By Jeff Dahlia
Special to ECHL.com
BOISE, Idaho – If you mention the name John Olver around the ECHL you will learn that he is not only a proven winner and a great ambassador for the league, but he is also one of the most respected figures in professional hockey. You won’t get the humble coach to say it, but it is evident that many others are very envious of the man who has had such a lengthy stretch of success and fortune as a coach and a builder.
Some people tend to equate any sort of success with prior failure. For Olver, that has never been the case. Continuing to challenge the odds, he still moves forward as a coach and a person.
His career in the ECHL started in 2003-04 when he took the Idaho Steelheads and guided them to a Kelly Cup Championship in their inaugural season. Even though he had been with Idaho going back to the 2000-01 season (where the franchise was a member of the now-defunct WCHL), it was a formidable task for Olver and the organization to come into a new league and end the season as the best team in the ECHL.
To his credit, a feat like that goes to show how hard he has worked over the past two decades to remain successful year in and year out.
And how fitting is it that his latest quest as an optimist, a visionary and a coach started when his days as a successful player came to an end.
In the middle of his junior year at the University of Michigan, Olver decided to hang up his skates and leave school to focus on coaching. Not only did he forgo his final two years to play for the Maize and Blue, but he also left campus after being selected by the Colorado Rockies (now the New Jersey Devils) in 1978.
“I contacted Colorado to let them know I was leaving school early and that I wanted to see what other opportunities were out there for me,” says Olver. “They really discouraged the move, but at the same time, they weren’t showing that much interest and I realized that for me, there didn’t seem to be many significant professional opportunities at the next level.”
Olver would forge on and go back home without any regrets to prepare for the future he intended on building.
“I have no regrets,” said Olver about leaving behind his career as a player. “I could have played in the minors but I am fairly certain I couldn’t have played in the NHL. I was very objective and realistic in regards to where I thought my career was headed.”
Determined to advance, he finished his degree and started a new chapter in his life, reemerging as coach of the New Westminster Royals in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League. Continuing to grow as a coach he landed in the Western Hockey League as an assistant coach with the New Westminster Bruins in 1987-88.
The 1988-99 season would be a year of firsts for Olver, who followed the Bruins south as the organization started over as the Tri-City Americans. His career began to flourish when he became the president of the Continental Sports Corporation, the company that orchestrated the move from New Westminster and which was also responsible for the development and construction of the new arena. Olver was also tapped to become the head coach and general manager for the Americans.
Even though the team ended a game below .500, Olver feels that 1988-99 may have been one of his most successful seasons as a coach.
“The season started and the arena was near completion,” said Olver. “We had to spend our first 18 games on the road. Being a new team, we were picked to finished dead last. After those first 18 games we had a record of 5-13. We ended up coming back that year and catching the last playoff spot and beat out Spokane and Seattle. We finished ahead of them in the standings and fourth in the division. Stu Barnes went on to be the MVP of the league and we had a great goalie in Olaf Kolzig.
“Given the start we had and to make the playoffs and finish ahead of two great teams with coaches in Spokane (Butch Goring) and Seattle (Barry Melrose) was a great success after all the adversity we had to face. I think overall that was my biggest accomplishment as a coach.”
The 1988-89 season with the Americans would be Olver’s only season as a head coach and general manager in the WHL. He took his new-found success as a builder and a coach, and turned the attention towards owning his own team.
“There was a time where my primary focus was on owning a team. That is why I took a short detour while coaching juniors up in Canada,” explained Olver about the abrupt change of scenery. “My ultimate goal was to own a professional team. I have always had an entrepreneurial interest in owning and operating my own business, all the way back to high school. It was my goal to own a team and I simply loved hockey. At that time, minor pro hockey was flourishing and I saw a good opportunity to join the growth.”
Olver joined Canadian businessman Bruce Taylor and headed south to California to start the West Coast Hockey League.
“I went out to Fresno and started the West Coast Hockey League with Bruce Taylor,” recounted Olver. “We felt that if and when a professional league started out in the southwest, we would be invited to join.”
Holding a minority stake in Fresno, Olver spent two years running the club, handling both business and hockey operations while guiding Fresno to the Taylor Cup Finals in the league’s inaugural season.
He left Fresno after two years and went to Tacoma where he was charged with getting the expansion Sabercats headed in the right direction. Olver again ran the team on all fronts while continuing his success as a coach. He took Tacoma to the Taylor Cup Finals in 1997-98 and finally won a championship in 1998-99.
With his growing success as a builder and a coach, Olver learned that he couldn’t duplicate the same success as a businessman and as an owner, leaving Tacoma after three years to find a comfort level behind the bench.
“After operating the team in Fresno for two years and another three years in Tacoma, it really began to register that this was something that I would not be able to do profitably,” says Olver. “I made the decision to focus solely on coaching and player personnel, signing a five-year deal with Idaho as coach and vice president of hockey operations. From that point, I have been totally removed from the business side of hockey.”
After a little more than two decades of precise planning, execution and even with a short detour, Olver is a lot more focused as a coach and feels he is where he belongs. He brings an enthusiasm and ingenuity to the rink as well as a winning attitude that has kept him at the top of his game while building successful teams year after year.
Coming off the championship season with Idaho, Olver admits there is still a lot of work to be done when it comes to getting the blend of talent on his roster. His overly methodical and analytical approach ensures that he find the pieces to put together another solid team. He spends as much time following up on potential players and their progress as he does guiding his current team. It also helps that outside players are always looking to join a team and coach that is synonymous with winning.
“When you win every year and people are aware of that, you are able to attract players who place a higher priority on winning and being successful,” says Olver. “In most cases, these guys have won previously in their career and it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy.”
Winning isn’t everything to Olver and while he says it is an added bonus; he looks a lot farther than just on-ice talent.
“The keys to being successful at this level are recruiting, returning the right type of players and most of all, getting the right set of chemistry in the locker room,” says Olver. “We try to make it fun for the guys. I believe that if you make it fun and have the right group of players who are self starters and who possess a great work ethic, then I don’t have to be a motivator. I can be a teacher while making sure that the chemistry is right and the guys are confident and enjoy coming to the rink every day.”
Having a reputation for success, Olver has the players support and understanding. He feels that given his history, his reputation speaks for itself. Not only does winning help to bring players in, but he also has winning to use as a motivational tool to get the best out of his players, particularly the new ones.
“I think it makes the players a lot more comfortable with me and the decisions or adjustments I might make from time to time,” says Olver. “When I ask guys to do certain things, play a certain system or point out something of major importance, while adding in the prior success and the returnees, it helps everyone get on the same page quickly each year.”
Winning is something that every player, coach and team would love to have on a frequent basis. For Olver, you can say it has become habitual. He has learned many things from hockey, both on the ice and from behind a desk. However, he prefers to give back to the sport that has given him everything.
Olver is a coach, a builder and he is where he wants to be.