A New Era: Installing the Lancer Culture at Malden Catholic for 2019-20

After a tough 1-19 season, Malden Catholic is looking to get back on the right track to more consistent and winning hockey. If you are at all familiar with MIAA hockey history, you’ve heard of Malden Catholic’s program and know about their recent success. The Lancers won four straight Super 8 titles from 2011-2014 and added a fifth in 2016. Long tenured coach Chris Serino (former D1 NCAA coach at Merrimack) oversaw the growth of the program before handing over the reins to John McLean in 2012 who continued to carry the torch. McLean stepped down last season, which led to one of the leanest seasons in recent memory for the former powerhouse; but now they have their swagger back, hiring former Andover HS coach Chris Kuchar who is tasked with installing the culture at MC and reconstructing the roster. 

Those local to the North Shore saw Kuchar rebuild Andover’s program from a 5-win team in 2015 into a title contender. He won two league titles in five years, when the program had not finished better than fourth in the five prior seasons. He also reached two D1 North semifinals and a final along with a Super 8 berth in 2018.

We caught up with Coach Kuchar recently to talk about his offseason and what he is looking to bring to Malden Catholic in his first season at the helm…

MassNZ: During the offseason you accepted the head coaching position for a storied program in Malden Catholic: what made you interested in the program and how did the MC job opportunity come about?

Coach Chris Kuchar: Once the news spread that I was not returning to my old coaching job, my phone started to ring. I got calls from 5-6 schools that had openings. Calls were mainly from alumni, friends of the programs and other high school coaches. Malden Catholic was one of those schools, I had a brief phone call that turned into a cup of coffee, then three meetings over the course of 10 days. The more I spoke with people at MC, the more I could see how our values and beliefs in coaching and mentoring young men were in alignment. It became increasingly clear that this would be a good fit. So, after some long talks with the wife, family and few college coaches I have close relationships with and trust their opinions, I decided to take the MC job.

NZ: Malden Catholic has a history of winning Super 8 titles and they have sent a number of players on to D1 and D3 colleges. You coached against those teams – what were the hallmarks of those teams from past seasons and why were they so tough to play against?

Kuchar: Well, talent first of all. The players in the Catholic Conference and the coaches in the Catholic Conference are of high caliber. They are committed to becoming the best student-athletes they can be and the daily environments they are part of establish that culture. Each day in the classroom and at practice, then during the games they are pushing themselves and their teammates to be the best they can be. 

The other thing I noticed about scheduling and playing against Catholic Conference teams were not only how skilled a lot of the high-end players were, but how deep teams were and how relentless in pursuit of the puck they were. I recall playing one game against BC High a few years back and it was wave after wave of puck hungry kids. I turned and looked at my assistant and just kept saying “relentless”. We took that model at Andover HS and created a culture of relentless pursuit and worked a significant amount on skating to achieve that. That model will continue to happen at MC as well.

NZ: Now, you have an opportunity to shape the team’s future starting in 2019-20. What immediate changes have you made to the team’s identity? What type of team do you want this to be?

Kuchar: I haven’t really spent too much time with the kids, so there have been no immediate changes. I’d say they realize the culture will change. I have core values I’ve always coached with. It sounds simple, but one of the big focuses is effort. With us, effort will be non-negotiable.  If you do not, or will not give maximum effort (practice, games, or in the classroom) you’ll find it difficult to earn any ice here, regardless of how many goals you can score or shots you can stop. It doesn’t take talent to backcheck, forecheck or block shots, it takes effort and desire. We celebrate a player who blocks a shot as equally as a kid who can go bar down every time he shoots. That’s the culture they will see. Find a role, embrace that role, excel in that role. And those roles can change game to game, year to year. But, it’s all centered around Effort above all. We will create a culture of competition every day, it’s not a four-letter word, it’s reality. Be willing to compete for the things you truly want.

NZ: I noticed on Twitter that you have been posting pics of team jerseys with motivational mantras. Can you explain a bit about each mantra and why they are important for your team?

Kuchar: The back of our practice uniforms read our four coaching principles on it as a daily reminder of what we are about and the high standards our MC players will be held to. You can simplify it by using it as an acronym. A.C.E.D.

Accountability – We will hold each other accountable based on the standards we set as a staff and as a team. One of the more impressive things I saw with my last team is the players would hold each other accountable in practice; the coaches didn’t need to say anything. And it wasn’t seniors barking at underclassmen to go down and back, it was sophomores telling seniors “you didn’t finish your check: down and back.” “You didn’t stop on the net, down and back” etc. By the end of the season (we only had five seniors last year at Andover) it was a pretty tight group. And it wasn’t kids looking to bark at another kid and send him down and back, it was that they were paying attention to the details and fundamentals which we think helped us play consistently good hockey.

