Same faces, new places.
The Traverse City North Stars will kick off their seventh season with a new coach at the helm for 2011-12, but it’s a familiar visage and a recognizable philosophy.
Chad Fournier, who has spent the past four seasons as an assistant coach, will move down to bench to take the spot of Anthony Palumbo, who will remain as general manager. Co-owner Dallas Drake will join incumbents Mike Matteucci and Bob Fernandez as assistants. Bob Spence and Steve Witt, who have served as a Midwest scouts, will also assume some coaching duties.
“It should be a pretty seamless transition,” said Fournier, who inherits the keys to a club that posted a 40-17-1 mark in 2010-11. “Anthony and I have coached together for a long time at many different levels, and we have a very similar approach. It’ll be the same message, just a different voice delivering it.”
Palumbo, who fashioned a .624 winning percentage (141-85-25) in his four years behind the bench, opted to focus on front office and player personnel responsibilities after leading the Stars to the franchise-record 40 victories last season.
“I simply couldn’t continue commit the same amount of time to the coaching that the job requires and deserves,” said Palumbo. “I recently took a new job (president of First Community Bank), and needed to be around more. Those long road trips make that pretty hard. I also want to be able to spend more time with my wife (June) and family.
“But it’s not like I’m leaving the rink. I’ll be there to support Chad in any way he wants - film sessions, player evaluation before and during the season, keeping our college network strong. And with adding a guy like Dallas to the staff that’s already in place, I think it just strengthens the organization all around.”
Despite his enviable win-loss mark, three straight postseasons, and 2010 North Division playoff crown and subsequent Robertson Cup Championship Tournament berth, Palumbo cited the team’s spate of college commitments as among the most satisfying mementos of his four-year tenure.
“It’s no coincidence that we’ve won some games, and also put some kids into colleges,” said Palumbo, who helped send a league-best 10 players/alums to NCAA Division I programs last year. “You go out and get the kids that you think can play at the next level. If you’re right, those players are going to win some games along the way to college, so there’s really no separating the two, generally speaking.
“We’ve always made it our top priority to make this a place where kids could come to get better and move up, and for colleges to be able to come and find players who can succeed at the NCAA level. I think we’ve made some genuine, measurable progress toward that, and it should only continue. We've become a good program that can draw some of the best players from here and around the Midwest and move them on. That's what I'm most proud of.”
Fournier was an all-state selection at Traverse City Central during his playing days, spent a year in the North American Hockey League with the Lakeland Jets, and helped power Ohio University to three consecutive American Collegiate Hockey Association championships.
He later coached at the youth and high school levels, including a stint at his alma mater, and with Palumbo at Traverse City West. He has also served on the board of the youth Grand Traverse Hockey Association (GTHA) program for nearly five years.
“I’m excited about the chance to move down the bench a little,” Fournier explained. “But, at the same time, it’s a pretty difficult task because the guy that came before me has been so successful and set the bar pretty high. Anthony put together a program that has been incredibly successful in terms of wins, but also in putting kids into college programs. He’ll always be there for the coaches, the program - just in a different role.”
Drake, who became a North Stars co-owner prior to the 2009-10 season, has enjoyed a decorated hockey career, winning an NCAA title with Northern Michigan University and a Stanley Cup with the Detroit Red Wings. He has also served as a coach and director of the GTHA. Drake, who also played junior hockey before his NMU days, says he is eager to impart the skills and approach required to improve and matriculate in the sport.
“I’m excited about it,” Drake offered. “I haven’t been involved at all as far as the coaching goes, but it’s something that has always interested me, and I expect to learn a lot myself. Hopefully, I can use my own experiences, and draw upon the times when I was going through some of the same things that these guys (players) are, to help them get to the level they need to be at to advance.”
There are seven college hockey national championships between Palumbo, Fournier, and the Stars coaching staff - with Drake’s Cup hoist to boot - and a time-tempered synergy already in place that has yielded 107 regular-season victories over the last three regular seasons.
Palumbo says that one of the NAHL’s winningest franchises shouldn’t lose any momentum in light of the musical chairs.
“Chad and I have coached together for 10 years, and we’ve generated some great ideas together,” he explained. “We had some success moving guys on since we’ve been here with Tooch (Matteucci) and Bob. Now you bring in that new perspective with Dallas and all the things he’s done and seen in this game, and it’s just a recipe for continued success on the ice, and putting guys into college programs.”
North Stars majority owner Raj Wiener expressed great appreciation for all of Palumbo’s efforts, as well as tremendous confidence in Fournier and his staff.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Anthony has been all of the very best things you look for in a head coach,” she said. “He runs a fantastic program on and off the ice, and has made a difference for so many kids getting the chance to play college hockey. He’s given so much to this organization, and we can never thank him enough for it.
“We’re very fortunate to have someone of Chad’s caliber to assume the coaching reins, and with Dallas and the rest of the staff coming back, we’re looking forward to another great year.”
Fournier and the North Stars will kick into gear again for 2011-12 with the pre-draft open tryout camp at this weekend at Centre ICE Arena, as the club begins to restock its coffers once again ahead of the NAHL Entry Draft on May 26. But don’t look for big changes, Fournier asserted.
“Everything will look and run pretty much the same as it has,” he added. “We’ll employ the same philosophies, play a similar system - everything will be very much the same, just with a different voice.”