by Ron Spence
The Canucks were playing a depleted Avalanche team last season – a squad of mostly AHL callups – and I couldn’t get over their great positional play.
So, I looked up their minor league coach – Joe Sacco of the Lake Eerie Monsters.
He is – of course – Colorado’s new coach this season, and the Avs are 10 wins versus 2 losses, and 2 ties.
This puts them tied with Pittsburgh with 22 points overall – and the Pens have played in 3 more games.
A lot of the credit has to go to Sacco.
What’s his coaching style – I wondered?
Medford, Mass. writer Christopher Hurley talked to Sacco last February.
“The sport of hockey has always been in Joe Sacco’s blood.
From his early days playing at Medford High School to his years in the National Hockey League, the former Mustang legend has always been an avid student of the game.
Today, the student has turned teacher.
Sacco enters his second year as head coach of the American Hockey League’s Lake Erie Monsters, the minor league affiliate of the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche. Making the move from player to coach has been an interesting transition for the Medford native.
“It’s certainly not the same,” said Sacco, 40….
“It’s been trying and it’s been challenging, but I really enjoy it. I’ve had a passion for the game ever since I was a player and it’s funny how its worked out. I never envisioned myself becoming a coach, but it just kind of worked out that way.”
Originally drafted by Toronto Maple Leafs in the fourth round (71st overall) of the 1987 NHL Entry Draft, Sacco enjoyed a 13-year NHL career playing for five different teams including the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, New York Islanders, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers. He scored 94 goals and 213 points in 738 NHL games, before hanging up the skates following the 2002-03 season.
Sacco began the next phase of his hockey career serving as an assistant coach for the Lowell Lock Monsters in 2004-05. When the franchise relocated to Cleveland the following year, Sacco was appointed head coach May 7, 2007.
Since that time, he’s taken a proactive role in shaping NHL stars of the future.
“I enjoy working with young players trying to help them further their career and trying to show them what it takes to be a good consistent pro,” said Sacco. “For a lot of them that’s that biggest thing, is learning what it takes, all the little things that goes along with being a professional.
“At the same time, I feel like at times it gets frustrating, because we haven’t had a winning season,” added Sacco…. “Obviously, I take responsibility for that, but at the same time we are here to develop young players.”
Sacco and his staff have done just that.
Over the last two years, the Monsters have sent a handful of their top players up to Colorado. Forwards T.J. Hensick, Chris Stewart, Brian Willsie and defenseman Kyle Cumiskey, have played so well that the parent club opted to keep them. While its been gratifying to see those players graduate to the next level, it’s also been challenging for the club to fill those holes.
According to Sacco, that just goes with the territory.
“That’s the nature of the beast in this league,” Sacco said. “Every team goes through that. Any time you have young players getting called up it’s rewarding not only for them obviously but for coaches. It’s nice to see those guys go up and get an opportunity and be able to contribute to the NHL team. At the end of the day, that’s why we’re here, but I’ve always said it’s always nicer to develop players in a winning atmosphere and that’s why we try to win. But we’ve had some good success with players going up to Colorado and being able to step in and contribute.”
According to Lake Erie General Manager David Oliver, Sacco has brought a lot of intangibles into the organization.
“Joe brings a lot of fire, a lot of passion, a lot of what made him a consistent NHL player,” said Oliver. “Those are the kind of traits we’d like to rub off on our young guys that are coming up through the pipeline.”
Sacco’s lengthy playing career coupled with his keen insight into the game has been very beneficial for the organization.
“I think it’s huge,” said Oliver. “There is an instant respect factor when you’ve got somebody that’s been there, done that, trying to help show you the light, show you the way. At the same time, he’s demanding. He’s a demanding coach and I think the players have a lot of respect for that. It’s been a nice fit.”
[Lake Eerie's] road trip hit a speed bump in Manchester, as Lake Erie blew a 2-0 lead to ultimately fall to Manchester, 6-2.
“We’re running into a tough stretch here right now,” said Sacco. “The last 3-4 games have been somewhat of a disappointment for us. Our special teams is hurting us right now, our inability to kill penalties and our inability to generate chances on our power play right now, it’s probably been the difference.
“We’re a young team, we make young mistakes,” he added. “At times and we were in that game all the way up until 3-2 even thought they were probably out chancing us. Our goaltender gave us a chance up until the end than then we got a little sloppy at the end of the game.”
…Sacco remains optimistic.
“We just have to keep working,” he said. “When you get into a slump you have to work your way out of it. There is no easy answers, just hard work. It’s like anything else in life. When you go through a struggle the easiest way to get out of it is hard work. You’ve got prepare yourself and stay focused. We’ll be okay we’ve just got to try to make sure we keep the guys spirits up and not let them get too down.”
And with Sacco leading the way it should be only a matter of time before Lake Erie starts posting Monster numbers.
“Joe Sacco did not need to wait long for his first NHL coaching opportunity.