Worcester amped for Railers

By Leo Scaglione Jr.Reprinted from New England Hockey Journal

Jamie Russell is ready to tackle his next challenge in hockey.

After working in the ice game for nearly three decades in various roles, the 50-year-old native of Kamloops, British Columbia, was hired in September by the Worcester Railers HC to be the club’s first head coach and second general manager (the organization’s first GM, Toby O’Brien, departed for a position with the Florida Panthers.). The expansion ECHL club will play its first game on Oct. 14, 2017.

“I’m very excited,” Russell said. “It’s a unique challenge with an expansion team. There’s no expansion draft in the ECHL, so we don’t have the luxury of selecting players and bringing them in. We don’t have any protected lists. We can’t qualify players from last year’s rosters. Starting from scratch is a big challenge, but we really believe that the vision and the plan that we have in Worcester is going to make it an exciting place to play.”

The man is more than qualified.

Russell has a master of business administration from Lake Superior State University and a bachelor’s degree from Michigan Technological University. He also has almost 30 years of hockey experience.

Following a playing career as a defenseman in which Russell played two seasons at Michigan Tech (1987-89), 64 ECHL games with the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds across the 1989-90 and 1990-91 campaigns, and four American Hockey League contests with the Binghamton Whalers in 1989-90, he found his niche as a coach.

He served as an assistant coach at Ferris State University (1994-99) and Cornell University (1999-2003) before taking over as head coach at Michigan Tech (2003-11), where he was named the 2007 WCHA Coach of the Year. He again served as an assistant coach from 2011 to 2014, this time with Providence College, where he helped guide the Friars to their first NCAA tournament in 13 seasons in 2014.

Russell made the jump to the ECHL for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons, during which he was the head coach and director of hockey operations for the Elmira Jackals, who had a record of 69-63-3-9 with Russell behind the bench.

When the opportunity to build a team from the ice up in Worcester became available last summer, he seized it.

“I love the ECHL,” Russell stated. “I love building a roster, managing a salary cap, negotiating contracts. It’s a good league, a development league. There are some real challenges with players moving up. When I was in Elmira, I had 62 call-ups in two years to the AHL. It’s a great opportunity in Worcester.”

Russell isn’t involved in the business side of the organization. Those decisions are made by owner Cliff Rucker and president Mike Myers with input from vice president of marketing and communications Eric Lindquist. However, he works closely with Myers in hiring hockey operations personnel such as the assistant coach, equipment manager and trainer.

As for the Railers’ premier roster, Russell has spoken with his ECHL coaching brethren and picked their brains to learn what was successful when they were constructing their championship teams.

“That’s been extremely helpful,” Russell said of their assistance. “There’s a lot of roster turnover from year to year in the ECHL. When I went to Elmira, they pretty much built that roster from scratch. We had one player who was returning from the previous year, and I ended up trading him. I’m going through it to a degree in terms of building a roster and starting things with a clean sheet.”

Russell noted that a major component of the roster will depend on the team’s National Hockey League and AHL affiliation and the players the Railers receive from those clubs.

“Our affiliation is going to play a big part in our building a roster,” he said. “We definitely want to be an extension of the NHL organization and the AHL franchise, where our identity is closely tied to the systems they are playing at those levels. With that said, I’ll have the opportunity as the GM/head coach to build a roster that gives us the best chance in the ECHL to win a championship.”

The Railers submitted an affiliation request in January. The ECHL will approve the request once the season is over — or following playoff elimination, whichever is later — for the ECHL team with which the requested NHL club is currently affiliated.

The club’s goals when selecting an affiliation were to work with an NHL organization that values the ECHL as part of its development model and also has a geographic benefit for the Railers.

Russell revealed that before the Railers submitted a request, the team had “terrific meetings” regarding affiliations.

“We have a lot to offer in Worcester with our location, our ownership and the building (DCU Center) in which we play,” he asserted. “A really big part of your success in the ECHL is dependent on the support from your affiliate.”

Russell is relying on his wealth of connections from his 20 years working in the NCAA ranks to sign the players who will not be contracted to the Railers’ future affiliation.

“Where we are located geographically with Hockey East, ECAC, Atlantic Hockey, we’ve got some great inroads to teams that are very close to Worcester,” he explained. “We are definitely exploring and doing a lot of scouting in those leagues. With my background, I have a lot of contacts with the coaches, who have been terrific to deal with here in the early going in our year of preparation.”

His two-year stint in Elmira also provided him with useful knowledge.

Said Russell: “By working with the Buffalo Sabres and Rochester Americans, I was able to learn a lot about what works and what some of the challenges are, and I’ll be able to apply that.”

When Russell is scouting at college games, he crosses off underclassmen and the players who will likely sign an NHL contract at the end of the season. Instead, he targets graduating seniors. However, there is one hurdle he must overcome when it comes to inking players he’s interested in bringing aboard.

“When you are looking at free agents, or drafted players who may or may not sign, they don’t really want to talk about the ECHL,” he said. “Their aspirations are to play in the NHL or the AHL, so you have to let things play out.”

The club has spoken with agents in setting the groundwork and letting them know that there is interest in their clients. But even if there is mutual interest, the Railers must wait until June 16 to sign players.

“There’s a lot of preparation, but you’re not seeing a lot of results,” Russell acknowledged. “We are able to see players who we like and who we feel are going to be a big part of our team, but we can’t go out and sign them today.”

Russell will continue to reside in Skaneateles, N.Y., a town 15 miles southwest of Syracuse, before moving to Worcester closer to autumn. For now, this arrangement is actually very beneficial.

“When I got hired and signed the contract with Worcester, it was already September,” he said. “My wife (Linda) and I have three kids (Ben, Charlie and Graeme) and they all started school, and we were up and going. But (living in New York) has actually been an advantage because it gives me two fronts to scout from. When I watch games in the East, I stay in Worcester and I’m able to spend time with Mike, Cliff and the staff. Where I am in New York, I’m close to Colgate, Cornell, RIT and Niagara. On the pro side, I’ve got Syracuse (Crunch), Binghamton (Senators), Utica (Comets), Rochester and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton (Penguins).”

When Russell does move, he will seek to complete the task that he took on when he signed with the Railers: to win a championship and establish an ECHL presence in a city accustomed to AHL hockey. 

Excluding the 2005-06 season, Worcester hosted AHL hockey from 1994 to 2015 (IceCats 1994-2005, Sharks 2006-15). The city also is only 39 miles west of its nearest NHL club, the Boston Bruins.

“There’s a long history in Worcester of pro hockey and we have a unique opportunity in building things,” Russell concluded. “We want to build a winning team. I’m a huge believer that development and winning can go hand in hand. Winning is part of development. A lot of times it’s frustrating for a fan base where sometimes you don’t have a ton of control over what your roster is because of movement. I’m a coach and a general manager who is really going to stress winning. We want to win a championship in Worcester. We’re working toward that every day.”