Mike Souza reached the end of the line in his playing career in 2011 after spending the majority of his life climbing the ladder to one of the highest levels of hockey in the world.
The Wakefield, Mass., native had played on two Frozen Four teams at the University of New Hampshire before spending another 11 seasons playing professionally in the AHL, ECHL and Europe. Souza had rounded the corner into his 30s, and his perceived value on his Italian team, Bolzano, was that of a mentor to younger players, someone who could help just as much in practices as games.
Souza wasn’t ready to walk away from the game that had provided him with 11 years of employment and the introduction to his wife, but he had to consider whether he was willing to climb the ladder to the top all over again — this time in the coaching ranks.
Souza contacted his former coach, UNH’s Dick Umile (Melrose, Mass.), for advice.
“He was pretty frank with me about the ups and downs,” Souza said. “Coming from playing, I realized I’d have to grind it out as an assistant for a program in a transition phase. (Umile) was one of the most influential people in my life, and I wanted to be like him. Here’s a guy year after year who has a tremendous amount of pressure on him, and he has a stoic nature to him. He doesn’t let the kids know what’s going on behind the scenes.”
Umile pulled some strings behind the scenes, referring Souza to his college roommate, Mark White, the associate head coach at Brown University. White recommended Souza to Brown head coach Brendan Whittet (E. Providence, R.I.) as a potential candidate for a vacancy on his staff.
“Mike has a tremendous personality,” Umile says. “People enjoy him, and he’s a great competitor. He was a great player, and he did a lot for the program on and off the ice. He’s quickly become very well-respected in college coaching circles.”
During his interview with Souza, Whittet discovered something many around Souza already knew: Souza’s personality and experience would serve him well as a coach.
Souza’s ascent to the highest level of hockey started in Wakefield. He attended Wakefield High, putting together a career that earned him a 2009 induction to the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. Souza then played on some of the best teams in UNH history from 1996 to 2000. He finished with 156 career points in 156 games. His career highlight came when he scored a goal in the 1999 national championship against Maine in Anaheim. He served as a senior captain at UNH in 2000, earning Hockey East Second-Team All-Star distinction after a 40-point season.
After college, Souza played in the AHL for three seasons before splitting time between the AHL and ECHL for another two. In 2005, Souza — with wife Kelly, a former member of the Boston College women’s team — went to Italy to prolong his career with SG Cortina. He also played for the Italian national team from 2008 to 2011. Souza’s final season in Italy came with Bolzano, and for the first time in his life, he started to seriously consider making the transition to coaching.
“By the end of my time in Italy, I was one of the oldest guys on the team,” Souza said. “The coach relied on me to be a leader for the younger kids. I enjoyed having them ask for advice. I’ve always considered myself a people person, and it gave me a chance to help other hockey careers.”
With two young daughters and a wife at home, Souza was in search of an opportunity that provided a family feel. Brown could offer that very opportunity as a growing program under Whittet and several ties to Souza’s extended family. Souza’s two sisters-in-law, Krissy and Kim McManus, played college hockey at Brown. Kim’s husband, Chris Bourque, is now a member of the Boston Bruins.
“(Whittet) has the same philosophy I have: family before hockey,” Souza said. “Being in the business as long as I have, I know guys forget that. That was the one agreement I made with my wife. Family always comes first.”
It didn’t take long for Souza to find his niche within the Brown staff. Whittet credits Souza for having a keen eye for talent and an ability to connect with recruits of all backgrounds. Souza also oversees the power play and changing forward lines. Whittet says his recruiting classes have improved each year since Souza joined the staff. Brown associate captain Garnet Hathaway (Kennebunkport, Maine) has established a strong relationship with Souza, probably not unlike the coach-player bond Umile established with Souza in the late 1990s.
“He’s so willing to help guys reach their potential,” Hathaway said. “He’ll stay on the ice after practice to go over a lot of shooting tips that made a big difference for him when he played. Off the ice, he’s helped me see what path might be best for me after college.”
Like many young assistants, Souza has aspirations to become a head coach. He realizes there is no defined path to head coach in the college ranks. Whittet started as a volunteer assistant at his alma mater, Brown, in 1994, and served as an assistant coach for 15 years — at Brown, Colby College, back at Brown, and Dartmouth — before catching his break to become a head coach. Souza has no timetable on his next career move.
“One thing I’ve learned from playing is that if you plan it out, it never works out the way you want it to,” Souza said. “The hope is ultimately I will end up being a head job. I also understand there are a lot of great assistants throughout the country that never get that opportunity.”
As much as Whittet would hate to see Souza leave his staff, he believes his assistant has the makeup to become a successful head coach.
“I think he has all the traits to be a head coach,” Whittet said. “He’s a guy that really gets it. He understands kids. He puts in the work. Obviously, you have to pay your dues like all of us have. There has to be some ability to translate overseeing an organization from being an assistant. That’s a reality for Mike. I’m so excited he’s part of our staff; he’s invaluable to Brown hockey.”
This article originally appeared in the March 2013 issue of New England Hockey Journal.