From two decades ago to this current March, you can find a long string of 600 wins (and then some), all with one particular gentleman on the bench - and all with one team, the Jersey Hitmen. That man is Toby Harris, and that man is the 2021-22 Ryan Frew Memorial Coach Of The Year.
It’s extremely hard to be the best team at the end of a long 49-game season that stretches six months from September to March. It’s really hard to do it two times in a row. But take that and multiply by two more, and you have the amount of years Harris has led the Hitmen to the Founders Cup as NCDC regular season champions - four, if you’re math-impaired, or in other words every NCDC season after the inaugural 2017-18 campaign.
Oh, and of course, he led his team to their first Dineen Cup as an NCDC team, and first overall since winning it back to back in 2015 and 2016 when the top level was known as the USPHL Premier.
“Really, it’s quite an honor. The league gets a little better every year, and the coaches in the league get better every year,” said Harris, who won his 600th career game on Feb. 26. “It is really an honor to be recognized.”
The honor certainly comes with a touch of heartbreak though, as it gives pause to remember one of the NCDC’s most unifying and positive personalities, the late Ryan Frew. The former New Hampshire Jr. Monarchs NCDC coach, Frew died of natural causes (unrelated to COVID-19) in 2020.
“There’s so much I can say, but the one word that comes to mind is Ryan had so much passion for the game,” said Harris. “He had such love for his players and he was such a genuine guy. He met you with a hug, a smile, his aura was just infectious.
“I miss him every day, and there couldn’t be a better person this award could be named after,” said Harris. “His team was an extension of his family. We all miss him every day, and I couldn’t be more proud to be named the recipient of the Ryan Frew Memorial Coach of the Year Award.”
The people you work alongside certainly do make a difference, and that is certainly true in the victorious culture of the Jersey Hitmen.
“it’s one of those things where when Peter Masters and I embarked on this back in 2003, we had this mentality to make the Hitmen like a ‘Junior Bruins South’ kind of thing,” said Harris. “When Peter sold the Hitmen to [Ice Vault owner] Bobby Reiss down here, we started putting the staff together slowly. Along with Hitmen President and Assistant Coach Jim Hunt, we have also brought in skills coach Justin Stanlick, strength and conditioning coach Gerry DeFilippo, power skating coach Angelo Serse, goaltending coach Joker Reimer and our athletic trainer Jessica Collum,” said Harris. “With all of these great people in place, we are able to take the players and bring their skills to the next level.”
He especially talks about the great dynamic he has created alongside Hunt on the bench over nearly two decades.
“Jimmy and I have been together for close to 20 years, and with that growth, we’ve specialized in different areas,” said Harris. “It’s like saying I shop for the groceries and make the meal, but Jim is the sous chef - he throws in the spice. He runs the defense and penalty kill in games, and I run the forwards and the PP. We’ve always found it healthy on the day of practice, to run power play vs. penalty kill. Then you have the time sitting down together and putting the units together for games. We’ve been 1 or 2 at the end of the year in power play and penalty kill because we’ve specialized in those areas.”
Harris describes himself as a high intensity coach who never wants to give a team a step.
“I want to constantly pressure, I want my team to skate - highly competitive with high IQ,” he added. “The right player is coming here because he’s right at the precipice of big things in his career, and he needs a little push in high-tempo practices. He needs a little push in skating from Angelo, or a push in the gym by Gerry. That’s why we do 22 hours a week - practice, yoga, boxing, strength and conditioning,” said Harris. “Look at what guys do at the NCAA level and it’s because of the work they put in at this level with the Hitmen.”
He adds that his best recruiting tools are his former players and where they’ve gone. Gavin Abric, the goalie of the 2019-20 Hitmen, is a Mike Richter Award candidate in his first full season with Army. Tanner Palocsik - the 2018-19 NCDC Player Of The Year - is an All-Ivy defenseman with Dartmouth. Take it to the next level, and Connor Clifton has became a staple of the NHL Boston Bruins’ blueline.
“We have a blueprint that works. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” said Harris. “I saw our league’s top scorer Patriks Marcinkevics last summer at a midwest camp, and built a relationship. He’s a Tier-1 level player playing Tier-2 because he believes in the process and that process landed him an NCAA Division I scholarship with Long Island University.”
The challenge beginning this weekend is that every team is back to 0-0 as the NCDC playoffs begin and the Hitmen have to defend their Dineen Cup title.
“We’ve had some ups and downs in the early part of the season, and we only returned five players off the Dineen Cup team,” said Harris. “I tip my hat to those guys’ loyalty, as they could easily have moved on to a high leveler level. They saw not only how much better they got in one year, and how this is a winning culture, but they also know what to expect from Jim and I. It’s very black and white hockey - if you’re playing well and improving, you’re going to get rewarded with more ice time.”
The USPHL congratulates Toby Harris on the 2021-22 Ryan Frew Memorial Coach of The Year Award.