By Bill Keefe
It usually starts with getting rustled out of bed on a cold, winter morning long before the sun rises. It’s probably followed by a stop for coffee and then a ride to the rink listening to bad music. Maybe there’s some help getting the equipment on before Dad transforms to Coach.
Then after the game, Coach quickly becomes Dad again in order to hound him for money for the snack bar.
That scenario gets played out again and again all over New England with countless youth teams.
As players ascend up the hockey ladder to midgets, high school or prep school and juniors, the Dad-as-Coach dynamic fades. In addition to the intensified volleys of favoritism launched from every angle, the experience and expertise needed to coach at higher levels filters many out.
Scott Drevitch (Middleboro, Mass.), Scott Harlow (Bridgewater, Mass.) and John McNamara (Newton, Mass.) all played Division 1 college hockey and then pro hockey. Drevitch currently is coaching two of his sons in the Boston (formerly Bridgewater) Bandits program; Harlow coached his son through midgets and some junior hockey; and McNamara coached his four sons through midgets and in prep school.
Despite their pedigrees, and the fact their sons have enjoyed success in the game, each said the whispers and the “coach’s son” tag don’t go away. But at the same time, each said he treasured the experience and the positives far outweighed any negatives.
“The father-son experience was incredible,” said Harlow, coach of the Eastern Junior Hockey League’s South Shore Kings who had his son Matt, now a freshman at Brown, on that team and midget teams, as well as throughout most of his youth career. “To say it didn’t come with trying times for him, me and my family, I’d be lying to you.”
Some other areas all agreed on:
* at the rink it’s “Coach,” and at home it’s “Dad”;
* you have to treat your kid the same as all the others; and
* enjoying coaching, not just coaching your kid, is vital.
McNamara knew as a youngster that he would be interested in coaching some day at any level. He was an assistant for a Mike Grier-led St. Sebastian’s team when his oldest was in diapers but soon found himself coaching Mite buzzer hockey when that son, Kevin, reached that level.
“It was just as much fun,” said McNamara, who coached his sons through the Boston Junior Eagles program and until this year as an assistant at Belmont Hill. “I knew if my heart was in it and I wanted all the kids to improve, it doesn’t make sense to not help my own kids.”
Throughout his 19-year professional playing career that ended in 2007, Drevitch always had sons Tyler, 16, and Logan, 13, on the ice and around the rink with him. Coaching his sons is a way to extend that shared time. As far as coaching, Drevitch said he doesn’t have to coach his kids; it’s just that his kids are at the stage where they are on teams he coaches.
“The part I love the best is hanging out with my kids at work,” said Drevitch, who has Tyler as coach of the Bandits’ Empire Junior Hockey League club and helps with Logan’s ’98 team. “I said that all along when I played, I get to bring my kids to work. Now coaching them, I’m going to work and running skills at Bridgewater (Ice Arena) for different groups, and if they want to come on ice, they come on. I’m at work with my kids. I get to watch them and interact with them in a good environment. I get to pass down some things I’ve learned. It’s a lot of fun.”
To create some boundaries, Drevitch said Tyler calls him “Coach” at the rink and “Dad” at home. To avoid the appearance of conflict, Drevitch said he addressed their relationship with the team at the beginning of the year. Despite those measures, and the fact that Tyler tied for the team lead in scoring last year and is the leader this season, Drevitch knows it’s not enough to silence critics.
“I’ve got to be a little bit harder on Tyler sometimes,” said Drevitch, who played at Maine and UMass-Lowell before turning pro. “I’ve got to make sure he’s doing the right thing. People have to know he has to be accountable. If he gets away with something, I don’t want them thinking he got away with it because that’s my son. I have tighter rein per se on him. There are a lot of eyes on you when it’s your son.
“Tyler has been to national camp 14, 15, 16 three years in a row. We’ve heard some good things. It’s still out there that his dad played hockey and that’s why he gets those opportunities. Tyler and Logan have done a lot of hard work. They have a hockey stick in their hands all day long not because me and my wife said to, that’s what they like to do. They’re playing mini-sticks in the basement now. They work at it. They’re rink rats. A lot of coaches’ kids are good, but they do a lot of work.”
Tyler Drevitch takes the good over the bad out of having Dad behind the bench.
“I see him as a player who played hockey, not just a father coming to coach,” Tyler Drevitch said. “At this level, you need someone who knows how to play hockey.
