The Brahmas’ head coach talks about the challenges of the past year, the recruiting process and the idea of a single nationwide AA league.
Dan Wildfong is preparing for his fourth season as head coach of the Texas Brahmas. His overall regular season record with the club is 114-63-15 and his post-season record is 15-12 with a President’s Cup Championship earned in 2009.
After three seasons with three very different results, he is hard at work, along with assistant coach Ron Vogel, re-building the roster for the coming campaign.
I spoke with Fonger recently about the challenges of the past year, the recruiting process and the idea of a single nationwide AA league.
Here is our conversation.
Q: What was the most difficult thing to deal with, considering all the players who came through last season?
A: I guess it’s the work ethic, you know. When you see guys put up big numbers, you expect them to come in and work hard and you know, be able to put those numbers up here too. We’ve been known as a hard working team. We bring it to practice and in games it carries over…we’ve just got to end up playing a better team game over all.
Q: Considering the numbers of guys who came in and didn’t work out – was it hard to deal with for the players as well as the coaches?
A: I think it was tough because you don’t know if guys’ got another’s back; you don’t even know if he’s going to be there the next day. It’s definitely something we didn’t want to happen but it’s inevitable that if a guys going to be lazy, he’s not going to be here long. I always have it in mind to be the hardest working team in the league and our guys know that, so if they come in and work hard, then we’ll be successful. I believe 70% of it is hard work and the rest is skill.
Q: Despite the challenges last season, the Brahmas made it to the semi-finals against the Governor’s Cup Champion Odessa Jackalopes and managed to win the first two games on the road. Did that surprise you to start the series that way?
A: Yeah, and I think our guys were even a little surprised to win there. We felt like we had a good opportunity…and we started clicking on all cylinders. Our guys knew our systems; they knew what we demanded and they started to gel a little more in the last couple of months and going into the playoffs. I feel maybe injuries – we’re not making excuses, but it did play a part in the series. If you’ve got McLeod and Minard back in your line up, you know, it would definitely make it a lot more solid, especially in the one goal difference in games. We did have a young D Corps against them…it was frustrating, especially when you win two there. You would think you’d come home, with the record that we’ve had; the success we’ve had in our own building, that we would’ve won at least one of them. I think we might have gotten ahead of ourselves a little bit and we’ve got to learn from that.
Q: You’ve been through three seasons now as a head coach; all with very different outcomes. What do you think the culmination of all those experiences taught you?
A: Well, I’ve learned a lot in the last three seasons. The first season, obviously when we were getting started, when everything was new, we were pretty green and everything. But we had a goal in mind and we didn’t make a lot of changes. Our guys worked real hard and we got lucky with a couple of guys. And when you get lucky, you also take a chance, so we took a chance on some guys that you might of thought didn’t have the best numbers but they came in here and did they really well. And the next year we came in and added a few pieces to the puzzle. We already had a good foundation and I think guys had a good taste that we were almost there (to win it all) and they came back with a lot of hunger. Then we ended up adding the right pieces and it worked out – we won it all. Then we signed a lot of guys back and I think we kind of got a little complacent as players and maybe as a coaching staff too. It was a learning experience…our guys, it took them a while to get back into the groove of things again and then again it does take a lot of work; it does take commitment and it does take getting hit. Once they got it, then the young guys started getting it – I think we just got it a little too late last year. We kind of got behind the eight ball. I don’t think it was a terrible year by any means but we didn’t meet our expectations of what we wanted to do, which was repeating…It wasn’t a pretty year.
Q: With recruiting in full swing, is there anything you and Ronnie are doing different this year?
A: I think we’re doing a lot more background checks on guys. We’re calling probably 10 or 15 references before we make the decision on a guy. Before, we might make three or four calls. We’d hear good things, so we ended up signing them. Were doing a lot more research that way but at the end of the day, until you see a guy and see how he fits into your system, you don’t know how it’ll work out. But we’re really trying to fit guys into roles early; identify them early instead of playing it out and waiting until January before we figure that out. We’re going to try and change things up here a little bit this year.
Q: I wanted to get your feelings on a couple of guys who been great leaders on the ice. First, Craig Minard. Minzy suffered a tough injury that put him on season-ending IR in mid-March. What can say about your captain?
A: He’s been the center block of this team since I’ve been here. He’s been the heart and soul of our team. He’s been through the dog days, the good days and then back to the dog days again. It’s unfortunate what happened but he’s such a character guy – everyone loves him. He’s such a great leader. There are not enough guys out there like him and he’s so valuable for our team and our organization. Everyone likes the guy – he’s very friendly with all the players when they first come in and makes them feel very welcome and he’s very tough on guys and he’s not afraid to stand up for his team and to lead by example. He’s willing to say ‘Hey, I’m putting in the work; we need you putting in the work too.’
Q: Then I wanted to ask you about Jordan Cameron, who has been the leading scorer for you over the past three years…
A: You know, Cam’s a special player. He’s one of the most skilled, gifted players in this league and I don’t even think he belongs in this league with the skill level that guy has. Every team or every coach I talk to, they always bring up his name…they think he’s one of the best players and I definitely think that too.
Q: You have a challenge before you in re-building your goaltending for the coming season. How’s that going so far?
A: You know honestly, Jaeger’s are going to be tough shoes to fill. He’s been a fan favorite and he’s done a great job. He’s won a championship for us here. Ronnie’s been all over, phoning goalies. He’s going after the right guys. We feel like we’re looking at the right guys, so hopefully we can fill that void.
Q: What can we expect from the defense, player-wise this season?
A: We’re trying to find the right guys to bring in to play defense. We’re looking to get some guys that we’ve seen before with hopefully some younger guys to come in and prove themselves as well. It’s going to definitely be a new D core. We’ll get some new guys but hopefully we’ll still get some of our guys back…we don’t know yet – it’s up in the air right now.
Q: How hard is it to find players?
A: It’s a time-consuming job…I don’t know if people realize that. We are basically calling 25-30 guys a day, trying to sell our program to them – why wouldn’t they come here, this is the place to be, but it’s tough because a lot of guys want to go to the NHL or the American League and then if they don’t go there, they either consider us or the East Coast League. It’s not an easy job finding their number and tracking them down, getting references. And out of 30 people, there’s one or two that say yes. It just takes some time. It’s a process, that’s all it is.
Q: The biggest news of the off-season is no doubt the integration of IHL teams into the Central Hockey League. What’s your take on this?
A: I think it’s going to be good. I think it’s going to be exciting. It’s going to be nice going to Fort Wayne. I’ve always heard a lot about them and their organization as well as all the other teams joining. I think it’s going to be exciting to travel to new cities and for them, it’s going to be nice having 18 teams in the league instead of playing a few teams every night, game in and game out. It’s nice to have that rivalry but at the end of the day, it’s nice to see other teams as well.
Q: If you overlay the map of the “new CHL” on a map of ECHL cities, you can pretty much see a blueprint of what may someday become a nationwide AA league. Do you think having a single AA developmental league is a good idea?
A: I think that’s the way to go to, tell you the truth. On big AA league – then everyone’s on the same playing field. You’d have more people getting affiliated. That’s what I’d like to see, is more teams getting some affiliations which would bring good, young talent into their city and make this a real developmental league where you’ve got guys going up and down. You see guys that start young and they end up being in the NHL – that’s the ultimate goal. It’s definitely a good blueprint and hopefully it works out well and then it turns out that it makes an impact on the future of hockey.
Photo Credit: Robert Keith