COLUMBUS, GA – I first met Evansville Thunderbolts head coach Jeff Pyle during a visit to the Ford Center last season. At the time, it was in the middle of a topsy-turvy inaugural season for the Thunderbolts.
Pyle’s coaching stats are impressive. Over 13 ECHL seasons, Pyle is fourth in all-time ECHL wins with 477, including a trip to the Kelly Cup Final in 2006 with the Gwinnett Gladiators.
I was excited to sit down with Pyle when his Thunderbolts arrived in Columbus during a late-season April road trip. We talked for almost twenty minutes about his team and how they were doing before we even started this interview. Later, after the game, we sat and talked for a while discussing changes and how things made more sense after I saw them.
Coach Pyle is humble to a fault. He admittedly hangs no pictures of his hockey days in his home and considers coaching the best job in the world. Pyle loves his team and makes no excuses about the struggles during the Thunderbolts 14-32-10 inaugural season.
Read on and enjoy my chat with Coach Pyle!
The Sin Bin: What does it mean to you, to be picked as the first coach in this franchise’s history?
Coach Jeff Pyle: I’ve done it a couple of times, and I really enjoy it. Like I’ve always loved it. I did it in Gwinnett (Now the Atlanta Gladiators) the one year. I did it in Mobile (Mysticks) the four years before that and just totally rebuilt a team. So it’s the same thing. In Gwinnett, we started with fourteen rookies my first year. I thought we were pretty good at the beginning the year. I was thinking, ‘well, we look pretty good.’ I wasn’t sure, being away from the league for a year. We look good; I think I know what I’m talking about. Then we end up going to the conference finals with fourteen rookies. We probably over achieved, but we had so much fun. It was a group that had so much energy that I really enjoyed it. So I’ve always like doing that stuff, it’s always a bigger challenge. But it’s simpler to take a veteran team, be able to plug in a few pieces. Which, next year, we’ll have that core group. So, I’m looking forward to that.
TSB: How did you wind up coming back to Evansville?
JP: I was here a couple of years ago with the ECHL team. Then we had some family issues that we had to take care of, so I went back to California. Things were pretty stable the first year, so I got the opportunity to go to Italy. So, I went over there knowing that I didn’t have to be overly committed to that job, other than coaching. Didn’t have to recruit, didn’t have to deal with the business side. So, I coached. Came home, then last year I took off. While I was in California, I got a call from (Thunderbolts broadcaster) Derick Benigni, who I worked with in Evansville. He said, “Hey, would you be willing to talk to (former Thunderbolts owner) Mike Hall?” So, I said sure. He had some questions about hockey and stuff. I heard some rumors that they were looking to sell the team in Evansville. So, Mike calls me, and he’s talking, and I said, let’s wait to see what happens, and we’ll sort it out from there. That’s what he did. He talked to a couple of people and started working with the city, just in case one team did leave, which they had threatened to do. I never thought they would, so it kinda…everything kind of fell into place. I told Mike, I’ll just consult for you, so you can get the right information, and then if this works out with the right time, and I can make the right decision, I will. And I could commit to a certain extent. I wanted to commit more because all of the stuff going on with getting the house put in our name and all that stuff, it was just really a lot of work.
TSB: What were you looking for in the players you have brought in?
JP: I always like good kids. You want them to be good people obviously, and good players too. You want them to be solid in the community. My record has been pretty good, I’ve had kids that don’t get in a lot of trouble. At this age, it’s easy to do, especially now because it’s a little easier with social media and everything. I wanted to make sure that we had good people in the locker room. So, even though we didn’t have a great season, we worked hard and had fun. That’s what I wanted to do, and I’ve always been told that you spend 90% of your time on 10% of people. So, my theory adding to that is you get rid of the 10%.
TSB: It’s been an up-and-down first year for the ‘Bolts. Pick an example of a valley, and how you’ve expanded on it and made your team better?
JP: Early in the season, we didn’t have the best team. But we also weren’t committing to any systems or just…really…the buy in factor. Even if you’re not the best team, you want to make sure that you are working hard. It’s a new organization; you want to start out with some success. We didn’t, so, getting to that 0-11, knowing we could have won some of those games, and probably would have made the difference. Now though, that was probably the lowest of the low.
Changing things, and just creating a little bit better atmosphere has made a huge difference. We had a hot streak, and we started playing well, which is always dangerous in this league because you lose players. We lost players, and then we were a .500 team in there for a while. We stayed right around .500, and then all of the sudden, again, we got a couple of players back, we made a few trades. Then the last fifteen games, it got better. Like the fans, they even said that they love the hockey. Our fans have been great; I have to say that, to be honest. They love the game, and that’s important to us.
TSB: I can imagine that the fan base got a little restless when the team got off to a 0-11 start. What would you say to those fans if you were in a room with them?
JP: Well, if I were in a room with those people, I’d say you’re missing the boat on this. I would say if you’re going to bitch at me, bitch at me because I didn’t put a good enough team together. I didn’t know the league. I had gotten a player that I thought knew the league and could help me so, I figured I’d rely on him, and I’d go after some guys. I’d have some more help so, again…with the team we had; we could have won. But we didn’t. But if there was anything I think I did wrong, was the recruiting side. So, that’s probably the worst thing.
