks the door down and just walks in. In my case, it was the latter. For those who do not know I had the opportunity to stand behind the bench of the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League (FHL) for three games while Head Coach Phil Esposito was suspended. His suspension was as a result of a bench-clearing brawl that occurred when the Whalers played the Danville Dashers up in Maine. If you haven’t seen the video for this you can find it on YouTube when you search Danbury Whalers bench brawl. Here is the story:

I was on the train up from NYC to Danbury for the weekend to help out at the two games the team was to have that weekend, the second half of a stretch of four games in four nights. Pros in the higher levels don’t do those kinds of schedules so these guys are absolute warriors. But while sitting on the train I got a call from coach asking about my plans for the weekend. Obviously going up to Danbury for the weekend to my first Whaler home games of the year. He hung up and said he would call me back.

I switched trains onto the Danbury line. It was a beautiful day out and I was just excited to be getting out of the city for a short time and get into the hockey mindset. The Rangers were on a seven game winning streak at the time and I was feeling good. I sat on the train listening to music, playing Words with Friends, and just wandering the Internet. As I have made it a habit being involved with the team, I decided to check the FHL transactions for the day and saw there were many for that day. I had seen the brawl from the night before and wanted to see who was going to be suspended. As I scrolled down the page I noticed that Coach had been put on indefinite suspension by the league along with five other players. Was quite a hit to the roster and the leadership of the team and I wondered how things were going to work for the next few games…

Train gets to Danbury and I get off and start walking across the street to the arena (how convenient right?) when my phone rings. It was Coach again asking where I was and if I had a dress shirt and pants with me. Of course, being a professional, I did, and he told me to get up into the locker room because we needed to talk about something (if you are wondering if I had any idea at this point, the answer is no).

I get into the locker room area, step over the giant Whalers logo in the center of the floor (Pro hockey tip: if you are ever in a locker room, never step on a logo).  This was the first time I had been back in Danbury since the big snowstorm so Coach and I caught up a bit sitting in that tiny office we had occupied together for most of the summer. Was refreshing to be back for sure. Of course the conversation went to the game at hand. We talked about the night before against Danville until I said something along the lines of:

ME: “That sucks you have been suspended. I guess Nick Deschenes is going to have to play and run things on the bench huh?” (For those who don’t know, Nick Deschenes is the player assistant coach for the Danbury Whalers. I personally think its awesome players can also be assistant coaches but I digress).

COACH: “He is gonna run the bench but he can’t do it by himself because he will also be playing”

ME: “That is true, can’t be in two places at the same time. So how is that going to work down there?”

COACH: “Well you are going to be behind the bench. Remember what we talked about this summer?”

Okay. So before I get to what my reaction was, a bit of a flashback. During the summer the very question about who would coach the team if Coach had been suspended came up. A joking answer came from him and the owner saying it was me. We all laughed about it because what were the odds right?

Anyway back to the more recent present. To describe my reaction, I would describe it by saying I spit out my coffee and I wasn’t even drinking any. After that initial reaction I started laughing because that sounds insane right? I was the only one who was laughing and then it hit me that he was serious.

That was at about 3 PM. After that short conversation it was off for the pre-game meal and two hours of strategizing. With players out from the suspension new lines had to be created while I learned the systems, style of play, philosophies, what players to watch on the other team, and more things I can’t even remember right now. It was basically a week’s training camp crash course in about two hours…also known as a lot of information. I’m not sure how long I stared at the little piece of paper that had numbers, arrows, notes, and indecipherable scribbles on it but it was a long time.

It wasn’t until about 5:30 that I finally got to sit down alone with my thoughts. I was sitting at my computer listening to music only to find that my entire head was empty (except of course for the lines for the upcoming game). I decided to try and find a song that would help get me in the mood for hockey and sort of get me going. There are a lot of good ones out there but the first one that came on was Machinehead by Bush. I had never understood it but one of my college roommates always described how it gave him goosebumps before his high school hockey games. I remember it because of how the Rangers used to play it during their pre-game warm ups. Yet when this song came on I got goosebumps and I again started laughing.

Fast-forward to warm-ups. I had been listening to music and my phone just blowing up with text messages, Facebook notifications, and one or two phone calls. One of my pre-game duties included watching the opposing team’s warm-up routine and figuring out their lines. That night we were playing the Vermont Wild, a team which wasn’t having a great season but had some players who could certainly score and had experience doing so at many different levels. Most of their scoring came from their top line which is what I was most concerned about.

I talked with a fellow Whaler front office member for a few minutes until I had a few more minutes to myself. I had written down the lines and was sort of staring out at the crowd that was beginning to get together. Was decently packed with about 15 minutes before puck drop. Coach made a speech as he explained that I was behind the bench and had the game plan under control. To be honest there were about a million things in my head and it was very tough to keep them in line. The players gave a few whoops and “lets do it Gootz” and I immediately felt better.

We walked down and the players were being introduced one at a time. A few encouraging phrases were said as they skated out one at a time. When our goalie was the last to go out there, I followed as the announcer said “YOUR DANBURY WHALERS!” Not really sure if it was because of that phrase or just the fact I was walking on ice but a huge tingling went down my spine.

I won’t go over every minute of the game but to say it can be chaotic on the bench during a game is an understatement. From trying to call out lines to avoiding pucks and sticks that come over the boards you always have to be watching the play. So many things are happening at once it can be overwhelming and to do that night in and night out takes some kind of willpower. I will share two of my favorite moments (other than winning two games).

One of the moments was a personal milestone for one of the Whalers players, Nick Niedert. He plays goaltender for the Whalers and, during the second game of my stint, was able to get his 100th career professional win. An absolute warrior on the ice and a great teammate off it was great to see him reach a milestone while I stood on the bench for the game. The best part was after the game after offering my congratulations and his compliments to me on keeping it together on the bench and making sure everything was running smooth. The humility of hockey players is unbelievable and it really made me feel confident in my abilities. So congratulations Nicky and I am proud to have been behind the bench for your win.

The other moment of mine that I loved, and it happened a few times I am happy to say, was being at home, on the bench, when the Whalers scored a goal. The first one I was there for was a Chris Clark power play goal against Vermont. I have been to many hockey games in my life at different levels but I don’t think I was ever more excited for a goal than that one. While that one stands out, every goal was great and the feeling you get when that happens is amazing. Think of the feeling you get when your favorite team scores and multiply it by 1000.

So that is my experience, in a nutshell. There are a lot of other things I could tell you about but I would end up writing a novel and taking up quite a bit of space on Mr. Caggiano’s blog here. All I can say is that it was an unbelievable experience I will never forget. I want to thank the players for bearing with me through the whole ordeal. I wasn’t perfect and certainly could have run things a bit better but the boys hung in there and they helped me out when I needed it. I also want to thank Coach Phil Esposito who trusted me enough to put me back there. Him and I have spent many long days and nights at the rink trying to get the team together and for him to allow me to do this showed how much faith he has in me and it feels good.

And who knows…maybe I will be back behind the bench again sometime this season. After all…I do have a winning record.

Chris Hoeler is the assistant director of player personnel for the Danbury Whalers of the Federal Hockey League. He has been a fan of the New York Rangers his entire life.

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