Q&A with Team USA and NMU head coach Walt Kyle

By DJ Powers

The general consensus going into the upcoming IIHF U-20 World Junior Championship (WJC) in Vancouver is that the United States is one of, if not the favorite, to take home the gold medal this year.

The man who’ll be running the show for Team USA is current Northern Michigan University head coach Walt Kyle.

Kyle has been an active member of USA Hockey for well over a decade. He is no stranger to coaching at the international level. Kyle previously served as Team USA head coach in the World Junior Championship tournament back in 1992, where he guided the Americans to a bronze medal, as well as in 1993. In 1991, Kyle served as an assistant coach for Team USA under Kevin Constantine. He has also served on the USA coaching staffs in the IIHF World Championships in 1994 under Ron Wilson and in 2001 under Lou Vairo.

In addition to coaching at the collegiate and international levels, Kyle’s résumé also includes coaching stints with the New York Rangers and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks among those in the professional ranks. He has also coached the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds.

Kyle, a 1981 graduate of NMU, is in his second tour of duty with Northern. He served as an assistant coach under then-head coach Rick Comley from 1982-92. Kyle marked his return to Marquette in 2002 when he was named the Wildcats head coach. Under his guidance, NMU has made three consecutive appearances in the CCHA Super Six.

Walt Kyle recently spoke with Hockey’s Future and shared some of his insights on the US National Junior Team as well as his team at Northern Michigan.

HF: One of the things that you had mentioned during the USA Hockey conference call was the development of the team chemistry and getting the players to come together as being the two elements that are the most important keys to the success of Team USA. Do you feel that it will also be the hardest part about coaching the team as well?

WK: I think it’s the hardest part about coaching any team. When you look at any successful team, they have that element there. They’re together and they care about each other. They care about group success ahead of individual success. As a coach, it’s easy often times to put in tactics or work on drills to develop skills, but you have to really be cognizant of that chemistry and it’s a difficult thing to do because everything that happens around the team, both on and off the ice, has an impact on that. You have to constantly be aware of that.

HF: You had also mentioned that one of the difficult things about putting this team together was the fact that a lot of great players were cut. Which was more difficult, cutting some of the great players or trying to find the right players to fit the right roles?

WK: As a coach, you know that you’re going to have to cut people. You know that you’re going to have to cut good people when you’re involved in a project like this. So that was expected. I think the biggest thing is just trying to make sure that we made the proper evaluations and put the right people in the right roles. I think that is a difficult process and I give the people that are involved in our scouting staff who watching all of the players a lot of credit. We certainly feel at this point that we selected the right guys. I guess after the tournament will be a much better time to evaluate that.

HF: One topic that has been brought up in Team USA’s selection process for this particular tournament is the seemingly endless debate of college hockey versus the Canadian Hockey League and whether there is any bias in selecting players according to what league they play for. Do you personally feel that there is far too much emphasis being placed on the issue, particularly from those in the media?

WK: Yeah, I don’t think that it has anything to do with anything to be honest with you. I don’t care where these guys play. When an NHL team is putting its roster together they don’t care if a guy is a Russian or a Swede or an American or a Canadian. When we’re putting this together, we certainly don’t care where any of our players play. That’s an individual choice and players make those choices based on personal preference. When we put an elite team together like this, we’re just simply looking for our best players regardless of where they play. Whenever I’ve been involved in USA Hockey that has always been the mandate and I have never heard anything else. We just want the best players no matter where they play. I’ve coached in both the major junior and in college hockey and I can tell you that they’re both great venues for players to play in.

HF: Obviously the players, particularly the forwards, have certain established roles on their regular teams. Having to fill certain types of roles on the team, do you foresee any of the players having dramatically different roles with Team USA compared to what they have with their respective current teams? If so, who are they?

