By Leif Skodnick
Special to ECHL.com
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. – Like many who enter the field of coaching, Matt Thomas began coaching hockey when his playing career was finished. It just happens that his playing days ended earlier than most.
“I went to the Florida Everblades camp in 1998-99, their first season,” recalls Thomas, who is the youngest active head coach in the league at 28 years old and one of the youngest head coaches in league history. “They’ve had a lot of success with their affiliations with Carolina and it wasn’t the best place for an undersized, defensive, checking line forward with average hands.”
Released by Florida, the 5-6 Thomas, who played college hockey at the Rochester Institute of Technology, had an offer on the table from a team in the Central Hockey League.
“I had another place to go, and I talked with my family about it because I have a pretty good history of concussions,” said Thomas. “I decided it wasn’t a good idea to be earning 350 dollars a week playing a contact sport where it was just a matter of time before I got the concussion that would make me have trouble with daily functions.
“Being a player was something I wanted to do, but I also had to be a realist in the fact that a 5-6 checking line center is easily replaceable.”
With his decision made, Thomas refocused his goals on coaching and returned to RIT as an assistant coach to Eric Hoffberg, beginning a three-season apprenticeship to some of the best coaches in college hockey. In the three years, Thomas worked with the winningest coach in RIT history (Hoffberg), the winningest coach in the history of University of Maine hockey (Shawn Walsh) and the coach who would take his teams to two NCAA Finals in three years (Tim Whitehead).
“I played for Eric Hoffberg for four years and then I was his assistant for one year. After that I went to the University of Maine and was with Shawn Walsh and Tim Whitehead for two years,” said Thomas. “Eric Hoffberg was a master motivator. Shawn Walsh was the ultimate taskmaster who knew how to handle any situation and get results. Grant Standbrook taught me a lot about recruiting, he’s one of the best in the business, and Gene Reilly showed me the importance of video as a teaching tool.
“Tim Whitehead was a great X’s and O’s coach, but more importantly he showed me the importance of understanding your players and what it takes to get a little bit more of each guy. I learned a ton from all of those guys.”
After two years at Maine, including a trip to the 2002 NCAA Finals where the Black Bears lost to the University of Minnesota, Thomas became an assistant coach with Atlantic City in the ECHL which had lost to Dayton in the Northern Conference Finals in its first season on the Jersey Shore. In three years, Thomas had gone from the ECHL waiver wire to the coach’s office for what had become one of the league’s top teams.
“I got into a situation that most assistant coaches would dream to be in,” smiled Thomas, who joined the Boardwalk Bullies at the beginning of 2002-03, a season that ended with a Kelly Cup Championship. “Coming in, we had a great team that year and we knew that we had a chance to win it. We had some great players and a really talented head coach in Mike Haviland.”
“Matt and I have a lot of mutual friends. There were a lot of people who I respected that were pushing for him. He was young, eager, a hard worker, and there were a lot of people who were after him,” says Haviland. “I had an opening and interviewed him and then Jason Christie offered him the assistant coach’s job in Peoria, so we kind of got into a bidding war for him. When you hear about good people that work hard and have passion you want to get them and that’s why we wanted Matt”
Having little professional experience, one would think that Thomas might have trouble gaining credibility and respect from players. The new coach, however, handled it well.
“My first year at RIT, I didn’t have to worry about that because I had been there and they knew what kind of player I was. Then I went to Maine and it was a step up because I was dealing with Division I athletes,” said Thomas. “It’s another step up when you come to the pro game because all these guys have had great careers in juniors and college, and in some cases they have already had great pro careers. I didn’t go out and try to get to gain their respect because I had been a great player, but rather I took the route that I was going to understand them as players and what they needed to do.”
In the summer of 2004, Thomas was named head coach in Atlantic City shortly after his professional mentor Haviland left to become head coach of the Bullies’ archrival Trenton.
“I knew that I was prepared enough so that I could handle it,” Thomas replied when asked if taking the team over made him nervous. “I was talking to Claude Noel this summer, and he told me ‘Matt, the one thing to be prepared for is that you aren’t prepared for everything.’ Something always comes up. Right now we’re dealing with injuries. Earlier this year Moreland started 20-some odd games in a row. I may have made mistakes this year in the way that I’ve handled a few things, but I’ve been able to learn from them.”
As the season draws to a close, Thomas and the Bullies are in the middle of one of the tightest playoff races in ECHL history as six of the eight teams in the North Division of the National Conference are separated by less than seven points.
“We had to give up quite a bit of offense to get Trevor Koenig for the playoff race and we’ve lost Luke Curtin, Brad Both and Dan Peters,” Thomas said. “We got off to a slow start and hit a good run in November, but it’s always tough to maintain that level. You can’t be in first place all year. Adversity and fighting through it is what defines you as a team.”
Thomas said he will be working to keep his team focused as it tries to capture another Kelly Cup Championship.
“Maintaining that level of focus and taking it one day at a time is the key,” said Thomas. “Our division is such a juggernaut that at the end of next weekend we could be in first place or we could be in sixth place. Our work isn’t done.”