We all know Mike Corbett’s story by now: stepped into the Air Force top AC job when Derek Schooley left to start Robert Morris’s program; became the assistant head coach under Frank Serratore, his old college coach; interviewed at Anchorage before their AD was fired; came to Huntsville, loved it, and committed to being here. So what kind of guy is Corbs?
“I’m a players’ coach more than anything,” he told me in his office one afternoon in late September. He’s got to create an identity for this program, one that we all know full well has seen four coaches in five seasons. What will his Chargers look like? “We’re gonna be disciplined, we’re going to have attention to detail. Competing hard, winning races, winning battles — that’s going to be the basis of our success.”
There are nearly 30 young men on the UAH roster for 2013-14, and that’s going to be different for a team that had just a handful of spare players last season. “When you’ve got the young guys coming in, they know the history, but they really only know what’s in front of them today,” Corbett said of an 11-man freshman class that follows seven returning sophomores. “Maybe there was only two or three guys in the stands every night [last year]. Now we’ve got the possibility of having nine guys in the stands every night, including a third goalie.”
Any college coach has probably seen a good chunk of the other team’s players before while scouting them in juniors, and Corbett is no different, even though he was only recruiting Americans to a service academy. “With the kids we’ve got, I’ve seen some of them play, but I couldn’t recruit the Canadian kids, so I didn’t focus on them as much unless they were just dominating a game — those games where you’d say, ‘This guy’s pretty good, I don’t care who you’re with.’ ” As such, Corbett didn’t have a lot of pre-conceived notions about his team. “I came in and told them, ‘Boys, it’s a clean slate.’ ”
Goaltending is a concern for every team, and the Chargers are no different. Senior CJ Groh has just 12 NCAA games under his belt, and freshmen Matt Larose and Carmine Guerriero both saw time against the season opener at Northeastern.
“Who plays the first night is going to be the guy that impresses us the most,” Corbett said. “If you look at CJ Groh and add up his ice time, he’s a second-semester freshman. While he’s only got one year left, we’ve got three guys who are at a freshman level in terms of minutes in game situations. If one guy grabs and goes with it, that’s great.” Corbett sees good goaltending as critical: “When you’ve got a good goalie, it seems that you’re always in the game.”
Helping those goaltenders out will be the responsibility of the defensemen, and Corbett likes what he sees along the blue line. “You look at a guy like Anderson White — he’s got all the potential in the world to be a big-time player in the WCHA,” he said. “Then you’ve got a guy like Graeme Strukoff and our other juniors who play well. You’ve got a little guy in Steve Koshey who moves the puck very well and has great numbers in junior hockey. He didn’t get a great opportunity last year to be able to show what he can do. We’ve got a great mix of everything. If we’ve got experience, that’s where it lies.”
If you watched UAH games or read the boxscores, you know the sad truth: we didn’t light a lot of lamps last year. Corbett is optimistic. “I said to [UAH assistant coach] Gavin [Morgan] in practice the other day, ‘We’ve got a lot of guys who put up a lot of points in juniors.’ It’s a gauge. I’m not one to be a stat-watcher, but I am a big believer in history.” And it’s not a case of “bad, junior hockey goals”, either. “You can look at assists and say, ‘Oh, this is a phantom assist,’ but you can’t take goals away. Goals are goals — they’re right off your stick, pretty or ugly.” Corbett is ready to go with his players: “We’ve got guys who had history.”
But a team that scored just 24 goals agains NCAA competition is as close to rock bottom as you can get. “It’s gonna be a process to get some confidence,” Corbett said. “There ain’t a lot of one-shot goals. If there are, the goalie isn’t going to be playing for very long.”
Corbett does have some concerns about how his team will get into the offensive zone. “I’m worried about our presence on our line rushes and our breakouts. If we can get into the offensive zone with good pressure, we’ll get those second-chance shots when we get the puck to the blue.”
But Corbett doesn’t think that he’s alone in that feeling. “If you listen to the pre-season conference call with the coaches, eight out of the ten guys will tell you the same thing about the offense,” Corbett said. “The only guys that are probably satisfied with their scoring are Mankato and Tech.”
The Chargers have some solid senior leadership in the system. “Brice [Geoffrion] and Alex [Allan] are huge for us,” Corbett said. “I reached out to Brice right when I got the job and wanted to get information from. I asked him a lot of questions, and he wrote me about a four-page email telling me the pluses, the negatives, and everything in-between.”
Corbett is ready to lean on his sturdy forward, who sports a new number — 57 — this season. “Brice’s biggest asset is his leadership. He’s seeing now as a 23-year-old senior everything possible out of his experience in college hockey. He’s got to be thinking, ‘I’ve got to take everything that my dad’s said to me, and my grandfather, and my brothers, and I’ll put it to use here in my last college season, before it’s too late to use it.’ ”
As with Geoffrion, Corbett thinks that Allan is a key to the Chargers’ success this season. “You watch Alex Allan skate around in practice, and you know he can score 20 goals at this level,” he said. “We want him to not put too much pressure on himself to produce, but at the same time we want him to know that we rely on him to be big for us on the ice, to play on the power play, and so on. As much as you want guys to score goals, he’s got to be a threat. If you’re consistently a threat, they’re going to start going in for you.”
All of this doesn’t work unless the players have comfort with the coaching staff. How is Corbett’s staff managing the turnover? “We’re still finding the right way that fits our group and fits our school that aligns with the ways that we as a staff think a Division I program should be run,” Corbett said.
“We’re getting those guys to feel comfortable around us — it’s not a dictatorship, it’s not ‘my way or the highway’. I need those guys more than they need me, because look at the turnover in this office. But I ain’t going anywhere — that’s my statement. We’re going to build an identity here, and that takes time.”
Corbett is confident in his ability to coach his team. “Kids want to learn. They say that they don’t, but they do,” he said. “They want to improve, and they want somebody to be there to watch them improve. I’m not going to say what’s happened in the past. It may not be the way that we’ve done it here, but it’s the way that we’re going to do it.”
Corbett seeks to be approachable. “I have an open door. I want to hear about these guy’s problems off the ice — school, social, whatever. Because guess what — I’ve got problems, too. We all do. I’m just a regular guy just like you. We want regular guys who want to be a part of something that’s bigger than themselves. That’s what we’re after.”
And just as much as you have to worry about this season in the college game, you have to always be scouting for the next and the next and the next. What does Corbett want to see? “Do we want the most talented guy? Sure. But we want the right players.” A new league home will help, but Corbett says that’s just the beginning of the process. “The WCHA may get us some interest, but we have to build the program that will really attract those players.”
“Do you want to be someone who makes a difference? Those are the kinds of guys that we’re looking for right now.” Corbett thinks that UAH is an appealing place for young men. “Coming here and being the guy has got to be appealing. Coming to a game and seeing you on the third line at a big-time program isn’t going to catch the scout’s eye.”
Before I went to meet with Coach Corbett, Dr. Brophy told me, “If you aren’t excited about Charger hockey before you go in there, you will be when you leave.” He was right.