St Cloud, MN- If you’ve been unaware of the college hockey success of American International College you haven’t been paying attention. An irrelevant program for much of their twenty-one years at the Division I level, they exploded onto the scene last season producing their first winning Division I season with a 23-17-1 overall record. They also captured the Atlantic Hockey regular season championship and the conference post-season championship. They’ll forever be hooked at the hip in college hockey history with St. Cloud State University after logging their first NCAA appearance and win over top-seed and #1 ranked St. Cloud State University on March 29th in the West Regional in Fargo, ND. This was a dramatic resuscitation of a program that had only won 137 games in 18 seasons (and lost 411) prior to the arrival of head coach Eric Lang in 2016.
I spoke with Atlantic Hockey Coach of the Year Eric Lang on October 4th to get an update on the state of his hockey program, some comments on his successful 2018-19 season, his non-traditional recruiting and an outlook on his team entering the new season.
The State of AIC Hockey and Recruiting
To get a full understanding of where this program is at currently, coach Lang had to re-wind a bit to when he took over the program in 2016 after being the lead recruiter for the Army West Point hockey team. “I’m going into my fourth year but when I re-wind to that initial year it was really tough for us to get the players we wanted here.” said Lang. “I think the reputation of the program – just where we were being a bottom dweller made it extremely difficult. We were fighting battles on all fronts. We were trying to change the culture, develop a commitment to winning and get the campus and administration to believe in what we were doing. So, when I arrived, we sat down in a staff meeting and and said we can try to out-work other schools and do the same thing or do things different. We thought we are an “International” school and can use our resources to allow (the recruits) to be great students. And, we went out and did it.” Last season 28 of their 29 students were league all-academic.
Currently the squad has eleven rostered players from Europe, six Canadians and the balance of the team from various parts of the USA including non-traditional hockey areas such as Colleyville, Tx, Sandy, UT, Coral Springs, FL and West Covina, CA. “We were very calculated early on in what we were doing” said Lang. “We measure twice and cut once in recruiting and we are looking for the right players. You have to be a special person to be at AIC and, we’ve backed off of kids that are not a good fit for AIC. We aren’t going to get the 30 goal scorer from the USHL. But, we’ll take a “B” player with an “A” mindset. AIC is a small school and a recruit might be disappointed after they visit schools like St. Cloud State or Ohio State for example. Academically, we are set up for success with the international student. When we recuit from Latvia or the Czech Republic initially they don’t know us from the Boston schools. But we do know that Czech players do want to play with other Czech players.”
They’ve also found their niche among certain junior programs. For example, the team has three rostered players from the Bismarck Bobcats of the NAHL including Tobias Fladeby, their leading goal scorer last season with 18. He may not have been a highly coveted recruit but “we’ve taught Tobias how to practice and I attribute his success to our culture and internal competition. He is an “A” mindset player”. Blake Christensen is another example.The native of Coral Springs, FL was the team and Atlantic Hockey leading scorer with 16 goals and 31 assists for 47 points and was named second team All-American after last season. This season, they’ve recruited two of the top players from the Flin Flon Bombers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. “We’ve gone back to programs that have been good to us” said Lang.
St. Lawrence Job Offer and Coaching Changes
This past spring, coach Lang was in the middle of a recruiting process himself. The St. Lawrence University hockey program let head coach Mark Morris go after a 6-29-2 season. Proving his ability to resurrect a struggling AIC program Lang, a native New Yorker suddenly found himself as the top choice to lead this storied Canton, NY program. However, Lang politely declined the offer opting to stay at his alma mater, American International. At the time, he said “I was offered an amazing opportunity by a first-class university, that has an unheralded tradition of excellence.The people I met in my short time at SLU went above and beyond anything anyone could ever expect. The substantial investment in SLU hockey ultimately sets the program up for success. However, after much consideration, I needed to put my family, and my AIC hockey family ahead of any personal ambitions at this time. Loyalty to AIC, which has granted me an opportunity to coach this hockey team, at my alma mater, will always be at the forefront. I am indebted to (AIC) president (Vincent) Maniaci for his continued belief in me and everything he has done for our hockey program. I love this team, this program and this institution.”
He further told me “the underlying biggest factor is I’m an alum and my seniors are players I recruited four years ago. They responded to our recruiting pitch and I asked them to take a leap of faith and they responded. I’d be the biggest hypocrite in the world if I left them before this season.”