WK: Probably to some degree. Obviously different coaches are going to utilize different people in different fashions. Our evaluation process with these players hasn’t just happened over the summer or just over the last month or two. Some of these players have a history, in not only college hockey or in major junior but some have it with the National Development Team (NTDP) and with some of the coaches that are on this staff. So we know how players have been used in the past. I think we have a good feel for what kind of player each individual is and what we think each player can do effectively. When you put an elite group of players like this together, often times guys that are playing offensive roles on their teams are going to be asked to be put in more defensive roles or be used more in a checking scheme with this team. I can’t think of any individuals right now, but I can tell you that certainly guys will not fill the same roles on this team as they do on their current teams.

HF: You just mentioned being familiar with the players, having not only watched them this past summer but also being able to see and keep tabs on them since then. Five of the players on Team USA’s roster are from teams that play in the CCHA (Nathan Davis, Tom Fritsche, Jack Johnson, Mark Mitera and Kevin Porter). Obviously, your team at Northern Michigan has faced all of these players with the teams that they all play for. Having faced these players with their respective CCHA teams, does that familiarity make it easier for you to coach them as far as knowing what these players are like bringing this team together for this tournament?

WK: Not really because when my team here at NMU plays one of those teams, I’m far more focused on my team here at Northern having success. I don’t really watch individual opponents. One thing that I do have is I’m blessed with the ability to watch a lot of game tape, whether it’s an individual post-game or after a series. In that time, I’m certainly spending time watching individuals. So from that perspective, it does make it easier. I can see a lot more film on the guys that are in the CCHA but I also have access to video from the guys that are in the WCHA and the other leagues. We (the coaching staff) spend a lot of time watching tape and I think that we have a pretty good feel for the guys that we have on the team.

HF: When the USA camp was taking place in Lake Placid over the summer, Steve Johnson of the Lincoln Stars (USHL) and Kurt Kleinendorst of the New Jersey Devils were coaching the team. How much input did these gentlemen have in the selection process?

WK: They were certainly very involved. These are guys that were on the ice every day with the players at the (selection) camp. One of the things that we tried to do while at that camp was evaluate each individual’s work ethic, ability to accept coaching and quickly grasp concepts. One of the things that happens in a tournament like is that you get together and you’re together for a very short time. You can’t afford to take people that don’t quickly grasp the things that you’re trying to teach. Those guys were very involved in that. I’ve called them a couple of times through the course of the early part of the winter here because they’ve both have had some opportunities to see some of these guys and they give me continued feedback.

HF: Given the limited amount of time that you and your staff had to work with the players at the evaluation camp, did you want to select players who can not only fit into the roles but who are also able to adapt and adjust to whatever you want for them to do as well?

WK: Absolutely. The roles will change and fluctuate, their fluid even within the tournament. You don’t know what’s going to happen in regards to injuries or someone may not be playing well in the role that you projected them to play in and someone else has to fill in that role. A player maybe playing exceptionally well and you want to expand his role. There are a lot of different things that go into it. You try and give yourself as much flexibility within the roster that you’ve selected as you can.

HF: Have you decided yet whether or not Cory Schneider will be your starter or do you plan to rotate Cory and Jeff Frazee?

WK: We don’t know right now. That’ll be determined as it goes.

HF: You have several players that are returning from last year’s team such as Brian Lee, Phil Kessel and Chris Bourque. Are you expecting those three and the other returning players to lead the team this year?

WK: Not really. I think everyone who is there is responsible for leadership to some degree. I certainly think that the players who have been in this tournament before understand that it is a different event (from the U-18s and U-17s) and it’s a special event that they can share with the guys. I think in that regard that’ll be important but I think that leadership is a shared responsibility and we all have to be accountable for who we are and what we do.

HF: Taylor Chorney and Brian Lee play together regularly at North Dakota. Are you planning to have them play together in the tournament as well?

