BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – With the offseason in full swing for coach Craig Simchuk and the Birmingham Bulls, what better time to chat with the coach after his rookie season as the bench boss.
With less than a month to prepare for the 2020-21 season, Bulls head coach Jamey Hicks resigned to handle a family matter back in Canada.
So, to kick things off, I asked Simchuk to tell me about the process once he found out he would be the head coach.
Simchuk: It was definitely surprising. I always wanted to be a head coach; I didn’t expect it to be after not even a full season of being an assistant coach. I got a call from Jamey Hicks in late November, and he told me that he was stepping down for personal reasons and was recommending me for the job. He felt I could handle it, and he wanted to see the job in the hands of someone that will represent the Bulls logo and the Bulls family and carry on the traditions that we have created in-house here.
At the end of the day, though, he only had so much say, and the decision was still on the ownership. There were a lot of zoom interviews and talks with ownership. I know a couple of other candidates were interviewed as well, but they made the decision and offered me the position. Of course, it was an immediate yes on my end; the whole situation at the time definitely took me back. I knew it was not going to be easy, and I was still in Canada at the time. I was named coach on December 1st, and my immigration paperwork hadn’t even been filed yet.
Not many people know this, but I drove down the day before camp, and it was about a 30-hour trip after stops and everything. I arrived about 6 hours before our first day on the ice. I didn’t know half the players in the dressing room at the time because most of the guys were signed by Hicks. There were a lot of new faces, and I had to learn them quickly. Luckily, I had Jerome Bechard there helping and kickstarting the process. I asked him for pointers on day one since he had been doing this for 20 years. Having him there really helped kick things off and get the season started.
FPH: How easy or difficult was the transition from player to coach?
Simchuk: I personally had more of a culture shock going from player to assistant coach. You start to see a lot of the behind-the-scenes stuff. I remember doing a coaches show with Eli Gold and I remember saying I just can’t believe how much the phone rings for a head coach. It’s constant between players, other teams, and agents. So that was a bit of a surprise to me, learning that this would be a 24/7 job. Jamey really helped me along and helped me evolve as a coach to eventually hand the reins over to me.
FPH: How did the players handle this whole situation? As you said, most of the guys were signed by Hicks, which was all new to them as well?
Simchuk: I made a lot of calls beforehand, so the players knew the situation and knew what was going on. A couple of the new guys were uncertain because they didn’t know who I was; I didn’t know who they were. They weren’t recruited by me, and I felt they were maybe a little uneasy at the situation because the boss that brought you in is now gone, and now this new guy is coming in, and he may not like me and whatnot. I just tried to keep everyone at ease and told them just to go out and do their job; everybody has a fresh slate, including myself. That was my mentality coming in that no one is promised anything and everything is earned down here.
FPH: What were some key takeaways from last season for you?
Simchuk: The biggest thing would be to have more patience with guys. Early on, I know it seemed like a revolving door with the roster. I know the roster changed 18 times in the first 18 games, some due to Covid, injuries, and callups. I think giving the players a little bit of a longer leash and maybe not holding them to a game or weekend to settle in. I just need to give them a little more time to become comfortable and come into themselves. I think stepping back and looking, maybe I should have held onto some guys or given them a little bit of a better chance to thrive.
FPH: What would be your favorite or most memorable moments from year one as the head coach?
Simchuk: I think the obvious answer here would be the first win; that was pretty cool. A couple of the guys grabbed the puck and presented it to me after the game. That’s something I will keep with me for the rest of my life. I really appreciated that. One of the other moments would be the legends night game, everything about it; the atmosphere, the vibe. We still talk about that night, you came to the rink, and it was just a different feeling. We had the legends come in and meet with us before the game. Phil Roberto came in and said a few things before the game. Just seeing those guys and seeing where the Bulls were and how we are still connected was pretty cool. Also, the fact that we came back won that game, and the crowd was awesome. It was just great for the whole organization. That was one of the biggest nights in our history.
FPH: Tell me about coaching guys with big personalities like Kasey Kulczycki and Anthony Collins.
Simchuk: Those are probably two of the funniest guys I have ever met in my life, but at the same time, when it’s go time, those are also two of the most serious guys. They are both pros and are big locker room guys. They are the glue guys; when they speak, their voices carry a lot of weight. It wasn’t hard at all to coach those guys. They knew when to lighten the mood, and they knew when it was time to tighten up and be serious.
FPH: Where are you spending your offseason, and what have you been up to?
Simchuk: I’m still in Birmingham. I have been bouncing around a bit. I feel like I have been in a different city and state for about 6 weeks straight now. I worked a hockey camp up in Atlanta with a couple of guys that I know from my college days. I was also coaching a couple of youth teams with Josh Harris. We did a weekend in Charleston, and we just got back from Miami. That’s kind of it for the summer now. I plan on staying down here the whole summer. I’m looking forward to it, I know the Alabama heat will eventually get to me, but I’m enjoying it for right now.
FPH: Now that you have the first year under your belt, what are the goals you are setting for yourself as a coach this coming season?
Simchuk: I’m still approaching hockey as a player; I want to learn more. I’m constantly trying to find more info. I want to strive to be better as a coach and a person. I have been doing coaches clinics, reading, and just picking people’s brains on different things on and off the ice. I just want to improve as a coach how I come across and how I articulate things. I do obviously want to win a championship, but everyone would say that.
FPH: Moving onto the team now, what expectations do you have for the team this coming year?
Simchuk: My expectations I don’t think change with the team. They pretty much stay the same. I hope we get a lot of returning guys, but at the same time, there are going to be a few guys that will get an opportunity in the ECHL. I want to create a culture, and I want to implement some things that I believe in and that guys are receptive to. I want a championship in Birmingham. That’s all I want. I want to be a part of it in any way possible. If we get some of the core guys back and with good leadership, that is definitely possible. Playoffs are a definite checkmark. I expect us to make the playoffs and go far in it. Every year I have been here, that has been the expectation. The bar’s been set.
FPH: Last question, what do you want the identity of this team to be? What is your vision for the team?
Simchuk: I want the team to be the hardest working team on the ice with a balance of skill and grit. Kind of like you saw with St. Louis or Tampa, they got their skill guys, but they also got guys that are role players, and everyone is buying in.
Simchuk has high hopes heading into his second season behind the bench, which will, hopefully, lead to some exciting hockey come this October. The Bulls open the 2021-22 season at home on Friday, October 22.
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