Wild assistants adjusting to life behind the bench

Photo: Tim Garland

📝 by Mitchell Courtney | AHL On The Beat

Nolan Yonkman and Nate DiCasmirro both played professional hockey at a high level, but both are experiencing a new challenge as first-year AHL assistant coaches under Tim Army with the Iowa Wild in the 2021-22 season.

Yonkman, a former second-round pick of the Washington Capitals (37th overall) in 1999, played professionally for 18 seasons. He played 76 games in the NHL, 733 in the AHL and finished his career with 198 games in the Finnish SM-Liiga. Although he had an extensive playing career, Yonkman noted that he only truly decided that he wanted to coach throughout his time in Finland.

“When I got into my last couple of seasons playing in Europe, I started to think about coaching as something I wanted to do,” Yonkman said. “As I got older, I started to play and work with younger defense partners and that is really when I started to open up to the idea.”

Yonkman also said that his time in Finland afforded him the opportunity to work with young NHL prospects in a mentorship role, something that endeared him to coaching.

“I played with Sami Niku, who, at the time, was a Winnipeg Jets prospect,” Yonkman said. “He and I played together for two years and in the third year he wanted to make the jump to North America. I started to ask myself, ‘How can I prepare [Sami] to be successful?’”

Yonkman’s guidance proved to be fruitful for the then-21-year-old Niku, as he became the first Finnish-born player to win the Eddie Shore Award as the AHL’s best defenseman with the Manitoba Moose in 2017-18. Niku’s success allowed Yonkman to see that his teaching methods could be applied to the North American game.

“Seeing his success really sparked my interest in coaching,” Yonkman said. “It was great to see his development after playing alongside him in that role for two seasons.”

For DiCasmirro, the desire to be a professional coach was long-held. As a player, he made a concerted effort to pay attention to the tendencies of his coaches throughout his own 18-year playing career. Originally undrafted, DiCasmirro spent seven seasons in the AHL before heading to overseas, where he would spend time playing professionally in Italy, Austria, Sweden, England and Slovenia.

“Coaching was something that was in the back of my mind, if not in the forefront, while I was playing,” DiCasmirro said. “When I turned pro, I started to collect practice plans from my coaches. I wanted to start that process early and collect those things over the years.”

Even early on in his career, DiCasmirro would take mental notes on what he liked and disliked about coaches that he played under. He noted that it helped him develop a sense of what his own coaching philosophy might look like if the opportunity ever arose. Additionally, he never thought that any detail was too small to make note of.

“I would take notes on how my coaches performed, good and bad,” DiCasmirro said. “I would pay attention to small things like how certain coaches picked our captains and what color practice socks we wore with our jerseys.”

As any coach would tell you, it is important to draw inspiration from coaches that you admire, as that admiration can turn into good, fundamental coaching habits for years to come. Both Yonkman and DiCasmirro have played under coaches that they emulate now as they have begun their own coaching careers.

“I was very fortunate to have played under some unbelievable coaches over the years,” DiCasmirro said. “My rookie year I got to play for Claude Julien and Geoff Ward with the Hamilton Bulldogs.”

After Julien was hired to be the head coach of the Montreal Canadiens in the midst of the 2002-03 season, Ward was named the interim head coach of the Bulldogs. He led DiCasmirro and the Bulldogs to the Calder Cup Finals, where they would eventually fall to the Houston Aeros in seven games. Although disappointing, DiCasmirro said that the run under Ward was a pivotal moment in his development, both as a player and a coach.

“[Geoff Ward] is one of the guys I have looked up to the most,” DiCasmirro said. “To this day, I try to emulate the way he treated the guys in the locker room.”

Currently an assistant coach with the Anaheim Ducks, Ward won a Stanley Cup as an assistant with the Boston Bruins in 2011 and remains close with DiCasmirro.

For Yonkman, Tim Army helped to shape his career as a player, just as he works to do now as a coach. Yonkman played under Army for five seasons with the Washington Capitals and the Portland Pirates of the AHL.

Nolan Yonkman played 733 games over parts of 14 seasons in the AHL. (Photo: Scott Paulus)

“I was lucky to have Tim very early on in my career,” Yonkman said. “He was a big influence in my playing career early on, and he continues to be a positive influence today.”

In fact, Army was one of the first people in the Capitals organization that Yonkman met in his professional career.

“I was on the draft floor the day he was drafted,” Army said. “I have been connected with him for an awfully long time.”

As a result of their rapport that was built in Washington and Portland, Army had always thought that Yonkman could be successful if he ever ventured into the coaching side of the game. When Army was first hired by the Minnesota Wild organization, Yonkman was one of the first candidates he had in mind to join his staff at some point.

