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THINKING BIG

10/10/2001 2:22 PM - Size couldn’t stop Gene Reilly from his dream of trying to be one of the best young coaches in the game.

New Griffins assistant coach Gene Reilly brings excellent credentials as a hockey teacher -- thanks, in great part, to his devotion to being a true student of the game. This is a guy who decided that he wanted to become a coach at a time when other young men his age are still dreaming about playing in the National Hockey League.

Reilly played junior hockey in Springfield, Massachusetts for Gary Dineen, a member of the 1964 and 1968 Canadian Olympic team who had a brief look at the NHL with the Minnesota North Stars. “He turned into my mentor,” Reilly recalls. “After my first year with him (1981-82), he brought me to his hockey school the following summer. I was only 19 years old, but I knew I wanted to become a coach. I knew I was too small to play in the NHL and I thought I had a knack for coaching.” And so Reilly learned everything he could, starting by reading Andy Bathgate’s Hockey Secrets, a classic tome first published in 1963 by the former New York Rangers captain who won the NHL’s Hart Trophy as the league MVP in 1958-59.

“The days of the old school hockey coach are gone,” says Reilly, who has been involved in coaching since 1988. “I think you have to be educated, be able to break things down and communicate to be a good coach.” Reilly, 39, served as an assistant coach with the University of Maine the last three seasons, helping the team to a 31-6-4 record and a national championship in 1999. “It’s kind of a blur now,” he says, modestly. Prior to joining Maine, Reilly spent five seasons as a head coach in the Eastern Junior Hockey League with the New England Junior Coyotes (1997-98), Junior Whalers (1995-97) and Springfield Pics (1993-95), where his teams posted an impressive aggregate record of 192-47-19. His decision to enter the professional ranks was not easy.

Reilly was in line to be interim head coach at Maine while longtime bench boss Shawn Walsh battled a rare form of cancer. Walsh, who ranked 11th among active coaches in victories, eventually passed away on Sept. 24. He was 46. “It was a very difficult decision, but this is something I always wanted to do,” Reilly says. “The opportunity to join an organization filled with quality people from the top to the bottom was too good to pass up.” Reilly has known Senators general manager Marshall Johnston for years. Reilly coached New Jersey’s Bill Guerin in juniors when Johnston used the Devils’ first pick (5th overall) in the 1989 NHL Entry Draft to select the winger. Now it’s Reilly’s turn to break into the professional ranks. “I’m excited because I’ll be able to eat, sleep and drink hockey 24 hours a day,” Reilly says.

“I’ve been developing hockey players for half my life and I don’t expect that will ever change.” The Springfield, MA native hopes to have a positive impact on players, both on-ice and off. “Nobody plays hockey forever, so it’s important that they develop as people, too,” says Reilly, who adds that he finds inspiration in the influence basketball coach Phil Jackson has on NBA players. Although he was too small to play hockey in the NHL, Reilly thinks big when it comes to his future. “I don’t believe you have to play in the NHL to be a successful coach,” Reilly insists. “Look at Ken Hitchcock with Dallas. If you’re a good communicator, that’s what it’s all about. Players look to their coaches for leadership.”



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