I was in Gwinnett one year, and we went to the (Kelly Cup) finals, and I won 50 games — the franchise record for almost everything. I had a guy email me and tell me after we lost in the finals, he said, ‘You should be embarrassed because we didn’t have a tougher team and all this stuff.’ And we had one of the most fun teams I’ve ever watched. By far one of the most fun teams. He said ‘we weren’t tough enough.’ And I said, we played South Carolina (Stingrays) in the first round, and they were the toughest team in the league, and we swept them three straight. So I said, I think we were tough enough.
TSB: Whoa! I think so yeah!
JP: But you’re always going to get it, and I always look at it like…I tell them if you want to come into my office and sit-down with me? Open door, come on in. I don’t care. But, I know anything that they are going to say, I can kind of blow up. Again, if they say, you didn’t have the right guys in the beginning. I’m gonna say, yeah I didn’t, and I do blame myself. But, I did have my team in the position to win. I don’t use the excuse that we were an expansion team. To me, that’s not an excuse for when we should have won. We had the opportunities; I couldn’t get them to understand that the details are the most important thing that these guys will ever learn in their entire life. And that is a life lesson, not just a hockey lesson.
TSB: And that is what you want each of these guys to take away from having with you as a head coach?
JP: Yeah! I told them, every challenge you have, it doesn’t matter if it’s work, home, school, it doesn’t matter. There is a big test coming up, and the anxiety right now is the same that you are going to feel in your next job and the job after that. There is an emergency, and you don’t know how to handle it. Prepare to take on the challenge. If you fail, it’s not because you took on the challenge, it just didn’t work. It’s failing if you don’t go after that challenge because you are afraid. That’s all I’m trying to teach them. And that’s what I love about coaching; it’s more making them understand how to be a good person. You work your ass off, and let the cards fall where they may. Then you go with your head high because you did everything that you could. It’s a little old school, but it’s a lot simpler.
TSB: You’d win a few games, and there wasn’t much movement on your roster. You’d lose a game, and become Trader Joe. What were you hoping to do?
JP: Once we didn’t start that well, I knew we had to get rid of some guys. And the guys that we had as leaders, I expected more leadership out of, and I wasn’t going to get it. So, they had some value, so, I got rid of them. I got some guys, and it filled some holes. We started to play better, and everybody in the league was like, I like your team. We were getting better. Had those guys stepped up, we would have been fine. Then we had certain times when things were going on when I had guys that people wanted. The three-for-one with Fayetteville, I wasn’t looking to trade. But I wasn’t going to turn that one down. So that made us stronger and better too. We needed to be more solid; we didn’t need to be more high risk.
TSB: When the ECHL calls (about a call-up,) or if the player comes to you with an opportunity to play elsewhere, what is your response?
JP: I’m happy for them! I don’t care if they go up or not. I tell them, hey, and a couple of guys did this, do your homework. You want to go; you go, I mean, I have no issues with it at all. When coaches call, and they ask for one guy, and I know I got a guy better, I don’t say anything, because I don’t want to take away his chance, to give this guy a chance. So I try to be as fair as I possibly can.
TSB: What is game day prep for you? What do you do?
JP: I do a few short clips in the morning before the guys get on the ice. We do about a 25-minute skate, and they do their stuff afterward. For game days, I like to leave them alone, unless they want something extra, or unless I have to skate somebody. But, I like to have a 25-minute up-tempo skate. Not so much battling, then afterward, we’ll setup our power play and work our lanes. When there is pressure, we know where our outs are, and just make sure everyone is comfortable with that. So we have our release points, and that’s kind of what we do. So that’s it.
TSB: What do you like to do on your day off?
JP: If I get a day off, and I never take a full day off ever. I never do really. I will golf. Or spend time with my family. Like now, I’ll golf if I have the chance because my family is not here. But spending time with the family is huge for me. But if I’m relaxing, it’s on the golf course.
TSB: What do you want the fans to know about you?
JP: I think when people meet me, I’m pretty easy going. I’m pretty up tempo. I always like to look at things positive. I think I’m as normal as anybody. I don’t think hockey gives me the right to believe that I’m better than anyone else, even though some people do. This is what I do for a living. I don’t have any pictures of me up on the wall.
TSB: That shocked me when you said that in Evansville.
JP: It’s a job to me, and I love it! That’s the way I look at it. I like helping people, and that’s my reward.
TSB: So, we’re going to have a little fun. Using only one word, if you can….
1. How would your team describe you? Fun
2. Name one thing on your bucket list. Nothing on my bucket list. I just feel so fortunate to do everything that I’ve done.
3. If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Why? Power to heal because so many people suffer.
4. What is your go-to pizza topping? Pepperoni
5. What is your nickname? Coach
6. If one of your players lost a bet and had to sing karaoke, what song would you make him sing? Wanted Dead or Alive by Bon Jovi
7. What is your favorite hockey team/player? Marion Hossa. Minnesota North Stars. I don’t follow a certain team now.
8. Favorite Color? Blue
9. Day/Night person? Day
10. Theatre or Netflix? Theatre
11. Read the book or watch the movie? Watch the movie
Our thanks to coach Pyle, media director Tim Young, and the Evansville Thunderbolts for arranging this interview.