“When I got the job here, he was always in the back of my mind,” Army said. “If there was an opportunity to hire a young coach to work with our defense, he was always going to be at the front of my mind.”

Because their playing careers had drastically different starting points — with Yonkman a high draft pick and DiCasmirro going undrafted out of St. Cloud State — both young coaches feel they are now able to bring a unique perspective to the locker room in Iowa.

“I have the distinct honor of being the only player on my first Hamilton Bulldogs team to never play a game in the NHL,” DiCasmirro said with a chuckle. “However, I was fortunate to play in the American Hockey League for quite a while without ever playing a game in North America at a lower level. I think I bring a little bit of a different viewpoint to the room here for sure.”

DiCasmirro’s work ethic was one of the main reasons he found stability in the AHL, and his understanding of that concept allows him to emphasize the importance of dedication to the game to the young players in Iowa’s locker room.

“I’ve always understood that you have to just control the things that you can control,” DiCasmirro said. “You have to go out there every day and work hard to have sustained success at this level.”

For Yonkman, he understands what it is like to feel the pressure of being a high draft pick and to play under the expectation of immense success at the professional level.

“Once you get drafted, it feels great, but then there is a lot of pressure on you to be successful,” he said. “Everything is great when you are having success and doing well, but you have to be able to battle through adversity.”

Yonkman noted that he now conveys the same message to all of the players he works with, irrespective of their draft position, or if they were drafted at all.

“Ultimately, I want to see them succeed,” Yonkman said. “Everybody wins when players develop, no matter how those players were acquired.”

As they themselves develop as coaches, Army believes that their own individual experiences have and will continue to help to ease the transition from playing to coaching. He mentioned that the specific background experiences of both Yonkman and DiCasmirro played a pivotal role in the hiring process.

“I think their experience playing in the American Hockey League and working towards that goal of one day playing in the NHL, that was something that was certainly part of our hiring process,” Army said. “We knew that they would both come here with experiences that they could use to relate well to what our guys are going through.”

Army was intrigued particularly by DiCasmirro’s background, given his seven seasons of AHL hockey without once playing in an NHL game. It was apparent that DiCasmirro’s mental toughness and ability to play and work through adversity could be a tremendous asset to the Wild coaching staff.

Nate DiCasmirro skated in more than 400 games in the AHL. (Photo: Andreas Schwabe)

“I just felt like it was the right fit,” Army said. “I had a really good feeling about him throughout the interview process.”

Right now, DiCasmirro and Yonkman are focused on being as expendable as humanly possible to give the Wild the best chance to win a Calder Cup, but both have an interest in sustaining long-term success in coaching.

“I would like to be a head coach myself someday,” DiCasmirro said. “It is definitely not as easy as it looks from the standpoint of a player, but I love coaching. Just like when I was playing, I cannot wait to get up in the morning and come to the rink.”

For Yonkman, his long-term goals as a coach are not as structured, rather, he wants to see where his career will take him.

“I just want to be successful in whatever I do,” Yonkman said. “Of course, you always want to move up, but I really enjoy my current role and I am just getting started here in Iowa.”

Despite the differences in their playing careers and their paths to coaching, Yonkman and DiCasmirro are both in agreement that coaching under Army is a great opportunity to learn and to grow as professional coaches.

“I am so fortunate to be coaching side by side with Tim,” DiCasmirro said. “The way he deals with our staff and our players is unbelievable. I am just trying to soak it all in and I will continue to watch and learn from him every day.”

Yonkman praised Army for his poise and his ability to deal with unexpected situations as they arise; noting that he has a long way to go and a lot to learn from Army in his young coaching career.

“I have so much to learn and there is so much to experience before I could think about being a head coach,” Yonkman said. “[Tim] really emphasizes that individual success will come with team success. You have to work as one part of a collective whole.”

In the time they have spent together, Army has come to trust them both. He believes that they have the perfect mix of intangibles and intelligence to help get the Wild where they want to be.

“[Yonkman and DiCasmirro] are both doing a great job individually,” Army said. “They integrate well in a team environment, they have a good sense of humor, they have great work ethic and they are both very knowledgeable.”

As they adjust to their new lifestyles, both will certainly experience hardships along the way. However, under the guidance of Tim Army and the Wild organization, Yonkman and DiCasmirro are primed for longstanding success as they chase their dreams as professional coaches.

“Nolan and Nate both have very bright futures as coaches,” Army said. “It has been great to have them on our staff.”