FAYETTEVILLE, NC – I had the pleasure of sitting down with first-year Fayetteville Marksmen head coach Nick Mazzolini on an unseasonably warm Friday afternoon in September. While the weather outside was a constant reminder summer was still hanging around, it quickly felt like hockey was coming as I made my way into the Crown Coliseum and headed down to the locker room area to chat with Mazzolini, or Coach Mazz as others in the organization call him.
The conversation leads us on an interesting path that should allow people reading this to get to know the Alaskan native, former ECHL Alaska Aces captain, and 2011 Kelly Cup Champion much better! Enjoy!
The Sin Bin: What has the transition been like so far from player to coach?
Mazzolini: I mean, in my mind and the last couple of seasons, it’s always been that this is something I want to do. My whole life basically, since I was four or five years old, all I have known is hockey. I mean I would be starting from scratch basically if I was going to entertain a job offer in another field. So I said why not give it a shot at something I am actually really knowledgeable at and fairly good at. Yeah, like to where my life experiences could translate at this point and time. I mean, it’s going well. Obviously, there is a lot of stuff that goes on behind the scenes and you have to wear a lot of hats as a coach, especially at this level of minor league hockey. You have to be able to do a lot of things, you are a Swiss army knife. I think it better prepares you for other situations. It can help you branch out. I think that I am acquiring a breadth of knowledge and just try to keep your head above water and chip away as you move forward.
TSB: When it comes to coaching styles and systems, who from your past has had the biggest influence on you and what you are going to want to implement has a head coach?
NM: I mean, it’s tough to say that I am going to take more from one coach over another, but I have been blessed to have very good coaches as I’ve come up. My youth coach, Benton Debrill, helped me and a lot of Alaskans from the ’84 birth year. Then we jump to juniors and Tony Curtale taught me how the be a little bit meaner and play with an edge. How to command that respect. My professional coaches, Brent Thompson, who is successful with the Islanders organization helped me my first year as a pro. I wouldn’t have a pro career without Brent taking a chance on me. I had a knee injury coming out of college. He watched me play at Peoria’s camp and started me out on the 21-day IR. Rob Murray up in Alaska, Rob’s a little more old school. As a captain for Rob, I was able to be an assistant coach/player and be that bridge. And that’s the type of coach I want to be. I want to be a coach that is available, my door is never shut. I want to have over communication between the players and myself. So, I think it is a good mixture of everybody and I think that’s what you have to do, take pieces and parts from everyone cause nobody is perfect and they all have something to offer.
TSB: There are a lot of thoughts out there on how the game of hockey should be played.
NM: Yeah, you have to be flexible and able to morph into any particular playing style based on the situation you are in. Obviously, you are going to favor some because of the type of team you have, it’s your identity. You want to make teams adjust to what you are doing but at the same time, you have to take that step back and dial this in or dial that in.
TSB: The SPHL seems to be a great launching ground for players transitioning to coaching careers. You look around the league and many of the current head coaches played in the ECHL fairly recently. What are your thoughts on the league so far and how familiar are you with other coaches in the SPHL?
NM: The most experience I have had with the SPHL up to this point was playing on a line with an SPHL player, Shawn Skelly. He was a successful SPHL player, great winger. That’s basically what I am basing this on, the top echelon of SPHL players who is moving up and down. What I know is the ECHL so I am going to try and run my team like an ECHL team because you want to do what you are familiar with. As for familiarity with everyone, it’s a constant process and I think this league is very unique. When I looked at the schedule and saw where you play this team 13 times and this other team four times, I was like “what is happening here?”
TSB: Yeah, you will get tired of playing Roanoke.
NM: It’s a revolutionary idea to not just simply divide the games evenly among all the potential opponents and it is a brilliant concept. The league is trending younger and forming into a feeder league and wanting to be not just a league under a higher league but actually feeds players.
TSB: Tell me a little bit about the recruiting process and the team you have built so far.
NM: I mean, quite honestly, I have seen one guy play before and it was a guy I picked up at our free agent camp. So, I am learning to understand the Elite Prospects page and read off the page what he can bring – the intangibles that do not show up on the stat page. I am also trying to get a feel for who they are on the phone. I believe a team structure starts in the locker room with character. So, basically the way I view our team right now and I have had tremendous help from a buddy who coaches in the SUNY conference from Alaska. His name is Steve Murphy. I am definitely leaning on him to get the lay of the land in Division III.
Our hockey ops director, Ryan Cruthers, I couldn’t be doing this without him. He is who I am leaning on and his contacts and the web he has been able to build, being involved with the Charlotte Rush, and the Rush have been tremendously successful. Cruthers was my lineman up in Alaska and that’s how we met. So, I really trust his eye and I was there for his camp the past couple weeks. The way I saw him run everything, it was very impressive, very professional. I like the guys that are running their teams like the leagues above them. Players are used to something like that and that is how they are going to perform. So, back to our team. I think we have a lot of potential, we are going to be young, we are not returning a lot of guys. As long as you have the right guys that are willing to put in the work, you can’t teach effort, so I believe I can put a system in place to compensate any deficiencies we might have. My hockey sense will be able to bring around younger players. I think the leadership we do have in the locker room will be huge this season.
