With his former teammate Forbes MacPherson at his side as assistant coach, Wildfong led the team to a 40-22-2 record, the second best in Brahmas history. Going 23-5-1 in their last 29 games, the team reached the playoffs for the first time since the 2000-01 season. After defeating the Mississippi RiverKings and sweeping the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs, the Brahmas made it to the Northern Conference Finals only to suffer a heartbreaking loss in the final minute of a forced game seven against the defending champion Colorado Eagles.
The 32-year-old Wildfong was known as one of the most aggressive and competitive players in the Western Professional and Central Hockey Leagues during his eight-year professional career. The Clinton, Ontario native is a graduate of New York’s Colgate University where he played NCAA hockey. After a short stay with the UHL Mohawk Valley Prowlers, Wildfong spent the next eight seasons with the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs.
A two-time WPHL champion with the Mudbugs in the 1999-00 and 2000-01 seasons, Wildfong averaged over a point a game in 488 games played. His career numbers include 494 points, 192 goals and 302 assists with 1,970 penalty minutes. Honored as the Mudbugs' team captain during his last two seasons, Wildfong was also named an All-Star in the 2000, 2003 and 2007 seasons, and is among the CHL/WPHL career leaders in multiple categories.
Wildfong's leadership skills earned him regular acclaim in the Central Hockey League's annual "Best of the Best Poll," selected as "Best Leader" each of his last three seasons while also twice named a finalist for CHL Most Valuable Player honors. Wildfong retired as the Mudbugs all-time leading scorer, and is the eighth coach in Brahmas franchise history.
I sat down recently with Coach Wildfong to talk about his first season and off-season as a head coach in the Central Hockey League.
Q: Given the short amount of time that you had after being named head coach, you managed to put together a pretty good team.
A: Yeah, we didn’t have a lot of time to do what we did. We were on the phone day and night getting the team together. Other teams have had drafts in the past and we didn’t have a player to even start with; so I’m proud of a lot of things. There was a lot of work for Forbes (MacPherson) and myself. We had a couple of scouts in Canada to help us; they put in a lot of work as well and they were behind the scenes, you know; if you don’t have those guys you can’t have a successful season. It was a good start last year but it’s not where we wanted to end up. We’re continuing to work our tails off to try to put a championship team together.
Q: Your stated goal was to win a championship and you came very close. How do you feel about your performance as a first-time coach?
A: It’s not just one person here so I can’t take all the credit. I have a great assistant coach, Forbes MacPherson. If he wasn’t along I don’t know how I would have done this. I think as a team and as an organization we made a lot of strides this year. Our ownership is great and we have a terrific staff. We didn’t have a lot of time, like I said, but they all came together. I’m not taking all of the credit, I promise you, maybe a little bit, but there are a lot of pieces to the puzzle.
Q: What’s it like, being a head coach rather than a player now?
A: I’m very fortunate to have a job like this. I love what I do. It is a little stressful though when you’re not winning and things aren’t going right. The game is fun and you have to enjoy it when you’re playing. I found that I have to enjoy it when I’m coaching. I think I was a little uptight at the beginning. When I first took the job, my first month of coaching, I think I was a little too hard on the players. I had some good guidance from a lot of coaches and other people. Once I started enjoying coaching more we started being a little more successful.
Q: Who had the most influence on your coaching style?
A: Scott Muscutt has a ton of influence on the way I coach. We believe in a lot of the same philosophies. It’s the same with Forbes. That’s why I brought him along. I think we both believe in the same philosophies and we learned a lot from Scott playing in Shreveport. We learned a lot from each other as well.
Q: Speaking of Scott Muscutt - how do you feel playing against him as a coach now?
A: He was our coach for eight years; he was a teammate of mine too. When you respect someone so much like we respect Scott, to be against him – it was a little tough at the beginning but you know he has a job to do to win and we have a job to do to win. We talked before the season started. We know whatever we do, we’ll always be friends. I think that’s the most important thing is that we keep a good, close friendship. We know we’re going to be competitive. We know each team is going to want to win more than the other. At the end of the day, when the season’s over, we can still talk and be friends.
