Eric Lang was hired by his alma mater in April after longtime Head Coach Gary Wright stepped down after 32 seasons behind the bench. It’s a unique situation as Lang was recruited by Wright as a player, hired by Wright as an assistant coach and now replaced by Wright as the Head Coach.
Since his hiring less than two months ago, Lang has hit the recruiting trail hard, bringing in an additional nine players from all across the world. They had the worst incoming recruiting class in the country when he took the helm, but have since climbed 13 spots to #47; the largest improvement of any team in the history of our rankings.
The class is geographically diverse with players coming in from the United States, Canada, Sweden and Czech Republic. They have targeted all the top junior leagues in North America getting players from the USHL, BCHL, NAHL and USPHL. The class is highlighted by USHL standout goalie from Omaha Lancers program Zackarias Skog. A tall, athletic, highly competitive goalie out of Sweden who finished the year with a 2.88 GAA and .900 SV%. Looking at some of the other additions you can sense the type of players this coach wants on his bench: high character, high compete who play the game the right way. A true embodiment of that would be Fargo Force’s Hugo Reinhardt, a two-way high compete forward with a heavy and gritty game. Another candidate would be the big, tough Utah native Jared Pike from the Bismarck Bobcats (NAHL) who isn’t graceful but plays hard every shift, takes the body and wins battles. More recently they have picked up verbals from a pair of NAHL big men Martin Mellberg and Dominik Florian from Sweden and Czech Republic.
We caught up with Coach Lang after his recent surge in the recruiting rankings. We asked him a series of questions about the current status of the team, his recruiting philosophy and how he plans to improve the program.
You return to AIC after both coaching and playing there. What does it mean to you have been offered this job? Was it something you envisioned happening since getting into coaching?
Honestly this is a dream come true for me. I have always thought about coming back here to lead my alma mater. If the opportunity ever presented itself. It is something that is hard for me to describe, but for whatever reason, I believe the investment in where you went to school and played is on a completely different level. That AIC jersey is sacred to me and I want our players and alum to have that same feeling.
How do your experiences as assistants at AIC and Army as well as being a Head Coach at Manhatanville prepare you for this job? Do you take pieces from all the coaches you have worked with?
Having been a player and an assistant here, the learning curve is much smaller for me. I know the strengths of the institution and I also know some of the obstacles. A lot has changed under President Maniaci’s leadership as compared to when I was a student here. He has done an amazing job, and the best is yet to come. The leadership here has a big vision for our program and It’s very exciting.
My time at M’ville was great. I learned on the job how to be a head coach and I came to understand how tough it can be at the Division 3 level, as far as being patient in the recruiting process. We had a simple philosophy at M’ville- we only recruited Division I players so handling players saying “No.” was something I learned to deal with. If we are being told ” No,” it means we are recruiting the right players, and we just have to remain determined and focused.
My 4 years at Army were a complete blessing. from working and learning under Brian Riley’s leadership, to being around some of the best kids on the planet, day in and day out. The experience at West Point gave me a new found perspective for our Military, and what these young men are signing up for.
I will certainly “borrow” some philosophical things from Gary and Brian. They are two of the best guys in the industry with over 50 years of combined hockey experience. I would be a fool if I didn’t.
What is your philosophy on recruiting? Obviously the record at AIC hasn’t been very strong the past few seasons. When you are on the road are you looking for the best player available, are you looking for a specific style of play, etc ? Do you try and bring in players that fit a system/style you want to have or do you bring in the best players you can and mold what you have?
We have a 3 pronged approach that is non-negotiable when it comes to recruiting:
1) We are looking for elite people/players of high moral fiber and extreme competitiveness. (Army Model)
2) We classify guys as “hard skill.” Most of my recruiting mistakes have been with skill players in the “B” pool of talent, who don’t play hard enough. The highest competitor on the team, who can raise the standard is going to be a player we are attracted to. If a coach tells us he has mild practice habits, we are going to pass. We practice so much more compared to our game ratio. He has to be a player that competes hard in practice every day. Those kids develop in the long term.
3) We will never sacrifice our team culture. If they don’t fit, we won’t recruit.
Soon after getting the job you were able to acquire numerous quality recruits. You were able to get players from various leagues and from various countries. How were you able to put together this recruiting class in such a short amount of time?
During our first staff meeting, we identified who are the best players left in the recruiting pool. We came up with about 40 names- from there we weeded out guys that didn’t meet our criteria. I personally love the International flavor of having different personalities in a locker room. Our school was founded as a multi-cultural institution, giving opportunities to young men and women where English might not be their native language. Players from Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic are a natural fit here. We are going to consistently have a handle on players from Europe. It was a model at Manhattanville that had quite a bit of success.
College hockey recruiting has gotten a bit out of control with teams committing players at 14 and 15 years old. Some colleges focus their recruiting on young prospects playing midget and prep who are several years away from playing college hockey while other teams are scouting older players who they feel can come in and play that upcoming season. Without giving away your precise recruiting strategy, where do you feel you will be focusing your recruiting efforts in the coming years. AIC hasn’t historically had commitments beyond one year out, is that something you will be looking to add going forward?
We want to know the entire player pool. Thirty years ago, this was impossible to accomplish. However, with the world we live in today, between fasthockey, youtube, and video access, we can get to see everybody. We would also like to carve out our niche overseas. Again we feel it is a natural fit for American International.
We will never be in the business of recruiting too far ahead. It’s a poor model for AIC in my opinion, unless you are willing to de-commit players. We tried this at Army and the really good ones never made it to our campus. We will make our living being experts on the older/developed players in the pool. The reason we have been able to get some pretty good 19/20 year old players right now is because they have been under-valued. The 14,15,16 year-old is a high priority for many schools. Recruiting that player would be a losing proposition for us.
Do you think playing for Coach Gary Wright at AIC and coaching alongside him will make the transition easier than most coaches who inherit a new program? What synergies do you bring that these players will be used to having played under Coach Wright?
There is only “one” Coach Wright and I have to make sure I make my own path here. Obviously I learned a lot under his leadership and make no mistake about it, everything I have here today is because he was one of the biggest influences in my life. Part of what’s at stake for me here is to make sure I make him proud. The one advantage I have with the current team is that we have played 9 times in the last 2 years. I have a real good feel for the talent that the current team has.
Without giving anything too intimate away, what was said to the current players when you took the job?
Our first team meeting was about raising the bar and our own level of expectation here. We have to look at every aspect of our program and do it a little bit better. If we can move the needle 3-5% in 20 different categories, we are going to make some strides. We painted a picture (Vision) and now we have to work backwards. We outlined the process and spoke about being married to the process. If we do that, we will love what the process produces.
While it’s too early to make projections, we feel this is the right person at the right person at the right time. AIC needs an immediate upgrade in talent, and if there is one thing Lang is well versed in, its finding talent. The AIC “fix” won’t be an overnight occurrence, it will take several quality recruiting classes and a change in culture. But judging how quickly he’s assembled this class, it’s clear he is not going to sit back and hope for the best. He’s driving the bus, the pedal is to the floor and the rest of the college hockey better keep up their speed or he’s going to pass them by.
Photo Credit: Dan Hickling/ Hickling Images