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Donatelli Thriving Behind the Bench in WBS

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

The Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins are thriving, and so is their coach.

The team is currently ranked first overall in the AHL standings, while Clark Donatelli was just named head coach of the Atlantic Division at the AHL All-Star Classic on Jan. 29-30.

It's been wonderful for Penguins associate general manager Jason Botterill, who is the GM of WBS, and the rest of the organization to watch Donatelli enjoy this success of his own. Donatelli is always giving credit to management and the hockey ops staff for giving him players who are good people first, but that's certainly applicable to him as well.

"You go anywhere in the hockey world and say our coach is Clark Donatelli, and immediately there's a smile because he's that type of person," Botterill said.

There was certainly one on Mike Sullivan's face when talking about Donatelli. The Pittsburgh and WBS bench bosses go way back, as the two East Coast natives played a year of college hockey together at Boston University.

"He's a terrific guy. He's fun to be around," Sullivan said. "I think he loves the game. I think he loves interacting with players. And I think that's the strength of his coaching style, he's a great motivator. He creates a good environment for these guys to come to the rink every day. He pushes them hard to get better and improve. He challenges them. But he does it in a way that I think inspires them.

"I think he's got a good sense of humor. I don't think he takes himself too seriously and I think that's a great attribute to have as a coach. And so I think the players respond to him because of it. He's very real. I think the players appreciate that about Clark."

Donatelli worked hard to get to this point, as he put in his time with the organization before getting the promotion to WBS last December. After spending one season as an assistant coach with the Penguins' ECHL affiliate Wheeling, he took over as head coach midseason in 2011-12.

In his five years as bench boss, Donatelli became Wheeling's all-time leader in coaching wins and his teams qualified for the playoffs four times. However, there were two challenges facing Donatelli during his tenure there.

First, although he understood the game - Donatelli played three years at BU, seven in the pros and had a lot of national team experience, including representing Team USA at the 1988 and '92 Olympics - he also understood he was an inexperienced coach. Second, the demands on head coaches in the ECHL are high. 

"As a head coach, you're also the GM, the president," Botterill explained. "You have to take care of housing and players are coming back and forth so much. He was in charge of getting extra players when they needed them. You have so much on your plate."

But despite that, Donatelli put in the work to continue growing as a coach. He learned as much as he could whenever he was in Pittsburgh or Wilkes-Barre, whether it was during training camp, development camp, playoffs, etc. - particularly from former WBS head coach John Hynes.

"The communication there was just so good and he learned so many different things," Botterill said.

Just as Donatelli was putting a lot of work into his own development as a coach, he was also cutting his teeth when it came to that same process with his players. One that immediately comes to mind is current Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl.

The 2010 fourth-round draft pick had developed a reputation as an offensive player during his time in the Ontario Hockey League, scoring 39 goals at one point. He thought he would be able to carry that over into his pro career, but quickly realized that wouldn't happen.

"I thought, 'It's just going to stay the same,'" Kuhnhackl said. "I'm going to hang around at the other blue line or in the neutral zone, wait for opportunities to create a 2-on-1 or a breakaway or whatever. But it's professional hockey, it's not juniors anymore. Obviously I had talked to a couple of guys from the organization and they said you have the potential to maybe play in the NHL one day, but you're going to have to adjust a couple things.

"One of the things was that I had to play defensively, which I had to learn all the way down in the East Coast. But 'Clarkie' did a great job helping me and teaching me that and you can see where it got me - from all the way down in the East Coast to being in the NHL."

Kuhnhackl - who was a big contributor to Pittsburgh's Stanley Cup run last year as a penalty killing fourth-line forward who also scored big goals - said Donatelli was a huge influence on him. He helped Kuhnhackl regain his confidence, which was shaky after dealing with numerous long-term injuries and being sent down to the ECHL, by putting him out in all different kinds of situations.

"The biggest thing is instilling confidence in these guys and allowing them to go out there and make mistakes as long as they're learning from them," Donatelli said. "Minimizing the mistakes and the consistency of their play and holding them accountable to being consistent."

That development aspect is what Donatelli loves the most about being a coach, especially now in the American Hockey League where he has more room to focus more on that aspect of the job.

"I love interacting with the players, I love communicating with them," Donatelli said. "I love the development side of it, making sure that they're ready to go. There's peaks and valleys. You'll go through stretches where we're getting better but you can't really see it, but when you're here every day and you're watching them on film you see it. The little details and habits that these guys are creating, the communication skills on the ice, it's a big part of it. It's a big thing and overall, I'm enjoying it."

What makes Donatelli so good in that regard is how he's able to get the most out of players. He's struck a balance between praising them and being hard on them while maintaining a good relationship all the while.

"He's definitely a players' coach," defenseman David Warsofsky said. "He lets the guys play. He's never taking the stick out of your hands. When you make a mistake, he'll jump on you, but at the same time, he's going to let guys play and he's going to hold guys responsible when they need to be. But all around, he's just a good guy."

"He's an awesome guy," Kuhnhackl agreed. "He's a serious guy when it comes to work, when it comes to the game and stuff but you can also have a lot of fun with him. He takes teams out for dinners, he has fun with us on and off the ice, so he's just an awesome guy all around."

That ability is what impresses Botterill the most about Donatelli and a big reason he earned the promotion to WBS, taking over for Mike Sullivan following his promotion to Pittsburgh last December. And while WBS may have been off to a strong start under Sullivan, it's still never easy to inherit a team midseason.

"I think last year was a difficult year for 'Clarkie,'" Botterill said. "Whenever you come into a situation midseason it's tough to sort of find the mix. You want to make a stamp on your own team but you also don't want to change too much. Then not only does he come into a team that's made a coaching change, we end up taking all their top players. I thought he did an amazing job at the end of the year getting that team refocused to make the playoff run."

After losing in seven games to Hershey in the second round, WBS got off to another terrific start this year - opening on a 12-3-1 run and currently ranking first overall in the league standings.

"This year, I think there's more of a comfort level starting with the team from training camp," Botterill said. "Building the relationships with the veteran players, telling the younger players exactly what they have to work on to get up to the National Hockey League. Players who have played for him, they know that Clarkie cares about them and he wants for them to have success. That's what he really is striving for and I think gets him excited about coming to the rink each day."

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