“Sometimes it’s frustrating when he yells at you. Because I’m his son, he’s going to be hard on me no matter what, but it makes me better and the team better. I like having him as coach not because of it’s my dad, but because he knows the game.”
After an All-American career at Boston College, Harlow turned pro. He formerly coached his son Matt with the South Shore Dynamos midget team and at Nobles, and had him last fall with the South Shore Kings.
“Nobody ever thought I gave Matt special treatment,” Harlow said. “If anything, he probably deserved more, but I did not want people to think I’m doing it because he’s my kid.”
Interesting to note that Harlow considers one of their best years together Matt’s freshman year at Nobles when he didn’t play much and Harlow was an assistant coach. The team was really deep and Harlow agreed with the rest of the staff that the fourth line was where his son belonged.
“Him and I would ride home in the car and he couldn’t say anything bad about the coaches,” Harlow said. “He had to work hard to get his chance. I learned a lot about him. It was a great year for him to grow up, realizing I wasn’t in control; I was just there to help. He really matured as a player and a young man.”
Harlow said it was definitely easier coaching Matt when he was younger. As he and his teammates got older, there was more to worry about as the competition and intensity levels on and off the ice grew.
After Matt’s sophomore year at Nobles, Harlow said he thought it was best for everyone if he parted ways. But he still had Matt with the Dynamos and then last fall with the Kings before his senior year at Nobles began.
Overall, Harlow said, the experiences he had with his son were invaluable, but he has no regrets that his 15-year-old daughter, Jessica, doesn’t play hockey.
“It’s great,” he said. “I love going to her (other) games. I can just hide up in the stands.”
Both Harlow and McNamara were coaching before their sons were on the scene. McNamara said that experience made coaching his sons on the Junior Eagles and at Belmont Hill easier.
“I knew they’d be a target,” McNamara said. “I knew in my heart as a coach, if I do what’s good for the team and want every single kid on the team to improve, if I got in the habit of helping kids improve and getting the team going in the right direction, when my son was old enough to play, it would work out.”
McNamara’s two older sons, Kevin and Jack, now play at
His third son, Mike, plays at Holy Cross and his youngest, Joe, a senior at Belmont Hill, will join Mike at Holy Cross next year.
McNamara began coaching at Belmont Hill about three years before Kevin came. He vividly remembers a game from Kevin’s freshman year at Belmont Hill where they both learned something.
Kevin was a defenseman and McNamara was running the defense. Early in the game, after Kevin had played two shifts, head coach Ken Martin (Framingham, Mass.), the all-time leader in Massachusetts high school hockey victories, told McNamara not to play Kevin the rest of the game. McNamara asked Martin what he saw and he said Kevin wasn’t being assertive enough with the puck.
“Driving home, he asked if it was my idea (to bench him) or Coach Martin’s,” McNamara said. “I said it was his, but I didn’t say anything to the contrary. But I did tell him, because that happened in one game, that’s not what it means for the next game. If I were you, I’d figure it out.
“Eight years later, I’ve never had to say he needs to be assertive with the puck again. Sometimes you have to make a hard decision as a coach to do what’s best to help the team win a hockey game.”
McNamara said he learned from Martin in this episode the power of playing time, the ability to teach without yelling and that actions can speak louder than words. He also didn’t interject because his role was assistant coach, not father, and he respected and admired Martin’s coaching experience and abilities.
“Some other coach may have said something to him on the bench, but he may have gone back out and done the same thing,” McNamara said. “It may be Martin was old school, but it worked.”
Joe McNamara, the youngest who is a senior at Belmont Hill, said his brother Kevin told him when he was a freshman that as long as their father was the defensive coach and he was a defenseman, that people are always going to complain.
“There’s definitely pressure from the outside,” Joe said. “You always hear a couple things somewhere, people joking or hear stuff through friends. In middle school, it used to bother me more. As I got older, it didn’t bother me at all.
“Personally, I liked it a lot having him as a coach. I can play a game and keep getting advice on the car ride home and at dinner. I tried to treat him at the rink not as my dad, but as a coach. At home, he’s Dad, but I know he knows what he’s talking about so I try to soak up everything. It’s good to have a good coach with you 24-7.”
When Martin retired at the end of last season, McNamara left Belmont Hill after 11 years with him. He told Martin it was a great experience, that it was really fun to coach at the level, but to coach at that level and have your kids play for you was special.
“Anytime you can spend with your kids, it’s all good stuff,” McNamara said. “You never get those years back.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of New England Hockey Journal. Bill Keefe can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.