However, success does lead to opportunity and top assistant, Mike Towns accepted a coaching position at Clarkson University following the 2018-19 season. Lang has taken this loss in stride and actually sees some positives in the loss of his highly effective recruiter. “I feel it’s my job to promote our assistants into bigger programs. I know where we are in the pecking order and where our assistants are financially. If I can make AIC a destination for assistant coaches to move on to bigger programs I feel good about that. For Mike Towns to parlay AIC to Clarkson we are proud of that.”
Lang obviously takes satisfaction in seeing his first recruiting class grow into a solid leadership group. They had plans to have a formal dinner to hand out the championship rings but the seniors had other ideas. They called and decided it was better to have a an informal gathering at coach Lang’s house. “The leadership on the team wants to turn the page” said Lang. “It’s very different. We have the right leadership and they don’t want to dwell on last year. They don’t want this thing to linger. Their thought is let’s get the rings and put them away and focus on this year. This is a testament to the culture we’ve built here and I’m proud of it. I thought, we’ve come a long way in three and a half years.”
Even coach Lang said he hasn’t spent a lot of time dwelling on what they accomplished last season. Just this past week he reflected on things and decided to send a text to four former captains offering them an opportunity to get a championship ring because of the “impact and footprint they made on the program.”
This season, in addition to their permanent group of team captains, they will rotate an “A” throughout the senior class. It’s a way for coach Lang to say thank you and that they’ve earned it.
A Quick Look at the 2019-20 Yellow Jackets
With the departure of Mike Towns Lang added Corey Schneider to his staff in August. Schneider was an assistant coach at UMass-Boston and was a four-year player and captain at Ohio State University.
The team has a solid stable of defensemen returning in seniors Janis Jaks and Patrik Demel and junior Brennan Kapcheck. Jaks, who played his junior hockey for the Minnesota Wilderness recently competed for Team Latvia in the 2019 IIHF World Championships. He also performed well in the Washington Capitals development camp this past summer. Kapcheck, a free agent skated in the Toronto Maple Leafs camp. Additionally they’ve brought further depth in Calvon Boots, a native of Fairbanks Alaska who posted 42 points for Flin Flon of the SJHL in 2018-19. Lang describes him as a “tough Alaska kid that plays a blue collar game with an “A” mindset.”
The Yellow Jackets return six of their seven top goal scorers from last season including junior, Tobias Fladeby (18), senior Blake Christensen (16), senior Kyle Stephan (11), senior Joel Kocur (11) and sophomore Luka Maver (11). Their lone departure was Shawn McBride who signed with the NY Rangers organization following last season. With so many returnees it’ll be a tough lineup to crack but newcomers Austin Albrecht, a transfer from UMass, Justin Wilson, a 6’4″ 200 pound forward who posted 40 points with Salmon Arm of the BCHL and 6’2″ Nate Hooper who posted 87 points for Flin Flon will get playing time.
There’s no lack of riches at goaltender with two upperclassmen they can rely on in senior, Zackarias Skog and junior Stefano Durante. Durante was injured last season but posted good numbers in 2017-18. That opened the door for Skog who despite being south of .900 SV% during the regular season, elevated his game during the playoffs stopping 167 of 177 shots for an outstanding .940 save percentage.
Lang descibes Skog as a “Super-talented kid and at 6’4″ is a ridiculous athlete and tremendous worker who can be explosive post to post.” However, goalie coach Patrick Tabb needed to work with Skog “to simplify his his game” and it led to his success in the playoffs. Skog attended the Chicago Blackhawks camp this summer and was one of the best goalies in camp. With Skog and Durante Lang feels “they have a two-headed monster. Its good for Zackarias to have a guy nipping at his heels.”
2019-20 Season Outlook
The Yellow Jackets were recently tabbed by the Atlantic Hockey coaches as the preseason favorite to repeat as 2019-20 season champions. They also just fell outside the top twenty in the USCHO preseason poll. As such, they look to be the “hunted” as opposed to be the “hunter” in the league this season. With 10 seniors and 19 upperclassmen expectations will be high but Lang wants to temper any overconfidence saying “If we think we are good and refer a lot to last season we’ll be in trouble. We are staying ahead of it. As long as our group remains process oriented and we play a blue collar game we’ll be fine. We won’t let it get off the rails.”
The Yellow Jackets do not start the season the weekend of October 5th like many schools. Rather their ambitious schedule begins the weekend of Octber 11th with a home and home with college hockey power Quinnipiac. They follow this up with a single game with league rival Sacred Heart on October 18th and a huge game at UMass on October 25th to close out the month.
This is a unique team and story and the Yellow Jackets will be an interesting team to follow in 2019-20.