By Tony Brown, Odessa Jackalopes
In a news conference Wednesday at the Center Ice Club inside Ector County Coliseum, the Odessa Jackalopes of the North American Hockey League (NAHL) introduced former Jacks player and Assistant Coach Matt Cressman as the fourth Head Coach in Jackalopes franchise history.
Entering his 13th season with the Jackalopes organization in 2013-14, Cressman succeeds former Odessa bench boss Paul Gillis, whose contract was not renewed following the 2012-13 campaign, Gillis’ sixth season with the Jacks, the team announced Wednesday.
“It feels good,” said Cressman Wednesday, “I’m looking forward to this opportunity. I’ve got some big shoes to fill between (former Jackalopes Head Coaches) Joe Clark, Don McKee and [Gillis], but I’m ready for the challenge.”
A Cambridge, Ontario native, Cressman spent a decade in the minor pro ranks, playing for teams in the WPHL, ECHL and CHL from 1997-2007, including six seasons as a member of the Jackalopes, from 2001-02 until his retirement as a player in early 200. A four-year letter-winner at Western Michigan University, Cressman remains among the Jackalopes’ all-time scoring leaders, ranking in the top ten in franchise history in games played (341), points (182), goals (76), assists (106), penalty minutes (380), short-handed goals (4), game-winning goals (18) and hat tricks (2). Following his playing career, Cressman served as Assistant Coach for the Jacks under Gillis for six seasons and was named President of Hockey Operations prior to the 2011-12 campaign.
“Matt’s been here for a long time, he played here, was an assistant here, he built a family here, he’s part of this community 100%,” said Jackalopes Team President Dan Lavergne Wednesday, “With the year we had last season, it was time to give him the chance to take the next step.”
A former Jacks player in his own right, Lavergne lauded Cressman’s philosophy during his playing career and was confident that those tenets will spill over into his approach as a Head Coach. “He’s detail oriented and highly intelligent,” said Lavergne, “With him at the helm, our teams will play strong, two-way hockey…Matt is such a hard worker and always has been and I know, we’ll have a hardworking team with him running the show.” Cressman agrees. “One thing I know is, if you don’t work hard, you don’t have a chance,” said Cressman, “I want hard-working, low-maintenance, keep your head down and work kind of guys…we’ll play a smart brand of hockey with the belief that if you want to get to the next level, it starts with sacrifice and hard work.”
Cressman’s hire also coincides with a shift in organizational philosophy, according to Lavergne. “We learned a lot from last season and definitely made some mistakes,” said Lavergne, “Our main focus now is getting back to being a community team…that means our players and coaches need to be out there and we need to integrate our youth hockey program with the [NAHL] team and support the community that’s been so good to us for 16 years now.”
Odessa’s “Jr. Jacks” youth hockey program has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception in the late 1990’s, now counting nearly 300 adult and youth players as members, with 44% of membership hailing from outside Odessa and nearly 30% of members residing in Midland. Cressman agrees that a strong youth hockey program makes for a loyal fan-base. “We have to be more visible,” said Cressman, “We will be more involved in the community and more involved in youth hockey…I know when I was growing up, I really looked up to the junior hockey players in my town and aspired to play at that level. That’s what we want for our local youth hockey kids here.”
As for the on-ice makeup of his first team, Cressman says, the groundwork is laid for a vastly improved Jackalopes squad in 2013-14. “We made some big mistakes last season in the way we went about protecting players and the faith we put in returning guys,” explained Cressman, “This time around, we know we can’t repeat those [mistakes]…it comes down to the players you have. (Jackalopes Director of Scouting) Craig Sarner has done a remarkable job identifying new players we want and there will be a few familiar faces back, but this team will be a new team, with hardworking and energetic hockey as the goal.”
Gillis, a veteran of more than a decade of NHL competition and a professional coach for 19 years, finished his six-year run as Jackalopes Head Coach with an all-time record of 183-162-33 and a winning percentage of .527. Gillis missed the playoffs only once (2012-13) in his six years in Odessa and led the Jacks to their best single season in franchise history in 2009-10, when the Jackalopes won the Governor’s Cup as CHL regular-season champions with a 48-11-5 record.