Commitment – On and off the ice. Commit to the game plan, commit to getting your homework done, commit to the lifting sessions, commit to your teammates and your community.

Effort – Non-negotiable. Period. Practices are hard so games can be easy.

Discipline – On and off the ice. Make the right choices, be disciplined in our structure/system, staying out of the box, puck management, getting to school on time, and in getting your work done.

It’s a focus/theme that is discussed almost daily in some way. It’s not just words on the back of a practice uniform, it’s a culture and values element we feel will help us achieve our goals, on and off the ice.

Malden Catholic F Matt Babineau (Photo credit: Dan Hickling/ Hickling Images)

NZ: Obviously this is your first year at the school: what are some of the challenges of entering a new situation like this?

Kuchar: Not knowing the players. I’ve watched 10 or so games from last year’s archives and tried to take notes on players and what I saw on the ice.  The hardest thing for any new coach is getting up to speed on personnel and how players might fit into the systems and succeed. As a coach, each year and each team has a different identity. Some are strong upfront, some are strong on D, some have outstanding goaltending, some have tremendous depth. You coach to your strengths each year and create your planning and season approach based on that strength and how to maximize it. As a new coach, we’ll have to see where our strength lies and go from there. In general, the teams I’ve coached have always been focused from the net out. We put a premium on protecting our end and playing structured, disciplined hockey. We’d like to be a team that’s difficult to score on and hard to play against all 200 feet of the ice.  I’m certain that will continue.

NZ: On the flip side, what excites you about the opportunity to coach at a school like Malden Catholic?

Kuchar: At the other schools I’ve had to ‘rebuild’ there wasn’t really a hockey ‘brand’ in the school. Yes, they played hockey, but they hadn’t competed at a consistent high caliber that we wanted it to reach. We worked really hard to create a culture and create depth by reaching out to the youth programs and working with the youth programs to create a flow of athletes that would allow the programs to have long term sustainability. We think we were able to accomplish that with those philosophies. With MC already having one of the best-known names in high school hockey through brand recognition, our goal will be to build the numbers up, get quality student-athletes interested in our program and similar to the other schools, create that long term success.

How is that done? By giving them a reason to stay (like at the previous schools) by constantly getting the brand out there, playing the best schedule you can, playing a good brand of hockey and of course the success helps. In this scenario, it will be focused on giving the players a reason to come to MC and be part of the legacy and rich tradition that is MC hockey.

At the public schools, it’s giving them a reason to stay and play locally. MC has numerous current alums and recent alums that are playing college hockey at all levels. We need to do a better job as coaches and frankly at the HS level of promoting the players that played MIAA hockey and are now playing at all levels of college. I think the pendulum is swinging back and the kids now realize the experience (social and emotional) that they are missing out on when they play full season for other clubs. It’s simply not the same and placement is simply not there or what is promised. Come play three to four years of HS hockey, do a year of PG or Junior and move on. It’s one path, there are several, but I like what the MIAA can offer on a number of levels. Playing in front of your peers, school community and hometown in a packed barn is an experience you can’t get back, and don’t get when you leave. You look around to local college rosters, there’s a substantial amount of MIAA players on their rosters. What do you see on the game day lineup sheet? Last team: X junior/club team, When in fact they spent three to four years playing MIAA hockey first. We need to do a better job of promoting it to our players/leagues, in my opinion.

So, I’m excited to again build up a roster with kids who want to move on to the next level and help them get there.

NZ: In terms of the roster: I would assume that there will be a few changes. Who are some of the players that fans should be excited about, or should make big contributions this season?

Kuchar: Here are just a few:

  • Brady Roux, G, Jr Salem NH,  
  • Brendan Curtis, F, Jr, Malden,
  • Joe Tranchina, F, Jr, Stoneham,
  • Chris Merryman, D, Jr, Peabody,
  • Matthew O’Brien, D, Sr, Haverhill, 
  • Nick Julian, F, Soph, Lynnfield,
  • Matthew Babineau, F, Soph, Malden, 
  • Zack Montecalvo, F/D, Jr, Haverhill, 
  • Tyler Blumberg, D, Sr, Medford, 
  • David Bazile, F, Jr, Wilmington

NZ: Finally, what are your goals for the team this season?

Kuchar: To be a hard team to play against each night. To compete, to give effort and to be relentless. We want to work towards playing our best hockey in March, not the first week of December.