By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Eight years ago Troy Mann visited Germain Arena — known then as TECO Arena — brimming with confidence as a center for the ECHL’s Mississippi Sea Wolves.
The building was brand new, the Florida Everblades were in their inaugural season and at 29, Mann was leading a championship-caliber team. Mississippi swept Florida in a best-of-five series in the second round and went on to win the Kelly Cup.
On Friday night, the 37-year-old Canadian stood behind the bench as a first-year head coach of the ECHL’s Columbia Inferno, hoping to see his team climb above .500 in the 10th game of a 72-game season. Mann did serve as Ted Dent’s assistant coach last year, but only three players return from that team.
“Ted moved onto the American Hockey League and when you come in as a first-year coach you kind of want to put your own identity together,” Mann said. “It worked out that way, though I expected more guys back. Finances and other contract offers in other leagues sometimes dictate how many guys you do have coming back.”
So Mann, who was an assistant coach and interim head coach for 15 games with Topeka in the Central Hockey League during the 2004-05 season, has taken on the challenge of getting 20 players to believe in his system and get on the same page. And he’s had to do it by himself since there was no room for an assistant coach in Columbia’s budget this time around.
Everblades head coach Gerry Fleming is in his seventh season as a head coach and sixth with Florida, but he can remember what it was like for him that first year in Tallahassee back in 2000-01. Fleming, who turned 40 last month, did have an assistant coach in Ronnie Hatfield, but he had not been an assistant in the ECHL prior to taking the job with the Tiger Sharks.
“I think for me, understanding all the rules, parameters, salary cap, roster changes, IR, what’s involved with recruiting players, can be overwhelming when it’s new to you,” said Fleming, who led the Everblades to back-to-back Kelly Cup Finals in 2004 and 2005. “But having recently retired at the time and only two years removed from being a player, I could relate to guys. I still can relate to some of the stuff they go through being in the minors and trying to make the climb.”
Through his Mississippi connections, Mann was able to land four ex-Sea Wolves, including former Everblades forward Anthony Battaglia (2002-03), who played in Mississippi from 2003-05. Mike Jarmuth, Lucas Drake and Brad Ralph, all forwards, are the other three.
Battaglia, 27, was recruited by Mann last year but ended up for the Utah Grizzlies and the Augusta Lynx with former Everblades head coach Bob Ferguson. He met Mann down in Mississippi, and when the two touched base again over the summer, Battaglia jumped at the chance to play in Columbia.
“He’s pretty much a player’s coach since he’s been out of the game just a couple of years,” Battaglia said of Mann. “He knows what it’s like to be a player so it’s been a really good experience playing for him so far. I think he’s adjusting to the stricter enforcement of the rules well and is helping us work through it, and I think he’s done a good job so far.”
Mann is relying on Battaglia, ex-Blade and team captain Chris Thompson, Jarmuth, Jeff Miles and a few more of the seasoned players to carry his message to the rest of the team. In fact, since Thompson currently is out with a fractured foot, the 28-year-old offered to help out behind the bench for these three games against the Everblades.
If there’s one thing that is proving to be the most difficult aspect of Mann’s job it’s trying to run the whole show as a solo act. But he also sees some benefits.
“It’s a little different running the bench by yourself, because last year Ted had the forward and I had the defensemen, so that’s a bit of an adjustment because you’re going back and forth,” Mann said. “You’re trying to watch your team, trying to pick up things the other team is doing and trying to run the bench, but I’ve talked to coaches who have done it in the past and they just said it’s a timing issue and I’ll be comfortable with it over time.”
If his track record as a player is any indication, Mann seems to be going in the right direction.