Right before the puck dropped to close the home season Friday night, Indy Fuel chairman Jim Hallett took a microphone to introduce the team’s coach for the 2016-17 season.
Before he could utter another word, a chant of “Bernie, Bernie, Bernie” came cascading down from the more than 6,000 in the Indiana Farmers Coliseum.
Bernie John, who took over as the team’s interim coach with 13 games to go in the season and changed the team’s style to an uptempo, attacking game, was no longer the interim coach. And after being named the team’s head coach and vice president of hockey operations, his team went out and put together a strong performance in beating Fort Wayne 5-2.
John took over a team that saw its starting goaltender called up almost immediately after he took over, then lost two of its top defensemen to AHL callups and a recently-acquired high-scoring forward to an injury, and went 5-6-2 over the final month of the year.
“It’s truly an honor,” said John, who played for the Indianapolis Ice from 1999-2004 and has coached hockey at several levels in Indianapolis since retiring as a player. “I’m very thankful to the Halletts for allowing me this opportunity.”
John is no stranger to winning – he was a top defenseman for the Ice’s 2000 Central Hockey League championship team, a squad that went from last place on New Year’s Eve to hoisting the Miron Cup in May. He is the all-time assists leader among all Indianapolis hockey players. As a coach, he was an assistant to Jeff Brown with the Indiana Ice’s 2014 United States Hockey League Clark Cup championship.
After spending most of two seasons as an assistant to Scott Hillman, John quickly found himself preparing for games when he became interim head coach on March 7.
In a month as a head coach, he’s learned a lot sliding one spot down the bench to becoming the head coach.
“It’s just a little bit of the game itself, which you can always continue to learn, learning guys’ tendencies, trying to figure out who can play with each other,” John said. “I’m not a big line-matching guy – I’d rather see my D match against their top line. If I’ve got to play my top guys against theirs, I have all the confidence. That’s what we’re trying to build with our culture.
“We want to be an organization where we have that trust factor and we we can rely on anybody. Everybody knows what they have to do, everybody has a job to do. I’ve learned a lot, and I expect to learn some more. You’re always learning, as coaches, we’re always developing. It’s an exciting time.”
An ECHL head coach’s job isn’t just Xs and Os. Another big piece is putting the roster together, as nearly every coach in the league is also in charge of player . Identifying which returning players are coming back, how to fill the team’s four available veteran spots, as well as scouting, identifying and signing players in the off-season.
Looking ahead, there’s one goal – to take the next step and make the postseason.
“It’s going to be hit the ground running next week, start to get some free agent possibilities, see who’s out there, and see how we’re going to build our lineup with who’s coming back and who’s available to come back,” John said after Friday’s game. “That’s the hard part – we’ve got to get that together. The whole goal next year is to make the playoffs. We’ve got to do anything we can to put a team on the ice to be successful to give us a chance – and to give these fans, who are great – a second season, which is the postseason.”
One benefit is having an entire offseason to put together a roster of players who fit his preferred means of playing – and also to build that through an entire season of practice. John has the Fuel playing an uptempo game with the defensemen getting the puck up-ice quickly and then joining the rush and the attack, creating a free-flowing game in the offensive zone.
“It’s more skating. It has to be developed throughout the year,” John said of the system. “You want to practice with pace, you want to push pace, you want to be practicing fast, because that just turns over to games. That will be the focus for next year. That’s the attitude we’re going to have coming into camp, when we get to tryouts and get into the season, we’re going to practice fast, we want to play uptempo, we want to put teams on their heels as much as possible and make them try to play our game and have to re-adjust to us, so we don’t have to re-adjust to them.”
It’s very much the style he played as a player – an offensive-minded puck-moving defensemen who was a leader both on and off the ice. He had 173 goals and 548 assists over a 13-year pro career from 1993-2006, which took him through St. Thomas, Brantford and Port Huron in the old United Hockey League, Indianapolis and Corpus Christi in the CHL, and one game with the International Hockey League’s Utah Grizzlies. He had his greatest success as a player in Indy, where he had 91 goals and 262 assists in 301 games over five seasons, tallying at least 53 points each year.
While a mid-season coaching change is always an adjustment, the Fuel players have enjoyed the adaptation to a new system.
“He’s been awesome, he hasn’t changed a lot,” rookie forward Daniel Ciampini said after Friday’s game. “We’ve adapted to a different system. He wants to get up the ice, he wants to dictate the play and play a little more offensive. That was huge. We just didn’t have the right outcomes and the bounces in the last couple of games, but the way we’ve played has been pretty great. He’s a calm voice. He speaks up when he needs to, but he lets the guys play. I think he’s going to be successful here.”