Behind the Bench……with John Van Boxmeer

By Stephen J. Holodinsky
When HF originally contacted the Long Beach Ice Dogs for this interview, John Van Boxmeer was the coach/GM of that IHL franchise. What a difference a week made. By the time we were able to confirm the interview with him personally, the Ice Dogs has jumped to the WCHL and Van Boxmeer had been promoted to Vice-President of Hockey Operations for the team. In a chat that might be better called ‘Behind the Desk’ rather than ‘Behind the Bench’ the former bench boss talked with HF about the moving and shaking going on in Southern California.

Hockey’s Future: It been a very tumultuous past couple of weeks for both you and the Long Beach Ice Dogs. Let’s start with the team’s transition first. What was the reasoning behind the team switching from the IHL to the WCHL?

John Van Boxmeer: There were two reasons really one being the fact that we were isolated out here on the West Coast. Our nearest competition was 2 and a ½ hours away and our travels costs were very high. Secondly the operating budget (Players’ salaries, social benefits etc) in the WCHL were half of what they were in the IHL.

HF: How could you compare the two leagues in terms of competitiveness, philosophy, and organization?

JVB: WCHL is a step below the IHL, the former being a feeder league to the latter. As for philosophy, while we aren’t there yet, the goal in the WCHL is to be the AHL of the west coast. The organization of the WCHL is of the same quality as the IHL right now.

HF: How will having two existing teams in nearby Bakersfield and Fresno, not to mention another in San Diego affect your organization in the coming year?

JVB: I think it gives us a great opportunity for us to build immediate rivalries. The expected fan migration should give all four clubs a boost at the gate which is never a bad thing.

HF: When moving to a new league, as the Ice Dogs are this fall, who has the upper hand when it comes to playing the new guy, your squad or your opponent’s and why?

JVB: I think at the beginning the other teams will have an edge because we will have an entirely new set of skaters and a new coach.

HF: While in the IHL, the Long Beach franchise had no affiliations with any NHL club. Are there any plans in the works that will change that status now that you moving to the WCHL? If so, who and why, if not what is the clubs reasoning behind staying independent?

JVB: As the long term aims of our organization is to be comparable to an AHL team, it’s only logical that at some point we would pursue a relationship with one of the NHL clubs.

HF: The Ice Dogs have developed a reputation of attracting high profile talent. Two years ago it was Patrik Stefan, last season Nikolai Khabibulan. What is it about the organization that allows them to mastermind these coups?

JVB: If you look at both of those players, they are both European. As a rule we tend to have good relations with players from overseas. Additionally I’ve always been a real advocate of talented players as opposed to muckers and grinders, so we tend to target skill.

HF: What can you tell us about the Patrik Stefan you coached and the one that will be suiting up for the Atlanta Thrashers this fall?

JVB: I coached a very young Patrik Stefan 16, 17 years old. Although he was very mature for our level, nonetheless jumping to the NHL at that age is quite a leap. I look for him to be even more mature this year, and as a result be much more of a factor offensively each game.

HF: What kind of effect did being able to trot out ‘The Bulin Wall’ on a regular basis have on the team last year?

JVB: Having an NHL All-Star goaltender between the pipes gave our team an enormous amount of confidence. We felt we didn’t have to score 3 or 4 goals to win every night and this allowed us to stay within our defensive gameplan and make the other team beat us.

HF: Is there anyone on the Ice Dog team that we should be keeping an eye on in the upcoming season and if so why?

JVB: As we don’t have a roster as of yet, no.

HF: You’ve recently been promoted to Vice President of Hockey Operations for the team and as such you’ve given up the coaching reins to Darryl Williams. Was the new position something you have been aiming for or something that came to you unexpected and how has it been so far?

JVB: True I won’t be coaching anymore but I was always the GM anyway so that part of the job description didn’t change. The long term goal is for CoachSports to own multiple teams in the WCHL and when that becomes more of a reality, this will also be part of what I do.

HF: Is working on the NHL level something that interests you at this stage in the game? If so would you prefer to break in as a coach or as someone in the front office? If not, then why not?

JVB: At this point having made this step now, I’ve more or less taken myself out of the running for coaching opportunities at that level. Certainly the front office possibilities are something that this would be geared towards but I’m not really looking to leave this organization right now.

HF: What can you tell us about your replacement behind the Long Beach bench?

JVB: First of all Darryl made a great transition this year from being a player to being an Assistant Coach. He certainly had the player’s respect as a hard worker when he was on the ice and I think this will translate to when he is behind the bench. In the future I think Darryl’s teams will be noted for being hard working, hard forechecking, fundamentally sound squads

HF: Do you think once the season starts you’re going to be comfortable at games farther away from the action or do you expect that you will miss calling out the line changes?

JVB: There will be an adjustment period as I have been in coaching for 12 years and being in the middle of the action is the fun part of coaching.

HF: What’s it like working for Barry and Maggie Kemp and CoachSports?

JVB: It’s been great because they’ve been very, very supportive of anything I’ve done and shown a lot of confidence in my judgement.

HF: Reports indicate that CoachSports plans on building an arena in Ontario, California in order to put a team there and that you will be running it as well as the Ice Dogs. Can you fill us in as to the validity of said reports and the status of that project at the moment?

JVB: That is definitely our gameplan and we are moving forward on it. We are presently in the process of tying up the loose ends before we break ground on the project.

HF: How does CoachSports plan to deal with the conflict of interest issues that could arise here?

JVB: My main duties as Vice-President of Hockey Operations would be to make sure each of the CoachSports franchises lives a long and healthy financial life. In addition I will be active in developing the player procurement pipeline for these franchises. However, each of the teams will have their own staffs and it will be those people who sign, coach, and trade those players.

HF: What were your first feelings upon going from a hockey-mad area like the Great Lakes to arriving here in Southern California?

JVB: Like everyone else, I fell in love with the weather upon arrival. That said after a while you find you are working in anonymity, as the rabid hockey fans are not that numerous.

HF: How has the selling of hockey, specifically Long Beach hockey, fared in a traditionally summer sport state?

JVB: It’s been a very slow process. If you look at where we were in our first year compared to where we are now, you can see that we have significantly increased our attendance. Be that as it may, our goal is to continue growing year on year. We feel that the WCHL will allow us to be able to continue to provide the fans with a great experience both on and off the ice.

HF: Where do you see hockey in California and for that matter all of the Sunbelt States going in the next 20 years?

JVB: Hockey is that area has blossomed in the past 10 to 15 years. The NHL’s presence in the Sunbelt is much larger than it was before then. Having Wayne Gretzky return to the Southwest after boosting hockey in California with the Kings during his playing career is only going to facilitate further growth in that market. However, it will be the creation and fruition of amateur leagues in the Sunbelt that will ultimately tell the tale. Hockey has to make it competitively affordable for kids to play the game. As it stands now, because of the costs, the sport is losing a lot of young people to baseball, basketball or soccer which don’t require as much of a financial outlay as hockey does to get into the game.

HF: Where would you like to be in 10 to 15 years?

JVB: I think by that time I would have liked to have gotten into some type of ownership capacity in the Sunbelt region.

Hockey’s Future and Stephen J. Holodinsky would like to thank John Van Boxmeer and the Long Beach Ice Dogs organization for making this interview possible.