By Bill Vilona
Pensacola News Journal
PENSACOLA, Fla. – When his career was at a crossroads, John Marks knew he handled pucks a lot easier than handling money.
That was his predicament 25 years ago. A choice between banking or coaching.
His playing days in the National Hockey League were numbered after a broken leg six games into the 1981 season with the Chicago Blackhawks. Marks had been moonlighting, at the time, working for a bank in suburban Chicago.
“The president of the bank wanted me to become full-time,” Marks said. “They were going to send me to banking school and learn the ropes.
“But when you’re so used to being the edge of emotion, experiencing thrill of victory or agony of defeat, so to speak, I just didn’t see that sitting behind the desk of bank.”
So he instead chose to stand behind a bench on the rink.
Turns out, it opened a new vault of fame.
Since helping his alma mater, the University of North Dakota, win an NCAA ice hockey championship in 1987, Marks has coached teams to success at all levels of minor-league hockey.
His lengthy list of feats, along with proven experience in the ECHL, made Marks an easy choice in the Pensacola Ice Pilots’ search for a coach.
It started and ended with Marks.
“I had John pegged from the beginning,” said Greg Schuh, the Ice Pilots president. “He brings fantastic credentials.”
Marks, 59, a Manitoba native, who was announced April 26 as the Ice Pilots’ new coach, officially was introduced to fans during a reception on June 7 at Lakeside Galley and Tavern.
“I don’t have a lot of friends here yet,” Marks said at the event. “I’d like to have a lot.”
He might have plenty, especially if he can transfer championship runs with two other ECHL teams into something similar with the Ice Pilots.
By hiring Marks, the second-winningest coach in ECHL history, paying him top dollar at this level and providing a two-year contract, the Ice Pilots hope to reverse their own fortunes.
They had the worst record in the ECHL last season. They appeared headed out of town, initiating a request two weeks before the season ended to terminate their lease with the Pensacola Civic Center.
Plans changed, however. Owner Mario Forgione chose to stay. He developed better dialogue with local officials, particularly Escambia County Administrator George Touart.
But what might have resonated the most is getting Marks and reshaping the entire staff.
“Mario is making the commitment,” Marks said. “He’s putting out the cash so these players have everything they possibly need. Hopefully we can do the job for him.”
Marks was able to hire Phil Russell, 54, a former teammate with the Chicago Blackhawks, who spent 17 years in the NHL, then the past eight years as minor-league coach. Marks also brought in a new trainer and equipment manager.
The next task is bringing in new players. Marks plans to reshape the team with a select group of players from last season’s roster.
In that aspect, the challenge is far different than Marks faced when coaching the Charlotte (N.C.) Checkers and Greenville (S.C.) Growl, two expansion teams that Marks led into ECHL championships.
“In Charlotte, none of the five owners knew a thing about hockey. We didn’t even have a puck in the building,” said Marks, referring to a team owned by a group including Richard and Kyle Petty. “The first thing we had to do was hire a trainer, then get players.
“Same thing in Greenville. Here, we have a nucleus. We have some good players here. The support for this team has been outstanding.
“There’s no reason why the team can be as good, if not better, than some of the great teams they had. And one day, we can put a (championship) banner in the rafters.”
Marks tasted success throughout his hockey life. He was an All-American in 1968 when his University of North Dakota team lost the NCAA final.
Later that year, Marks became the first U.S. collegian to be selected in the first round of the NHL Draft. Five years later, as a winger with the Chicago Blackhawks, he played in the Stanley Cup Finals, losing to the Montreal Canadiens.
Ironically, one of Montreal’s star players from that team was Steve Shutt, who now lives in Daphne, Ala. and has played at the Pensacola Civic Center in an adult league.
Marks, who moved to Gulf Breeze, would like to settle as smoothly in the area. He has spent time at Pensacola Beach. He has mingled with fans at restaurants. He attended the Boeing Championship, the PGA Tour’s Champions Tour event, last week at Sandestin Resort.
All of the opportunities have reinforced Marks’ opinion that Pensacola is a dream destination.
“When you start looking at a map of the ECHL, and really look at it, and you want to enjoy living where you’re coaching, why wouldn’t you want to be in Pensacola?” said Marks, who passed on an offer from the Johnstown (Pa.) Chiefs, another ECHL member. “To me, the opportunity to come back to the ECHL and coach here was a no-brainer.”
Marks spent last season in Fayetteville, N.C., coaching a team to the Southern Professional Hockey League championship, a lower-level minor league, in his only year with the team.
He was contacted by Schuh in January, back when the Ice Pilots first envisioned they might need to make a coaching change. Marks succeeds Joe Clark.
“We had several other very good coaches call us, which I think says a lot about the interest in coaching here,” Schuh said. “But I felt John would be the best fit.
“We really have a good opportunity to turn the corner with this team.”
Marks turned the corner of his career in 1981. His broken leg, the same season the Blackhawks broke in star center Dennis Savard as a rookie, led him to pursue a new future.
“I didn’t really expect to be a coach,” he said.
He was lured into it by Gino Gasparini, now commissioner of the United States Hockey League. Gasparini was hired in 1981 as the North Dakota coach. He offered Marks a $14,000 salary as his assistant.
“I took it and loved it,” Marks said. “That hasn’t changed. I absolutely love what I do. I love getting up in the morning and going to the rink.
“I played with passion. I played with emotion, and I coach with passion, and I coach with emotion. This game has been such a huge part of my life.”
You can bank on that.