Cool behind the bench

Head coach preaches unity, discipline

Gaels head coach Matt Holmberg has led the women’s hockey team to two OUA Championships in his first four seasons. Before Holmberg’s arrival, the Gaels’ last league title came in 1979.
Gaels head coach Matt Holmberg has led the women’s hockey team to two OUA Championships in his first four seasons. Before Holmberg’s arrival, the Gaels’ last league title came in 1979.
Holmberg and the Gaels swept the Western Mustangs to clinch this season’s OUA championship.
Holmberg and the Gaels swept the Western Mustangs to clinch this season’s OUA championship.

Matt Holmberg has quickly become one of Queen’s most decorated bench bosses.

After joining the women’s hockey coaching staff in 2006, Holmberg capped off his fourth season as head coach with an OUA championship and a berth to CIS nationals.

Both milestones were his second with the Gaels, after claiming the league title and a national bronze medal in 2011.

This year’s championships bookended what Holmberg described as “the best and craziest week” of his life. Holmberg’s daughter — his first child — was born two days before puck drop at this year’s CIS tournament.

Her full name is Gwenyth Abbigael Holmberg — the middle name a fitting tribute to Holmberg’s current team. “I had to throw it in there, somewhere,” he said, laughing.

Earlier this week, Holmberg sat down with the Journal to discuss his early championship success, his personal coaching style and the future of Gaels women’s hockey.

What’s been the highlight of your coaching career at Queen’s?

There’s been a bunch. The two OUA championships are probably tied for first. Winning that first one in 30-some years was very special, and it was almost as tough, if not tougher, to win the second one.

Before you were named head coach, Queen’s hadn’t won an OUA championship since 1979. Now, you have two in three years. How have you achieved this early success?

I give all the credit to the players. Myself and the other coaches have a vision for what we want to accomplish with this group of players, but we need them to buy in in order to achieve that — and they have, wholeheartedly.

I’ve been really blessed to have not only good talent on the ice, but they’re also good people off the ice.

To me, team unity and team chemistry is just as important as the Xs and Os on the ice. You have to have them both to be successful.

How would you describe your personal coaching style?

I’m not a yeller — I tend not to motivate through fear. I prefer to motivate the players through self-interest — wanting them to get better because they want to for themselves, for the team and for the school.

It seems like you’re always very composed behind the bench.

How do you maintain that poise?

Maybe it’s like a duck swimming in water — above water, it seems pretty calm, but underwater, the feet are going a mile a minute. It’s something that I preach to the team, in terms of discipline and being able to bounce back from anything negative that happens.

There are a lot of opportunities in games to get frustrated, but at the end of the day, we can only control the things we can control. We can control our effort and our own attitude.

You’ve had two of the top goaltenders in the OUA in Mel Dodd-Moher and Karissa Savage. How do you balance the workload between them?

That’s been one of the tougher things we’ve had to do in the last few years … you can only put in one goalie at a time.

[In regards to] both Karissa and Mel we’re very lucky, because they’re true team players and they both have a burning desire to be in. They support each other and they work hard — and without that, I don’t think we would have won another championship this year.

How do you see the team moving forward with the potential loss of several veteran players?

We’ve been through that sort of turnover before, and I think we’ve successfully come out of it. Everyone that’s leaving is going to be impossible to replace — they’ve been here for a long time, veterans that have pushed this program forward in the last few years.

Recruiting has gone well. I do believe that two or three players in their fourth year might decide to come back for their fifth year, which will certainly help to bring that experience along with them.

[Third-year centre] Shawna Griffin has won two championships in three years. Those sort of middle-year players now have a lot of experience to carry forward.

What are the challenges you face in a condensed tournament like nationals?
From experience now, we know that it’s over before you know it. You really have to put your best foot forward right away.

Some teams try to go into a tournament like that and try to change their style. What we did — and I still have no regrets about it — was to play our game. You can’t win three series in the OUA playing one style and suddenly switch it up at nationals.

We’ve learned to trust in the systems that got you there, work hard and enjoy the moment.

What do you like to do outside of hockey?

Hockey’s always been a passion of mine — putting my time and energy into this team comes easy. Now, with a newborn, it’s almost irrelevant what my other interests might be. I’m quite happy to put my non-hockey time and energy into my family and my daughter.

Any final thoughts on the season?

I’m really proud of what the team was able to accomplish this year. They set out at the beginning of the year to win a championship and make nationals.

We put together a blueprint on how that was going to happen, and it meant they needed to work very, very hard. They legitimately earned that championship.

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