Q: Did you talk much during the season?
A: We talked a little bit, because we played against each other so much. He encouraged me in a lot of ways and told me to stick to my guns, to what I was doing, because there were a lot of trying times at the beginning and he helped me through the rough times, both Forbes and I.
Q: How did you feel about sweeping your former team in the playoffs?
A: Obviously when you go from one team to another, its nice to beat the team you played for. Muskie puts a great product on the ice every year you know, consistently, year after year and for us to do what we did was kind of surprising even to us. We came together at the right time and I believe that we did what it took at the right time.
Q: How do you balance your coaching responsibilities with Forbes?
A: We’re pretty much equal. I think he has a lot of influence on our decisions and he really made that D-corps the way it was and it was probably the best D-corps in the league.
Q: How was it going from teammates to a coach/assistant coach relationship?
A: It was really good actually, like I told you before, we have the same philosophies and we learned a lot from Muskie over in Shreveport. Our beliefs and our feelings on 99% of things are pretty equal. We have a really good relationship; we’ve been friends forever, and I think that’s what it takes, that is, a good relationship between a coach and assistant coach.
Q: Do you take losses harder as a coach than you did as a player?
A: No, I think it’s pretty equal because I was pretty upset when we lost games as a player and I’m still pretty upset if we lose games as a coach. You know you can’t take losing easy, you have to learn from your mistakes. You’re not going to have a perfect season, so if you do make mistakes or if you lose games, you have to learn from what you did wrong, correct it and do better next time; I think that’s what we did last season.
Q: Is there anything about hockey that you learned this past season?
A: Definitely, I learned a lot about the personalities of players and the management. I learned about how to direct players. As far as systems, we used a lot of systems that we learned over in Shreveport and we picked a few new things out too that we thought that we should do that would help our team to win. Every team is different; the next team that comes in here is not going to be the same team so we had to tweak it to whatever their strengths were. I have learned a ton about hockey and a ton about the way to motivate and push guys buttons but it’s not an easy thing, I’ll tell you that.
Q: What made you proudest of your team this past season?
A: What really made me proud was that they never ever once gave up. We’ve been down four goals, five goals, six goals and we kept going and we kept playing hard. We had a really special group of guys; they all loved being around each other, they loved doing a lot of stuff off the ice together. There were no cliques, and guys just loved playing for each other. It’s nice as a coach when you see that and you don’t have to intermingle with cliques and try and bring them together. It was a special group of guys and I wish I could have them all back. I can’t thank all of those guys enough for allowing me to coach them, especially in my first year.
Q: What in particular do you thing the team’s strengths were last season?
A: I think our strength was that we had a big team; a big, strong bunch of guys. We had a lot of skill and we had great goaltending. I think consistently, game after game, we worked hard. When guys came here to the rink, we came to work, we came to learn, to get better every day. I think it’s important that every guy wanted to win a championship. They worked their tails off. We didn’t get there unfortunately.
Q: During the playoff series with the Eagles, did you think that the Brahmas had a chance to beat them?
A: Absolutely. We put out Mississippi and then we beat Shreveport. We came off a high. The Eagles were ready for us right off the bat – they were like, this team’s for real. So they geared right up and we weren’t as sharp as we should have been going into that series. Once we played game one, we were like, boys, we can do it. Game two we probably should have won. And game three back here, it was pretty tight, could’ve gone either way and game four we won. Once our guys put their minds to it, they knew we had a great shot at winning.
Q: Were you surprised that Arizona won the championship so handily?
A: A little bit. You know I thought Colorado only lost two games up there in the home building all year and for the Sundogs to go in there and sweep them was unbelievable. They had a great team and they had a great year all year long so it wasn’t like it was a Cinderella team that came in there. They were one of the top teams all year and expected to win just as well as anyone else.
Q: How busy has your off-season been?
