Pro time proves key

OUA coaches leave playing days behind for spots behind the bench

After racking up 262 points in four OHL seasons, Brett Gibson turned to coaching and has been the Gaels’ head coach since 2006.
After racking up 262 points in four OHL seasons, Brett Gibson turned to coaching and has been the Gaels’ head coach since 2006.

When Stu Lang retired from the Canadian Football League (CFL) in 1981, he never intended to take up coaching.

The former Edmonton Eskimo wanted to go into teaching when he was in high school, but instead joined his family’s labelling business — CCL Industries — after leaving pro football.

It wasn’t until his second retirement, in the mid-2000s, that Lang — the current head coach of the Guelph Gryphons — began helping out with the football program at Upper Canada College (UCC), his old high school.

“I sort of got the bug, and realized how similar coaching was to teaching,” he said. “It was more of a love of teaching that led me to coaching.”

Lang is one of many retired pro athletes patrolling the bench for an OUA squad. Three-time Olympian Vicky Sunohara is the head coach of the Toronto Varsity Blues women’s hockey team, with her Canadian teammate Jayna Hefford on board as an assistant coach.

Elsewhere in the ranks of OUA women’s hockey coaches, former New York Ranger Darren Turcotte is at the helm of the Nipissing Lakers program. Western Mustangs football coach Greg Marshall, meanwhile, is a former Eskimos running back, having joined the team the season after Lang’s retirement.

Lang made a connection with then-Guelph head coach Kyle Walters during his stint at UCC. Eighteen years after hanging up his shoulder pads, he was back on the gridiron as the Gryphons’ receivers coach.

One year later, Walters left for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Lang stepped in as his replacement.

Since Lang’s hiring in March 2010, his teams have gone a combined 27-13 over five seasons. In 2014, he led the Gryphons to their second Yates Cup appearance in three years, ultimately falling 20-15 to the McMaster Marauders.

Lang captured five Grey Cups during his time with the Eskimos, including four straight to wrap up his CFL career. His professional success — coupled with his first-hand knowledge of what a collegiate athlete goes through — has benefitted the Gryphons in the recruiting game.

“Most of the players who want to play at the university level want to go on to the next level,” he said. “You’re able to tell them what it took in your particular case to make the jump to the next level — what to expect, how to plan, not to give up. You basically walked the path that they’re trying to walk.”

Like Lang, Queen’s men’s hockey head coach Brett Gibson is able to use his previous playing experience to net recruits.

Gibson spent four seasons as a junior player in the Ontario Hockey League, then bookended his time at St. Mary’s University with stops in the ECHL, the third-highest level of professional hockey in North America.

He planned on continuing his career, but when his father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, Gibson retired and moved back to Gananoque, eventually joining the Kingston Frontenacs as an assistant coach in 2004.

“It made my choice real quickly that I was going come back and live that last year with my father, and it was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Gibson said. “I got a great favour from an old coach that got me into coaching.

It brought that passion and allowed me to continue in the game and spend time with my father, which is the best of both worlds.”

Despite attending four NHL training camps, Gibson ultimately topped out in the minor leagues, allowing him to know first-hand what his players hope to achieve and what steps they have to undertake to reach the professional ranks.

“What I preach to these guys is ‘listen guys, I’ve been where you want to go and I didn’t succeed and I can tell you what you need to succeed’,” Gibson said. “I think that’s why I have such a good relationship with my players and the younger coaches. They can pick my brain on what it takes to get to the next level.”

Gibson has also used his high-level experience to bring some top-tier coaches to the Gaels. He came to Queen’s as an assistant coach under former NHL player Kirk Muller in 2005, and was promoted to head coach when Muller joined the Montreal Canadiens organization before the 2006-07 season.

Two other former NHLers, meanwhile, have worked as Gibson’s assistant coaches. Tony Cimellaro — one of Queen’s current assistants — played two games for the Ottawa Senators in 1992-93, while ex-Toronto Maple Leaf Alyn McCauley served as a Gaels assistant six seasons ago.

After finishing his ninth season in charge, Gibson said there’s a very clear reason he’s kept with the program.

“You’ve got to love the sport, you’ve got to love the passion and you’ve got to be addicted to it,” he said. “It absorbs your life. There’s nothing better that I’d rather be doing than coaching.”

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