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With a New Book, NCAA Hockey Coach Gary Wright Wraps a Life on Ice

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Published November 9, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.


Gary Wright | Striding Rough Ice: Coaching College Hockey and Growing Up in the Game by Gary Wright, Rootstock Publishing, 270 pages. $27.99 hardcover; $18.99 paperback. - COURTESY OF CALEB KENNA/ROOTSTOCK PUBLISHING
  • Courtesy Of Caleb Kenna/Rootstock Publishing
  • Gary Wright | Striding Rough Ice: Coaching College Hockey and Growing Up in the Game by Gary Wright, Rootstock Publishing, 270 pages. $27.99 hardcover; $18.99 paperback.

It's a bit of an exaggeration to say Gary Wright grew up on a hockey rink, but only a bit. Born in Burlington, he was raised on the campus of Proctor Academy, a day and boarding school in Andover, N.H. Wright's professor father also served as Proctor's athletic director and hockey coach. Winter transformed a campus pond into a hockey rink, and 4-year-old Gary quickly made the ice his second home. At the end of each term, the Wrights decamped to the family home in Cornwall, Vt., where Wright, 70, still resides.

After Wright played hockey at the University of Vermont, his ponds grew larger. His 40-year coaching career began in 1976 at Burlington's Rice Memorial High School and continued at the University of Maine and American International College in Springfield, Mass.

As head coach at the latter, Wright found rough ice in the ultra-competitive Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. He set a record for most losses at a single college (605), but that number obscures a winning legacy: Wright's teams consistently won sportsmanship awards and achieved a high graduation rate. After 32 years at American International College, where he concluded his career, he's tied for the longest tenure in Division I with University of Michigan coach Red Berenson.

Encouraged by his mother, Middlebury writer and teacher Nancy Means Wright, who died in January, coach Wright set out to chronicle a lifetime spent behind the players' bench. Montpelier's Rootstock Publishing released his book, Striding Rough Ice: Coaching College Hockey and Growing Up in the Game, in October.

In the book, Wright delivers rather routine accounts of games that ultimately reveal his evolution from a blinkered "winning is everything" coach to one who teaches "play hard, respect the game." Sprinkled throughout are motivational coaching aphorisms that evoke the spirit of the immortal baseball catcher Yogi Berra: "You can't win if you don't win," "The team that gets off the bus with the best players wins" and "As you practice, you will play."

Striding Rough Ice invites us inside a fast game played on a slippery surface that rewards power as much as precision. Readers don't have to know the blue line from a punch line to appreciate what dedication looks like.

SEVEN DAYS: The record books say you hold the mark for the most losses at a single college, but isn't that a kind of tribute to coaching longevity?

GARY WRIGHT: I'm not running around saying, "Hey, I've got the record for losses," but it's there. I was around a long time. But not many coaches with those losses are going to last as long, right?

SD: Reading a copy of your first job application in the book, I see you describe winning as the only thing that matters. Was that always part of your coaching philosophy?

GW: When I applied for my first coaching job at Rice, I was asked to explain my approach. I wrote that I approved of physically tough but clean hockey, that I would not tolerate needless penalties or sloppiness. There's some stuff about winning in there that I wouldn't say now, even if we went undefeated my whole career. I was just a few months out of college. My tone is a little bit brash. I was trying to get my first job.

SD: What are you most proud of as a coach?

GW: Probably having a long career. I decided when I was really young that I loved the sport, and that feeling has never left me.

SD: Do you need to have played at a fairly high level to be a good coach?

GW: I don't think it's a necessity, but I think it's really helpful: It gives you credibility. But you can learn it. Mike Addesa coached Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to an NCAA hockey championship, and he was a football player in college.

SD: In the book, referring to your days playing on your dad's team, you write that it's a "tricky proposition" playing for a parent or coaching a child. Explain.

GW: I think it can be awkward. If you're a good player, it's easier. If you're not as good a player and you're played more often than players of equal ability, problems can arise. That's not a fun situation.

SD: You didn't like recruiting players very much, did you?

GW: It was always difficult for me to pound the phones and keep calling high school-aged kids and that kind of thing. I enjoyed the players that I was coaching, but I probably wouldn't be a very good salesman.

SD: When recruiting, you asked coaches about a player's attitude. Why?

GW: Yeah, I never compromised on that quality of character and stuff. If you're in the trenches with these guys for long periods of time, boy, it's exhausting if you're dealing with discipline problems or guys that are hard to coach. I always tried to recruit the person as well as the player.

SD: Have you had any good feedback from former players you've coached?

GW: I've gotten that from a lot of my assistant coaches. And a number of players came up to me at a recent event to thank me. I don't have a ton of that stuff; I sometimes wish I had gone back to some of my teachers to tell them how much they influenced me. I don't know if there's tons of that in our hockey culture. And there was a former intern at AIC who said that I was the only one who paid attention to him.

SD: How has the college game changed since you began coaching?

GW: There's more emphasis on conditioning: players watching their diets, doing yoga, working with sports psychologists. We started doing some aerobics and stuff with a woman trainer about my third year at AIC. Also, there's more of an emphasis — maybe too much emphasis — on defense from the standpoint of, you know, the fans' enjoyment of the game.

SD: Someone once said, "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out." Did you view fighting as part of the game?

GW: I preached toughness. I didn't like chippiness [i.e., overly rough play]. Most college coaches didn't put up with that sort of thing. And now, if you fight, you get thrown out of the game.

SD: If you hadn't devoted your life to hockey, what do you imagine you would have done?

GW: I think I would have worked with YMCA youth programs. I don't think that organization is as prominent as it used to be, but that's what I wanted, which was a little bit of coaching and working with those programs.

SD: Why did you decide to write this book?

GW: I love college hockey, and there hasn't been a lot of this kind of thing written. So I wrote it a little bit on behalf of college hockey. My biggest interest is having people read the book. I've never been much of a writer, but a funny thing happened — I began to think of writing all the time. It was like when I was coaching, I thought about it all the time, even when I was driving. The whole writing thing just fascinates me.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "The Puck Stops Here | With a new book, NCAA hockey coach Gary Wright wraps a life on ice"