A: It’s been really busy. We’ve been swamped. That’s one thing that changes from a player to a coach. As a player, when the season’s over, you usually go and take a little bit of time off, a month or so and then you start working out and getting back in shape, thinking about next season. Here, once we got put out, probably after four or five days, we’re thinking about who we’re going to sign, who are we going to get back, who we’re going to go after, who’s going to be our big recruit.
Q: Any comment on Jordan Cameron going off to Germany and Grant Jacobsen heading for England?
A: It definitely hurts, you know. A lot of teams are losing guys. Cameron played unbelievable for us all throughout the year. We were happy that he came here, worked hard and put up good numbers and the same with Jacobsen. He probably had the most ice time of anyone on our team. They’re going to be sadly missed but we’re working to replace those guys. It’s not going to be easy but at the end of the day, everyone can be replaced.
Q: Any particular plans on goaltender?
A: It’s still up in the air. We had two fantastic goaltenders and hopefully we can work terms out with both of them and get them back. If we can’t, we’ve got to make some decisions for what we need to do as a team because that’s one of the most important positions to win a championship. You’ve got to make sure you have your goaltending solidified.
(Note: 3 Days after the interview, the Brahmas announced that Brett Jaeger had re-signed with the team.)
Q: How do you feel about your first signing for the upcoming season, ECHL star Lance Galbraith?
A: He’s going to bring that little extra pizzazz I think, and with the scoring touch, you know he was the leading scorer on their team last year. He works his tail off as well. He’s gritty, hardnosed and has the will to win and he has won before so he knows what it takes. When a guy that knows what it takes and has won before goes up to a young guy and says this is what we’ve got to do, that young guy’s going to listen. If he doesn’t, he’s a fool. I think he’s going to bring that winning attitude, that desire to compete every shift, every night. We’re really happy he’s on board.
Q: I know that he spoke about, in Idaho, kind of feeling like he was a marked man with some of the referees. Of course he played with an agitating style, no stranger to the penalty box. Are you getting any indication from him that he’s looking to change that?
A: I think that’s part of his game, though he has to walk that fine line. He’s got to know when to do it and when not to because we can’t be on the penalty kill all night long. I think we have a lot of similarities, the way I played and he played. I did the same thing, you know and now that I look back on it, I wish I had tamed it down a little bit, but then would I have been the player that I was? He’s kind of in the same boat. He’s got to play that little wild man, you know, hard as you can go, every night.
Q: Did you expect the realignment, which moved the Brahmas from the Northeast to the Southeast division?
A: Yes, we expected geographically, that it was going to happen. The Southeast is going to be a tough division. Any time we were in it with Laredo and Corpus and Rio, they’ve always had great teams in the past; we’ve just got to be on our game. I know the South has been a little bit weaker in the past, but that’s not the mindset that we have, I promise you. It’s going to be tough.
Q: Historically, the Laredo Bucks has had a dominant record against the Brahmas, but you seemed to have their number last season. With the increase in the number of games this season, that should be a terrific rivalry.
A: Yeah, it definitely will. Forbes and I have some history with them too. We lost a game seven in double overtime, and lost a championship. Terry always has a good team. He puts on a good product on the ice, and he’s one of the best coaches, I think, in this league. I have a lot of respect for him. You know, we’ll have to try and outwork him.
Q: How do you feel about the announcement of a new franchise over in Allen with a new arena being built?
A: I think it’s going to be great. It’s going to be a great little rivalry, I think you could have three teams in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. It’s a great area to live in down here…you can do everything and still be able to have a few bucks in your pocket. Not only is it not all that expensive to live down here but also it’s a great place to raise a family. Why not have three or four teams down here and have a lot of guys come down and enjoy this.
Q: Is there anything you want the fans to know about the coming season?
A: We can’t thank every fan enough for the past season with the support they gave us from day one to the end of the season and the playoffs. It was a great run and without the fans, we couldn’t be here. We can’t thank our sponsors enough either. We understand that it’s a great game and a lot of fun for families. Expect a good, hard working team.