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Jim Hulton thrilled to be back coaching junior hockey

November 23, 2013

By CLAUDE SCILLEY

This isn’t the first time Jim Hulton has waded into the breach of a struggling hockey club. In fact, the timing — within a week of Grey Cup Sunday — is eerily similar to the last time it happened.

“I hope this one turns out a lot better,” Hulton was saying the other day from Kearney, Neb., where he’s just undertaken the dual role of coach and general manager of the Tri-City Storm of the United States Hockey League.

Hulton’s first job as a full-time coach was with the first-year Mississauga IceDogs, taking over an Ontario Hockey League team that stumbled out of the gate 1-21-1. He managed to coax two more victories of the moribund mongrels in the remaining 45 games.

“The big difference then is I was 28 years old and that was my first time full-time coaching,” recalled Hulton, who’d been behind the bench of the Kingston Voyageurs for 21 games when he got the invitation from fellow Wolfe Islander Don Cherry to coach his team.

“I had zero experience and, in hindsight, zero business taking over a program like that, though I didn’t want to admit it at the time,” Hulton said. “Now, a decade or more later, with the experiences that I’ve had, I think I’m in a lot better position to come in and take over.”

The Storm is a charter member of the league that is regarded as the pre-eminent junior league in the U.S. Starting in 1979 in St. Paul, Minn., the team was renamed Twin Cities in 1995 and in 2000 it moved to Kearney, a city of about 32,000 in central Nebraska that was once a stop on the Oregon Trail and an outpost of the Pony Express.

The league now comprises 16 teams in the midwestern U.S. in two eight-team divisions. A team with players from 12 different U.S. states — and goalies from Sweden and Ontario — Tri-Cities, 4-9-2 after losing former coach Josh Hauge’s last game 6-0 Sunday, is tied for sixth place in the league’s Western conference.

Save for helping with his children’s teams, Hulton, 44, had been out of coaching since his contract was not renewed by the Florida Panthers of the National Hockey League after the 2010-11 season. Sitting at home in Kingston about 10 days ago, the man who won world championship gold and silver medals as an assistant with Canada’s national junior team got a call “out of the blue” from the Storm’s head scout, Steve Lowe.

Lowe, it seems, and James Boyd are old buddies. So are Boyd and Hulton. Boyd was an assistant for two years when Hulton was coaching the Belleville Bulls, and Hulton was on Boyd’s staff for a season in Mississauga.

“They were looking for someone that had pro experience and junior experience, and he asked James if he happened to know anybody,” Hulton said, “and James said, ‘Yes, I do.’ Next thing I know I got a call from here.

“After a lot of soul searching and homework, and talking with ownership, it became a real good deal, too good to pass up.”

Hulton says he was glad to have had time with his young family after leaving Florida, but he yearned to return to coaching.

“Yeah, I really did,” he said. “Once a coach, always a coach. It’s just in your blood. I had a great experience at home, some great family time … but I really, really missed coaching.”

The lure of also being the team’s general manager intrigued him, Hulton said, and he was also impressed by the team’s owner, Las Vegas businessman Kirk Brooks, who Hulton says expressed the commitment and the financial resources to make the team successful.

He said it’s also a good brand of hockey.

“It’s a highly regarded league, the American equivalent of the OHL,” Hulton said. “The style of play is different, the calibre might not be as high end, but it’s pretty darn close. We have 16 kids here who already have Division I NCAA commitments, so (there’s) a real high level of talent.

“I guess probably the most important factor was after talking to some NHL guys they said it’s a real good team that’s maybe been underachieving.”

Which was an important consideration for someone who is signed only through the end of this season.

“I didn’t want to make a commitment beyond that without knowing the situation,” Hulton said. “My family has stayed back home. I don’t want to take my kids out of school right now so it’s going to be a test run for us. We’ve never been apart like this … luckily I’ve got an incredibly supportive family that lets me chase these crazy dreams.

“We’ll see what it’s like, but I didn’t want to make a long-term commitment because we’ve got to make sure it’s the right fit, for both sides. So, obviously, if I’m coming in short-term, I wanted a team that could probably compete right off the hop.”

Resurrecting a team that has lost its last four in a row — and scored fewer than two goals in seven of its 15 games — is a challenge, but Hulton said that doesn’t deter him. “As coaches (challenges) are what we’re driven for,” he said.

He’s been careful, he explained, about orienting himself with the team he’s inherited.

“It doesn’t matter why their record is what it is, it only matters what it is,” he said, so as prevalent as video is these days, he’s purposely not watched too much of it.

“I really want it to be a fresh start for them,” he explained. “I had to watch a bit to understand what some of the issues are but I didn’t want to watch too much and form opinions and come in with preconceived ideas.”

Hulton, who spent the better part of eight years as a head coach in the OHL — his cumulative record in his time in Kingston, by the way, remains the best of the six men who have coached the Frontenacs this century — is delighted to be involved once again in junior hockey.

“To be back at the junior level is a real thrill for me,” he said. “I love the age and the stage the kids are at. I like the teaching aspects of the game and this is a development league, similar to what the OHL is. Though here the next step is the NCAA, they’re also being groomed to hopefully become pros. That’s what I like, because you can really see the improvement.

“When you get to the pro level, most players, they are what they are. If they’re a scorer, they’re a scorer; if they’re a grinder, they’re a grinder, but here you’re trying to develop the whole game and there’s a lot of teaching to it. That’s the part I really like.”

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