By Mike Mastovich
JOHNSTOWN, Pa. – The Tampa Bay Lightning and Johnstown’s professional hockey fans have put their faith in Frank Anzalone to mold a group of mostly young prospects into an ECHL contender.
A second-year Chiefs coach, Anzalone quietly has established himself as one of the most consistent and successful coaches in the league’s 19-year history.
“Frank’s a winner,” said Chiefs third-year forward Jean Desrochers, who worked closely with Anzalone to improve his overall game last season. “He hates to lose. He doesn’t accept anything less than 100 percent from the players. Even in practice he’s very intense. He’s always demanding the best. His motto in life is to work hard and do your best and things will fall into place.”
Anzalone isn’t as colorful or controversial as the ECHL’s all-time winningest coach, the fiery, white-haired John Brophy, who retired with 480 victories in 878 games.
He’s moved around a bit more than John Marks, who coached in a league-high 918 games, collected 466 wins and claimed two playoff championships while with Charlotte (1993-98) and Greenville (1999-06).
But Anzalone has had a knack for winning, and the 52-year-old Brooklyn native seems to be a solid fit in the Lightning’s developmental philosophy.
His next win will be Anzalone’s 300th.
Chiefs fans hope that the milestone comes as early as Saturday, when Johnstown opens its 19th ECHL season against the Pensacola Ice Pilots at Cambria County War Memorial Arena.
Anzalone ranks third all-time among ECHL coaches with 299 wins and 565 games.
“We’ve got a lot of young guys on our team. That’s why Frank is the man for the job,” said Chiefs forward Randy Rowe, a sixth-year pro in his second season under Anzalone. “He’s such a good teacher. He will mold these guys into good hockey players.”
The Chiefs went 30-26-16 with 76 points in Anzalone’s first season here. More importantly, Johnstown swept Trenton in a best-of-3 playoff series before falling to Toledo in three games in the North Division semifinals.
The Chiefs made progress, but there were rocky moments, including an 0-6-4 start that had fans grumbling and worried even the most optimistic members of the Chiefs organization.
It was a learning experience for the coach and his players, as Tampa Bay took an ownership interest in the Chiefs and practically ran the hockey operations.
This season, the Lightning have assigned 12 players to the Chiefs who are either under contract to the NHL club (eight) or the AHL’s Springfield Falcons (four).
The average age of the 21 players on the roster is 22.8.
“The game is different this year,” Anzalone said. “Last year it was Tampa telling Toby O’Brien (former GM), ‘We have some players. Can you fit them in?’ This year they tell us what they want and what they don’t want. At the end of the day, Tampa Bay makes all the decisions, even on guys like (defenseman) Doug Andress.
“Certainly they listen to the opinions I have, and they are very good about that. But, at the end of the day, they want this team to reflect what they want. It’s my job to get these players to be as one.”
Anzalone will count on experienced players such as Rowe, Desrochers and Andress to provide leadership on a team filled with prospects and former NHL draft picks.
“This is a situation that’s got to mold itself. It’s going to take some time,” said Anzalone, who has coached ECHL teams in Nashville (24-36-4 record), Roanoke (192-122-32, five playoff appearances) and Pee Dee (53-25-5, two seasons). “You’ve got all kinds of different people here, different aspirations, and different concerns. The main thing is they practice hard, they work hard, and they give me 100 percent.”