By: Cathy Cuff Coffman
Owned by self-styled Reading, Pennsylvania businessman and “serial entrepreneur” Jack Gulati (who also owns Texas ECHL team Allen Americans,) Gulati staffed his organization with proven winners, including AHL Hall of fame executive Doug Yingst, who recently concluded a 34-year career with the Hershey Bears. Yingst is also a two-time winner of the AHL’s James C. Hendy Memorial Award, which is awarded annually to the executive who has made the most outstanding contribution to the American Hockey League.
Yet the true test of the team’s character and winning attitude, day in and day out, lies within the coaching staff.
The first thing you notice when meeting with MacDonald and Wellar is the camaraderie that exists between these two gentlemen. No surprise there—as they spent time together as teammates on the Kelly Cup-winning Royals during the 2012-13 season.
While MacDonald lifted his lone Cup during the ’12/’13 season, Wellar, an ECHL All-Star for the ’04-’05 season, has hoisted an impressive array of championship hardware: Three Kelly Cups (’06 Alaska Aces; ’09 South Carolina Stingrays; ’13 Reading Royals) and an AHL Calder Cup with the ’09/’10 Hershey Bears.
It’s this winning attitude and commitment to be “players’ coaches” that Gulati and company are betting will bring another championship run to Reading.
It also helps that the Royals are affiliated with neighboring Lehigh Valley Phantoms and Philadelphia Flyers—ranked by The Hockey Writers as the league’s #1 farm system. The backyard farm system enables the organization to create much-needed fluidity and transfers among its three teams, thus ensuring both player development and a promotion of “winning.”
“We want to keep it fresh,” joked MacDonald during a recent “off ice” day in his downtown Reading office. MacDonald, a graduate (and hockey captain) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, admitted that he never was interested in options in the business world.
“I knew I always wanted to be in hockey. My dad was an athletic director, and it is just natural that (after my playing career, which ended in Reading after the ’13 season), I would stay in the game. When Jack (Gulati) bought the team, I came back to Reading.”
True to form, MacDonald then turned his attention to the team. “I came back because I like the culture of winning here. It’s easy to stay motivated when you want to advance your players and yourself at the same time.”
After a coaching change last year in Reading, MacDonald, an assistant coach under former head coach Larry Courville, assumed an interim head coach position before being offered the gig full-time this season. His first task was to find an assistant coach.
He did not have to look far.
Wellar, who spent time as a player-coach with Alaska and then a full-time head coach with the Cincinnati Cyclones, was eager to return to Reading. His fiancee is from nearby Hershey, and he has long considered central Pennsylvania a second home.
MacDonald and Wellar roomed together in Reading for the ’12/’13 Cup season, and they remained close friends. When MacDonald called, Wellar was “all in.”
“In this business you don’t get many opportunities to be in your backyard,” said Wellar. “This was a chance I could not pass up.”
During a kickoff Town Hall Meeting with local fans, Doug Yingst, the former president and general manager of the Hershey Bears and American Hockey League Hall of Famer, and current Royals special advisor for hockey operations, opined that good teams are not always just comprised of talent, but “love, chemistry and camaraderie.”
Given the easy relationship between MacDonald and Wellar, transferring that philosophy to the young on-ice talent shouldn’t be difficult.
But it’s not all about roses and unicorns. Player/coach relationships are important, but as MacDonald cautioned, there is a fine line between player and coach.
“We cannot be buddies, but we can build relationships (with our players),” he offered. “They may be struggling (off the ice), and it’s important for us as coaches to know these things.”
Calling a player out on the ice in front of his teammates isn’t always the most effective way to institute change, he cautioned.
Wellar agreed. “We need to build a locker room where everyone cares about each other,” he said. “It’s also really important to have the hockey staff on the same page. If players see a spirit of camaraderie among the staff…even the support staff…they are going to adopt that attitude among themselves.”
Minor league hockey players are a transient bunch, and with journeyman’s pay, ECHL players often look for outside factors in deciding where they will sharpen their skates.
“Reading doesn’t have beaches, or mountains, or a great nightlife,” said Wellar, “But what we offer is a tradition of winning.” MacDonald pointed out that the club has not missed the playoffs since 2009, and players that want to further their game and their exposure choose winning organizations over ancillary benefits.
As for the on-ice x’s and o’s, both coaches stress that the team will play a pressing, up-tempo game. The objective is puck possession with an active D-corps that simply wears the other teams down.
“It’s no fun chasing the puck for 60 minutes,” said Wellar, who will be in charge of the defense. “We’ll encourage our defense to step up, to join the play, and possess the puck.”
The nature of the ECHL game has changed over the course of several seasons, and now players are fast, skilled and smart. Fans, however, still want to see that physical play, and in Reading that is no exception.
“Yeah, these fans (were brought up) on the Broad Street Bullies,” laughed Wellar, “and we will have a collective ‘team toughness,’ but will still focus on speed and skill.”
ECHL rosters are just starting to fill out at this writing, but all indications is that Reading will be fortified with key signings from the affiliates.
But ECHL survival is not just about hockey smarts and team esprit de corps. It’s about attendance. Both the Alaska Aces and Elmira Jackals ceased operations last season, and the fact is not lost on the coaching staff.
“Our responsibility is to win games,” says MacDonald, offering that it’s a great feeling to see the stands fill as the team wins.
“We’re also going to be more visible in the community, doing things that we haven’t done before.” Most recently, team players and representatives have attended local community day block parties.
And in a nod to Penn State football fans, which are legion in the area, the Royals have scheduled home games so that fans can enjoy both. “Our home opener is at 4 pm because Penn State plays that day too,” said MacDonald.
“When we won the (Kelly) Cup in 2013, we (players) all wanted to hang out together,” offered Wellar.
If these two coaches—and the management—has anything to say about it, the incoming Royals for 2017-18 will be great teammates and great friends.
They can look to their coaching tandem for leadership by example.