By Kory Catlett
If you ask most Cedar Rapids RoughRiders’ fans exactly what coach Mark
Carlson does, they’ll tell you he’s the coach. And yes, that’s true, but
Carlson is much more than that. There’s also general manager, and then there
are the roles that don’t go into the program — surrogate father, friend
and, most of all, teacher. I learned a few things while shadowing the Riders coach and general manager.
One, Carlson has a master’s degree in education from Northeastern University
in Boston. Two, he is a tremendous communicator and a great teacher. In this
article, I’ll share some of coach Carlson’s game day preparations before his
team faced its archrival, the Waterloo Black Hawks.
We met at The Stable at about 10:30 a.m., before the team’s morning meeting.
The first thing Carlson and assistant coach Eric Rud did was watch film of
the previous night’s game. The Riders won, but it wasn’t without some
nail biting. After building a 3-0 lead in the first period and watching it
grow to 4-0 lead early in the second, the Des Moines Buccaneers scored three
goals to close the gap. The Riders held the lead and held on for the
victory. During the morning film session, the coaches found some things that
they needed to point out to their players. Not only bad, but also some good.
Most of their job is teaching their players what to repeat and what not to
repeat. The players started to file into the locker room. I wondered who
would start against Waterloo, so I asked how he decided the starting lineup.
He said it’s just a gut feeling, but also, unlike other sports, it doesn’t
really matter in hockey because players are only on the ice for 45 seconds
or so. The power play/penalty-kill is decided through the week, but unless
there is an injury, it pretty much doesn’t change.
Once all the players get to the meeting, it’s time to start going over the
film. “I try to keep everything positive, so it keeps the players positive,”
Carlson said. You can tell he’s big on positives; they litter the walls of
the locker room. From “Go Hard Or Go Home” to “Expect to Win” to “Details
Create Success.” The players, obviously bleary-eyed from last night’s game
and bus ride, beam in on their coach as if he were showing a video of
swimsuit models. He demands respect from his players, but it’s a two-way
street. He gives respect back to them. He warns his players not to fall into
the trap of listening to people outside the locker room. He had already heard
three times this morning that they almost blew a big lead the night before
— one of those was from me, by the way. Carlson repeats over and over,
“Team first,” emphasizing that no one player is bigger than the team. “It
doesn’t matter where the points come from as long as we get the ‘W.’ “
The team is dismissed from film study and free to go about a regular
Saturday afternoon. Some of the Riders bolt. Some get treatment for
injuries. Some have parents in town. And some just hang out. Carlson isn’t
so lucky. He has plenty of worries. I can tell he still has a ton on his
mind as he prepares to watch film of past Waterloo games, trying to find
some small mistake his Riders can use to their advantage.
As we meet again a couple of hours before the game, Carlson is in his office
making out lineup cards and jotting down notes for the game. He said that he
still gets butterflies before every game. “When I lose the fire, it’s time
to find something else to do for a living.” He doesn’t concern himself with
what the players are doing at this point. That’s up to captains Kevin
Brooks, Chris Snavely, Matt Olinger and Shawn Vinz, all USHL veterans. Vinz
is injured, but he’s still there doing whatever he can to help his teammates
get ready. The game is set to begin, but not before Carlson addresses his
boys. He reminds them that everything they have done up to this point in the
season is building for the playoffs and this game is no different. “Remember
to put the team first and good things will happen.”
After a scoreless first period, it was quiet. I expected Carlson to come in
and really let loose on the guys. Everyone was kind of doing their own
thing. Steve Castelletti, the team’s equipment manager, was busy sharpening
skates. Athletic trainer Mark Doren worked on an injury to Brett Beckfeld.
Carlson is all business now. The laughing and joking we did during the day
is now gone. The smile is replaced by the firm jaw line and stone face we see
on the bench. The game was scoreless, so there wasn’t much to yell about. He
continued to teach his players, showing and explaining things he and Rud
picked up during the period. The clock was ticking down toward the start of
the second period and there was once again some liveliness in the players
and the locker room.
The second period saw the Black Hawks finding the scoreboard first, but their
lead was a short-lived 8 seconds. Chase Watson took the ensuing face-off,
barreled through the Black Hawk zone, and dished it to Mike Manley who threw
it on net. The rebound came straight to Mike Pasley who buried it. The
Riders scored again to take a one-goal lead into the second intermission.
This intermission, Carlson showed the emotion fans rarely see while he is on
the bench. The volume rises and his voice booms as he tells his Riders what
he expects in the third period. As he close his comments, he repeated
something he said during the previous intermission, but this time he did it
with vigor that would make any drill sergeant whimper.
“Let’s go boys, let’s go boys. “This really seems to get the Riders’ juices flowing. Rookie defenseman Zach
Miskovich counted down the intermission clock all while keeping the fire burning with his own “Lets go boys.”
The third period, however, turned out to be one the Riders wanted to forget.
The Black Hawks scored three goals and took the last regular-season meeting,
4-2. This is disappointing to Carlson because he feels his team played a
great game. “Waterloo played a great game, too. It came down to the fact that they
buried their chances and we didn’t,” Carlson said. There was no yelling for
missed assignments. No beating around the bush. It was straight to the point
and back to the stoned faced coach showing no emotion. Many people in Cedar
Rapids don’t understand this. They want the Bobby Knight-type who yells and
screams and throws chairs. This is not Carlson. He is a communicator and a
teacher, not a screamer. When Carlson dismissed his Riders to have their
Sunday free for whatever they felt like doing, you could tell he was a
little disappointed. Not disappointed in how his boys played, but
disappointed for not finding that something they could have used to beat
Waterloo. He told his team to respect the Blackhawks to the press waiting
outside for interviews. He said tonight they were the better team. The
Riders will show up again for practice on Monday. Their coach will be
laughing and joking with his boys, but you can bet he and Coach Rud will be
looking for that little tendency that will allow them to take the team deep
into the playoffs. Rest assured, though, when the puck drops Friday night,
the stone faced coach who shows no emotion will be back because it’s time for
*Special thanks to coach Carlson, coach Rud, and The RoughRiders for
allowing me have an inside look on game day.