TSB: I think as a coach, when you can mold and shape a player and you see the improvement as the season progresses, that is a big reason why you do this.
NM: Absolutely. Just like a manager turning an employee into a better employee, that shows you know what you are doing. That your tactics are working and you need to always be tweaking things because there is always room to get better.
TSB: Is there anything you want to say to the fans who might read this interview? What to expect? What to look for this season?
NM: I believe that this organization with Jeff Longo and Chuck Norris at the helm is going to be different than what they have experienced the past years. I want to encourage everyone who has ever been a hockey fan or sports fan, in general, to come out and try not to get hooked on hockey. It’s very fast and therefore can be confusing. One thing I want to work on here in the community is the education of the game. So, I’m working with the front office and our marketing staff to put together some educational nights. Any fan can go to a game and appreciate a good fight or a coach flipping out but it takes a knowledgeable fan to see a cycle turn into a soft area in the defense that results in a one-timer goal. I really want fans to see what kind of hockey we bring to the table. I want to have a fast team, a team that can think the game. And I want to have a team that is tough to play against.
TSB: So, I want to transition away from hockey and do some fun questions. These will help people get to know you a little better and it might take some thinking on some of these. If you didn’t have to worry about money or a job, where would you live in the world?
NM: Growing up in Alaska and my family being from Montana, I am a big fly fisherman. I love to golf, I love to do anything outside and active. My parents have a retirement place in Bend, Oregon and it has incredible microbreweries. It has the Deschutes River right there, golf courses. It’s basically like a more populated Montana and I love that area. And the river has big fish so I would love to live around there. It would probably be fishing lodge or hunting lodge type area. I don’t know, I love Europe as well: Barcelona, Prague, Frankfurt. I want four seasons though. I want to see snow fly. I prefer snow and sunshine. Alaska, it’s the length of the snow period.
TSB: Are you superstitious? Were you as a player and will you be as a coach?
NM: I wasn’t too finicky. I mean, you always try and follow the same regimen every game but I wouldn’t say that is superstitious. In Alaska, I was known as the guy who always did crossword puzzles before the game or we would always watch Price is Right. I always tried to get my brain going before a game, I wasn’t the fastest guy or the biggest so I had to make up for that with the cerebral aspect of the game, thinking the game of hockey. There are always guys who have to tap their stick a certain way or something like that. The only thing I was picky about were my gloves. Being a centerman, it was important to win face-offs and that is hard to do with wet gloves so I had like four pairs of gloves.
TSB: What is the last book you read from cover to cover?
NM: I actually picked up a book at a local ortho’s office in town and it had an interesting title, ”Leadership and Self-Deception”. It’s kind of a thinking outside the box, like look at yourself first because whatever you are going to do is going to roll downhill. Cruthers just had his whole team read Tom Coughlin’s book about leadership. I haven’t read it yet. If it’s truly the last book I read cover to cover, it’s embarrassingly a long time ago. It was the “Girl with the Dragon Tatoo” books. I try to stay away from fiction, I tend to do more nonfiction books so that it adds something that I can apply to my life instead of just for entertainment.
TSB: So you might have just started to answer the next question but if you had a choice, do you read a good book or watch a movie?
NM: Are documentaries considered movies?
TSB: Sure, we will count those!
NM: I would probably do something like that, books take a little more time. Maybe a book on tape while I am doing something else but I am really big on documentaries. Like cutting-edge, health related or medical breakthroughs, stuff like that. I like to expand my horizons.
TSB: Where do you see yourself in five years? Ten years? Fifteen years? Do you think you will still be coaching?
NM: I think at this point, I would want to be coaching. I haven’t set goals necessarily at this point. I just want to keep my head above water and do the best job I can at the current position I am in. I want to be ready for the boys to show up, I want to ready for the puck drop to open the season. Just take it step by step and let the product speak for itself at this point and then maybe later I can broaden my gaze.
TSB: Last question, every coach wants to win a championship but only one gets to win a championship each season. And the standard answer to this question is I want to win the championship but realistically speaking, what would you be happy with as a coach come the end of the season?
NM: As a coach, you want to project a nothing less than a championship-type attitude and swagger. As being accepted by Chuck and Jeff, I think it is a part of my job to be striving for their goals as well. And a big part of that is to fill the stands and show the community that we are here to stay. We want to both come out on top. So to go along with winning hockey games, we want the community to feel like we are a big part of the community.
TSB: Thank you for spending twenty-some minutes with me today. The Sin Bin looks forward to having an ongoing relationship with the team and organization.
NM: Thank you for your coverage and what you are doing for the team and the league!
Please consider becoming a Patron as a way to say thanks and support us for what we do! https://www.patreon.com/thesinbinhockey