WK: We’d like to try them together at some point. Whether we’ll end up keeping them together still hasn’t been determined yet, because some of that doesn’t just relate to them but also relates to the other defensemen and how both of them interact with them. It also has to do with what we feel as far as which defenseman fits best with which other defenseman. All of that stuff will be determined once we arrive at our training camp in Victoria, BC.

HF: When does the team leave for the tournament?

WK: Sunday, December 18th.

HF: Two gentlemen that you’ll be working with are John Hynes from the NTDP and Mike Gibbons, someone that you’ve worked with before. It must be a thrill for you to be working with Mike again since the two of you both worked together at Northern (Michigan).

WK: Yeah. We worked together here at Northern but we also worked together for a year in the AHL in Baltimore. When it came time for staff selection for the team, one of the things that I certainly wanted was to have John be a part of it. I certainly have a lot of respect for him. He’s done a great job with the (National Team) Development Program and he has a lot of familiarity with many of the players on the team. So he was a real important selection. I also felt that it was important for me to get a guy that I knew well, had worked with and trusted. There was no other name that came to mind other than Mike’s, so to be able to put him in was a real comfortable fit. He knows me and I know him. We’re very similar. We’ve been best friends for three years and hockey has certainly been our passion. We’ve put a lot of water under the bridge together so I think that he’ll be a real asset to me in this tournament.

HF: You mentioned in the USA Hockey conference call the tremendous growth and development of American-born players since you last coached in this tournament. Do you feel that the growth and development has had a big impact on the difficulty of the selection process?

WK: It’s made a larger pool of players available, which is a good thing. It probably does make the job more difficult in that there are more quality players that you need to evaluate, be aware of and there are more players to choose from. In the end, that’s a good difficulty, it’s a positive thing.

HF: Aside from being a part of it and coaching the players, what are you personally looking forward to the most in the tournament?

WK: Anytime you get a chance to represent your country, it’s something that you have to grasp. You never know how many more years that you’re going to be coaching or what environment that you’re going to be coaching in. Any elite, international competition like this is something that you can always remember. I’m anxious to be re-involved in that.

HF: I want to move on to your current team at Northern Michigan. Your team didn’t lose many players in the offseason, but the most significant loss was that of Tuomas Tarkki. Bill Zaniboni and Derek Janzen have taken over the goaltending duties for you this season. How much of an adjustment has it been for the team and more specifically for Bill, having backed up Tuomas last season?

WK: It’s been a big adjustment, that’s not to take anything away from Zaniboni or Janzen. They’ve both been solid performances in goal but we’re a team that’s used to an All-American and a Hobey Baker candidate last year in goal. Tuomas was voted the MVP of our league (CCHA) last season for a reason. The other coaches saw what he meant to our team. We’ve had an adjustment period playing without Tuomas. Now these guys are both young, inexperienced guys that have done a commendable job. They’re both improving and getting better and adjusting daily. We’re very confident in them, but there’s certainly been an adjustment period.

HF: You almost ended up losing Andrew Contois after last season due to his eligibility situation. You must be elated to have him back.

WK: Yeah absolutely. Andy was probably our top forward last year. He was our top offensive guy. He’s a very dangerous and real dynamic player. It was kind of a convoluted deal there. We weren’t sure if we were going to have him for another year or we weren’t going to have him. We went through an appeals process and we got him back. I can tell you that next to Andy, I was probably the happiest guy out there when the NCAA came down with that ruling.

HF: I notice that he’s currently leading your team in scoring, so he’s contributing big time this year.

WK: Yeah. A year ago he was our best forward and he continues to be our best forward. He is a guy that has really matured as a player and as a person. He’s a guy that is very valuable to our lineup.

HF: Nathan Oystrick missed a few games with a hand injury not too long ago. Is he fully recovered now and has his injury had any impact on his play since returning to the lineup?

WK: No. It was one of those deals where if we were in a playoff situation, we would’ve played him. Since it wasn’t, we felt that sitting him for a few games was the best thing for him. He’s back and he played very well in the series against Ferris State last weekend.

