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Long-time coach Wright has AIC on the right track

by Bob Snow /
The coach is tied for second place with legendary Michigan coach Red Berenson at 27 consecutive years behind their respective bench, trailing only Boston University's Jack Parker.

The team's four wins in Atlantic League play surpass perennial powers Cornell, Vermont and St. Cloud in their respective leagues.

The program, however, is without a .500-plus season since joining an NCAA Division I conference in 1998, and never has advanced in postseason play in its 60-year history.  

Sit down with American International College coach Gary Wright in his non-descript office in the western Massachusetts city of Springfield --with Ebbie, his black lab, by his side -- and you have a blend of the Berenson/Parker dedication to a program, and a strong sense of purpose about the future of his Yellow Jackets.

"It was an opportunity to be a head coach that brought me here," said Wright, who served as an assistant at Maine prior to his hiring at AIC. "At the time it was part-time, combining housing and hockey for a full-time paycheck. I've really enjoyed it. I like the college and the colleagues. I've been in the game in some form all my life; my dad was a coach. I was kind of a rink rat until high school. I grew up with hockey and the education field.

"Now, I'd like to win more hockey games, obviously. Getting smiles in long stretches of losses is very challenging for myself and our players."

Those long stretches were endemic to AIC -- until this season.

The Yellow Jackets' four wins so far are against teams that made the NCAA Tournament last season.

AIC pasted RIT, which made last April's Frozen Four, 6-2 on Dec. 4. It was the team's first home win since beating Air Force for the first time ever, and Mercyhurst twice on the road.

"It was a wonderful feeling and accomplishment to sweep Mercyhurst," said Wright a few hours before taking down RIT. "One of the real gratifying things for me is the smiles in the locker room, to just see the kids being happy."

SAnd, according to opponents, the wins AIC is now ringing up are not flukes.

"They beat us both nights the old fashioned way -- with great goaltending, hard work and time goal scoring," said Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin. "If they continue to play the way they played last weekend against us, they will win a lot of games."

And, that success will certainly help the program as it moves forward.

"I don't know if your average player here has our past records being as big a factor for them," Wright said about his recruiting pitches. "We've put some things in place and the school has been very supportive of the hockey program for a very small school. Overall, it's the D-I opportunity. That's the big factor in recruiting. And we do real well keeping kids for the four years and getting the degree. We try to recruit the person as well as the player -- good kids."

Kids like senior captains Tom Mele out of the Bronx, and Mike Little from nearby Enfield, Conn., as well as talented freshman Blake Peake from Lethbridge, Alta., who decided to forego Canadian junior hockey to make AIC his bridge to a possible pro career.

"One thing needed is kids with mental toughness and show good resiliency," said Wright.

Juniors Neilsson Arcibal, Rob Blanchette, Luciano Primiani and Michael Penny, and seniors Jake Anderson, Tomas Benovic, Steve McLeod and Greg Vatrano round out Wright's resilient upper class.

Ben Meisner, Adam Pleskach, Nick Grasso, Nick Campanale, Ryan Kerpan, Chris Markiewicz, Jeff Ceccacci, Richard Leitner, Whitney Olson, Nick Sandor, Jakub Simicek, Jon Puskar and Steve Mele -- brother of captain Tom -- are the freshmen and sophomores on AIC's bandwagon toward more wins.

"It's a good fit for me and the guys," said Tom Mele. "I really didn't know much about AIC when I decided to come. Now I know a lot about it. Best thing is the honor to wear the 'C' on your sweater every day. I'm just grateful to be playing D-I college hockey, getting my education paid for, two hours from home and my family gets to come to every game, and my younger brother on the team. This is the best squad since I've been here. When you beat Air Force on the road and sweep Mercyhurst on the road, it gives you the sense they're human and just like us. They may have been atop the standings and had more success last couple years, but they're hockey players and there's no reason you can't beat them. Before I leave, I want 10 more wins."

The program's best-ever season is eight wins. But, this year's squad may have the talent to top that mark.

"Mele's a Bronx guy," said Wright. "He's very committed, a bright kid and he's another we need more from to walk the walk. He has really surged lately.

"Pleskach and Arcibal on that first line have really come along. Pleskach was on the league's All-Rookie team last year. And Arcibal has really upgraded his game the last month or so. One of our most unheralded guys is senior Mike Little -- tough and fast, but not on the scoreboard a whole lot.

"One thing we learned about Little is there are players in your own backyard that you sort of take for granted and they are better than you think."

"I'm a smaller defenseman," said Little, "but I wanted to play D-I hockey. This is a bunch of real down-to-earth, good guys. We're getting closer and closer -- a stronger team year-by-year and deeper this year than we've ever been."

One player Wright looks to as a table-setter for now and going forward is Peake, who made the 5,000-mile drive to AIC in August.

He joins eight other Canadians and two Slovaks on Wright's geographically eclectic roster.

"The goal right off the bat," said Peake, "was to go to a D-I college in the (United) States. I didn't particularly want to play major junior. It would have been nice to play near home, but it's nice to see the number of guys going pro from D-I. For sure, I'm here the four years. It's the highest competitive level there is and we've brought in guys that can compete. We've showed that and we'll keep getting better. I'm here to keep the marks up and win.

"My folks, Brad and Kelly, came down once for the first two games -- the first time in the States for a long time. They definitely are hockey parents -- my dad coached a long time. We're a hockey family -- my two older brothers also played. But nobody went this far away."

AIC historically has been far away from lots of things -- the top of the Atlantic standings, advancing in postseason play, from other notables in Division I.

The Yellow Jackets lost to Union, a top-10 school, last weekend on the road to end the first half of the season at 4-9-0. They are off until Jan. 7.

"I was never part of a losing program before here," said Little, "so it's a tough adjustment. You only take it so hard and you go back to work the next day and work even harder."

"We're focused as much on winning as any other team in the country," said Wright. "You are playing Division I hockey. It's not 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.'"

No, but Rogers' and Wright's neighborhoods each have smiles as a common goal.

On Campus Clip -- Legendary University of Denver coach Murray "The Chief" Armstrong died at the age of 94 last week in St. Augustine, Fla., following complications from a series of strokes. Armstrong guided the Pioneers to five NCAA championships (1958, 1960, 1961, 1968, 1969), three runner-up finishes and eight WCHA championships while posting an incredible 460-215-31 mark in 21 seasons, from 1956-77. Armstrong played eight seasons in the NHL for the Toronto Maple Leafs, New York Americans and Detroit Red Wings from 1937-46.
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