Elite 8 Showdown: Master & Apprentice

Belmont Hill and Salisbury School will face off for the Elite 8 Championship and while these teams haven’t played one another in over 20 years, their coaches have deep ties.

Let’s start with the Elite 8 Tournament itself; it is named after Matt Corkery who was a longtime coach at Salisbury School. He stepped down to be an assistant in 2008 to hire Andrew Will as Head Coach out of Upper Canada College. Will was initially recommended to Corkery by Kevin Patrick, the current Head Coach at Culver Academy and former Associate Head Coach at University of Vermont. Prior to Upper Canada College Will had served as an NCAA D1 assistant coach at Union and RPI.

It proved to be an outstanding hire as Andrew Will is the most winning coach in prep school hockey since being hired in 2008. He has won five prep championships in 11 season; including a three-year stint where they won back to back to back titles for the first time in prep hockey history.

Who was on the bench with Andrew Will during that run? Matt Corkery and Brian Phinney, the current Head Coach at Belmont Hill. They also had a core of outstanding assistants in that time from John Toffey (UMass), Kurt Colling (RPI), Will Leedy (Conn College) and Charlie Strauss (Middlebury). Phinney was highly recommended to Corkery by Bill Beaney, five-time national championship winning coach at Middlebury College. Brian came to visit, meeting with Coach Will, Corkery and Sam Simmons of whom the Small School Tournament is named after and landed the job in the fall of 2010.

In his seven seasons at Salisbury, Phinney would capture three Elite 8 championships and develop some of the top talent in prep hockey. He left Salisbury in 2017 to return home to Middlebury, VT and serve as assistant at Middlebury College where he had won national titles and All-American honors as a player. After two seasons at Middlebury he moved to Boston to serve as an assistant at Belmont Hill and quickly rose to Head Coach. In his first season as Head Coach he has led Belmont Hill to playing in their first Elite 8 Championship since the Elite 8 was formed in 2009.

We caught up with the 2022 NZ Prep Coach of the Year after his team’s upset victory over Avon Old Farms to ask him about his time at Salisbury and facing his old boss, Andrew Will, in the finals.

“Those years at Salisbury were some of the most fun and formative years,” said Phinney. “I met Jamie when I was working there, I was married there, and learned a lot by keeping my ears open and approaching each day like an opportunity to learn.” By “Jamie” he is referring to his wife Jamie Hagerman, former captain of the Harvard University women’s hockey team and USA Olympic bronze medalist. Phinney credits his Salisbury mentors for making him into the coach he is today; mentors Sam Simmons to Matt Corkery to John Toffey to Kurt Colling and of course Andrew Will.

“Will taught me a lot about hockey, but he also modeled how to be a good school person, a good friend, a good husband and a good father.”

While much of prep hockey was surprised to see Belmont Hill in the Elite 8 tournament, let alone in the finals, after knocking off prep powerhouse Avon Old Farms, one person wasn’t; his former colleague Andrew Will.

“The kids loved playing for him at Salisbury,” said Coach Will. “It doesn’t surprise me at all that he has done such an outstanding job at Belmont Hill.”

Moments after Salisbury defeated KUA in overtime on the road to advance to the Elite 8 championship, Will spoke to us about how excited he was for tomorrow’s game and to catch up with his longtime friend.

“He’s an incredible coach, person and friend. Our program benefited tremendously from his knowledge, experience and enthusiasm.”

Despite Salisbury only having two returners from their Elite 8 Championship in 2019-2020 and Belmont Hill not having an Elite 8 game until this year; their coaches bring with them a lot of experience in prep finals. Will has won five championships, three with Phinney as his assistant, but this will be the first time they’ve been on separate benches.

Photo Credit: Dan Hickling/Hickling Images