HF: One player that seems to have more of a presence on the ice this season is Dusty Collins. Can you elaborate on how you’re utilizing him this year?

WK: Dusty is easily our most improved player. I can tell you that when we recruited him we knew that he was going to be a little bit of a project and it was going to take time for him to develop. We actually told him that his first two years in school were probably going to be growth years and years to gain experience. We also told him that in his last two years he would indeed get an opportunity to become an impact player. Dusty has been really diligent in regards to his work ethic and he’s been very patient. He’s been able to grab the opportunity and has continued to grow and done what has been asked of him. I can tell you right now that he’s getting far more ice time than he’s ever gotten. We’re starting to integrate him in special teams areas and he’s turned into a very solid player for us. The area where Dusty has really improved the most in that I’ve really noticed is his play with the puck. He’s much more confident, patient and he’s much more willing to hang on the puck and make plays right now. Dusty has really turned the corner and we’re really excited about where he is now and where he is going to be.

HF: Defenseman Spencer Dillon has seen little ice time so far. Do you plan to play him more often as the season goes along?

WK: Absolutely. He’s a guy that we picked up late during the recruiting period last year. We currently have three seniors and three juniors on defense. We’re very experienced there. It’s a difficult position to cut into. We have two freshmen in Dillon and Derek May, that we feel are quality Division I freshman defensemen. They have not been in the lineup as much as they would have liked simply because they’re playing behind some real experienced guys. They were both brought in with the understanding that we when do lose three guys at the end of the season that they’d be able to step in. They will know our systems and know what we want to do. I can tell you that we have no hesitations about putting these guys in right now. Spencer has played in two of the last three games (prior to this weekend) and has really accounted for himself well. He’ll certainly get in more games in the second half of the year.

HF: You have some offensively gifted players such as Darin Olver who seem to have gotten off to a slower than expected start to the season. Would you like to see Darin and some of your team’s other top offensive guys really step it up in the second half of the year?

WK: We would for sure. I think you’ll find that most of our guys are right on track to where they were a year ago or on track to have better offensive seasons this year. We have not been a team that traditionally scores a lot. The two guys right now that are a little bit behind in their numbers from a year ago are Olver and Santorelli. Santorelli has been given chance after chance, but for some reason the puck just hasn’t been going in for him. I think he’s certainly on track to come around. In my opinion, Darin has really turned the corner here. We feel like he’s ready to get back on track and go in the second half of the season.

HF: With everything that Santorelli accomplished last year, do you have much higher expectations of him this year in addition to wanting to have him step it up in the second half?

WK: Yes. Anytime you have success, expectations are raised and that’s a good thing. This year he’s facing the opposition’s top checkers and defensemen more often than he was last year. He has to raise his game and in my opinion he’s doing that.

HF: What do you feel is the one area where his game has really improved this season?

WK: Mike’s really improved his game defensively. He’s become a much better defensive player. Last year, he was pretty much a one-way guy. He’s really adjusted his game. I feel comfortable playing him against the opposing team’s top players now.

HF: Last season, you had one of the best defensive teams in the nation. This season, your team defense has struggled a bit. Is that one of your biggest concerns going into the latter half of the season?

WK: In my opinion I don’t think our defense has struggled. We’re actually giving up less shots per game than we did a year ago. We’re also giving up less scoring chances than we did a year ago. I think one of the biggest differences is that we’re missing an All-American in goal. We knew that coming into this season and that’s not a slight on anyone. It’s just a fact and it’s something that we have to deal with and live with right now.

HF: What area(s) would you like to see the team improve the most going into the second half?

WK: I would like our special teams to get better. Right now, our power play is in a stretch where we’re zero for in the last four games. Four for 60 or 54 or some stupid number like that over the season so far (laughs). Our penalty killing has been up and down. So those are two areas where I think we can really improve and help ourselves.

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