When it comes to Of Ice and Men — the slogan adopted by the Syracuse Crunch for the 2006-07 season — the Crunch and their fans dream for another run at the Calder Cups Playoffs and perhaps an American Hockey League Calder Cup championship.
Not since 1936-37, when Jack Markle led the Syracuse Stars to the first Calder Cup, has the city of Syracuse embraced the trophy.
Markle led the Stars and the league in scoring that year and the following, so why not let another league scoring champion take another crack at the American League’s top prize?
Yates, who won the AHL’s scoring title in 1982-83 while playing for the Binghamton Whalers and was also the league’s most valuable player that year, becomes the fourth head coach in Crunch history following Jack McIlhargey (1994-99), Stan Smyl (1999-2000) and Gary Agnew (2000-06).
Yates, a very familiar face behind the Syracuse bench, assumes the head coaching duties following six years as Agnew’s understudy after Agnew was promoted to be an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Yates, a native of Montreal, brings a lot of playing and coaching experience, having played 11 seasons in the AHL, NHL and in Europe. He also has the coaching credentials having been a head coach and assistant in Europe and the six years as the Crunch assistant.
“He has a great hockey mind,” Agnew said of the passing of the head coach’s whistle to Yates. “We had a real solid working relationship. Ross knows the community, team, organization and the players. There will be a comfort level between Ross and (the players). The only change for him is going from being an assistant to being the head coach.”
Columbus seems to echo Agnew’s sentiments.
“I’ve never heard such positive comments about our minor-league coaching staff as I have about those two guys (Agnew and Yates),” Blue Jackets president and GM Doug MacLean told NHL.com. “It makes you feel good. Ross is ready for the challenge. It was a no-brainer.”
The former winner of the Fred T. Hunt Award as the AHL player who best exemplifies the qualities of sportsmanship, determination and dedication to hockey looks forward to the challenge.
Yates made his NHL debut during the 1983-84 season with Hartford, playing in seven games, and recording a goal and an assist.
“That was my most memorable moment — scoring in the Montreal Forum,” said Yates, who grew up as a Canadiens fan and claims that future Canadiens goalie Patrick Roy was the toughest goalie he ever faced when Roy played for Sherbrooke in the AHL.
Yates, a guy who admittedly is afraid of heights but not coaching, was quick to jump into the fray leading the Columbus rookies to their second straight rookie tournament championship in Traverse City, Mich., in August.
“We had one of the youngest teams in the tournament,” Blue Jackets director of amateur scouting Paul Castron said. “Hopefully some of these guys will play in Columbus down the road.”
That will fall into the hands of Yates and his new assistant, former Crunch defenseman Trent Cull.
“A lot of the things Gary (Agnew) and I did in the past was a combination of our ideas and thoughts so I don’t expect a drastic change or a total revamp of the system or style of play,” Yates said. “I’ll take some of the stuff we’ve done in the past and add a new twinge giving it my own style and hopefully we’ll be successful with that.”
“I thought we had a real solid working relationship,” Agnew said. “We became very comfortable and exchanged a lot of great hockey ideas. We would argue over things to test each others knowledge and try different things.”
The players should be able to meld into the Yates philosophy very easily with his years behind the bench.
“Players get tired of the same message all the time. You have a guy who’s coming in that knows everything about the organization but will be a different guy behind the bench,” Agnew said. “It’s not that big of a change so it’s the best of both worlds. It’s nice when there’s a change in the organization.”
Yates, like Agnew, will be given a liberal reign on a style of play or format but Columbus will expect the players to have a working knowledge of the Blue Jackets system when they get the call to the show.
“You have to coach to the type of players you have. If you have a offensive team you’ll adapt or if it’s more of a defensive team we’ll adapt to that,” Yates said. “Columbus will have a certain style in the NHL and we’ll have a style in the American League. It’s the sign of a good coach who can recognize what he has and play the style he needs accordingly.”
The Crunch will have a lot of young talent this season but Yates just hopes for consistency.
“I like a player who gives his best every game, at home or on the road,” Yates said. “A player who plays hard and worries about the team first. You like players that play hard every night and play for the team. If we can get the whole lineup to play like that we’ll have some success.”
Yates’s European exposure will also help the players that join the Crunch from outside North America including rookie goalie Tomas Popperle, who speaks little English.
“I know what those players are going through,” said Yates. “Their coming this way and I went that way. It’s not easy. The difference in the style of leagues that, say, Popperle has played in versus the American League. There are differences off the ice the guys will have to adjust to along with the language problem.”
Yates knows it’s part of coaching to help with the culture and living changes. “If anyone knows what they are going through it’ll be me. When I first went over I didn’t speak a word of German or Italian.” He is now fluent in German and can get by with his Italian.
“I know the ways to be successful when you go to a different country or continent. Hopefully I can pass on some of my experience and help him adapt as quickly as possible.”
Fans will also be watching our new head coach to see if he keeps up those always welcomed rivalries with our closest neighbors in Binghamton and Rochester.
“Ross is a real quality person who after putting in his time as an assistant coach is real deserving of an opportunity to be a head coach and run his own show.” said Tom Mitchell, the Binghamton Senators’ executive vice president of operations. “As a player Ross possessed great skills and was an offensive threat every time he was on the ice. We’re very happy for him.”
When it comes to the 2006-07 season Yates hopes the fans pack the War Memorial every game.
“Syracuse fans like any other city want a winning team. The Syracuse fans’ hockey knowledge is pretty good. They want a team that competes every night and players that work hard. What we want from the fans, is to rock the house. When the War Memorial is full it’s a great place to play. It’s loud, the atmosphere is great. It’s a older building but when our building is full it’s a great place to play.”
Hands are the essence of the making of a good player and coach. How will Yates handle the players and how will the players respond. It will be symbolic how that develops throughout the season Of Ice and Men but Yates has one promise for the Lennie in all of us that love to coddle our team.
“I’ve loved the six years I have been here,” Yates said. “I think for the most part we competed hard every night and I’m going to demand that happens again. I think we have a pretty good team. I can promise that with the players we have we’re going to compete hard every night and try our best. Hopefully we can build off of last year especially in the playoffs and go a little farther.”