A season after the York Lions were crowned Queen’s Cup champions, they’ll enter the 2017-18 season without perhaps their most instrumental piece from last season’s championship run. And we’re not taking about the players.
After two seasons behind the York Lions bench, Chris Dennis opted to pursue an opportunity in the AHL to work with Rocky Thompson on the bench for the Chicago Wolves, affiliate of the Vegas Golden Knights. Dennis’ term as York’s head coach was brief, but will go down as one of the most successful in OUA history. Dennis assumed coaching duties for a team that was a basement dweller in 2014-15, and managed to turn them into OUA eastern division champions the very next season. Although losing out in the first round to U of T, Dennis rebounded with the Lions to win a Queen’s Cup and bring York to the national stage for the first time since 2003. Dennis also leaves the league having won coach of the year honours in the OUA East after both seasons.
But standing by his side for every game and practice over the last two seasons was Russ Herrington. Now taking over the head coaching duties, at least in the interim, Herrington’s journey to just getting on the York bench has taken him through a number of different places.
Herrington began coaching immediately after his playing days, serving as an assistant with the Thornhill Rattlers, and moving on to coach the Markham Waxers and later on Streetsville at the tier II level. From there, Herrington bounced around the GTA before landing with York for 2014-15.
“I spent about 14 years [coaching] at the tier II level”, says Herrington. “Then I went back to triple A minor hockey and coached my son for awhile and also spent a couple years in minor midget coaching York Simcoe and the Richmond Hill Coyotes. Then I got lucky enough to get on staff with Chris Dennis at York two years ago”.
On top of his junior hockey background, Herrington brings in national experience, recently representing Team Canada with the national sledge hockey team.
“The opportunity to represent my country at the national level is a dream come true. It’s very hard to put into words what that meant. When you have the whole country backing you, it’s amazing how it spurs you on to do great things”, says Herrington.
It was an unforgettable tournament for Herrington, who assisted the sledge hockey team all the way to a gold medal at the 2017 world championship.
“The guys that play on the sledge team have all been through some tragedy in their lives. Whether it was from being born with spina bifida, to losing one of their legs from cancer, to being in a motorcycle accident in their 30s when they’re running a company and have two children. They’ve all overcome something to be there”, says Herrington.
Now Herrington finds himself in for another challenge, perhaps the biggest in his coaching career. Trying to follow up the ‘Chris Dennis Era’.
“I learned something new almost every day from going to work with Chris [Dennis] and Andreas [Karlsson]. And it wasn’t necessarily hockey related. They’re two tremendous men, terrific leaders, and terrific mentors. I certainly feel like I’ve grown exponentially as a coach”.
One of the best success stories during Chris Dennis’ time at York was Derek Sheppard. A self-proclaimed ‘QMJHL punching bag’, Sheppard blossomed under Dennis, becoming a two-time OUA defenceman of the year, and 2016-17 OUA East MVP. It’s not hard to see why Sheppard was a little disappointed to see Dennis go.
“At first I was upset [about Dennis leaving]. Our team created a great relationship under Chris, and were obviously very successful. But at the same time, I can’t fault him [for leaving]. Everyone who plays hockey wants to move forward to the next level, and the same goes for coaching”, says Sheppard.
Sheppard played a huge part in York’s 2017 Queen’s Cup championship, as did a number of players. But what Herrington fully believes the root of York’s success stems from is the nearly immediate buy-in the players had to Dennis in 2015.
“The players made the decision to buy into what we as the coaching staff were presenting”, says Herrington. “Without [the players] willingness to make sacrifices, to do a little extra, and to pay attention to detail, we wouldn’t have had the success we did”.
As for whether Herrington thinks there will need to be another buy-in amongst the York players to his system this year, he doesn’t anticipate it to be a problem.
“I’m a little different from Chris. But I don’t think there’s going to be a major change in anything”, says Herrington. “We’re gonna deal with the players with honesty and integrity, and yeah, it’s gonna be a lot of hard work and sacrifice. But at the end of the day, hockey is supposed to be fun, and it’s supposed to be fun being a part of a team. Is there gonna be some buy-in? I suppose so. But in the conversations I’ve had with all the players, they’ve already bought in”.
From a player’s perspective, Sheppard can foresee some change and transition in the future. But the decision to have Herrington take over as head coach was a popular one amongst the players.
“There’s going to be changes with a new coach next season, there always is”, says Sheppard. “As much as [Herrington] and Chris saw eye to eye on most things, they definitely have different opinions on certain things. But at the same time, when our leadership group found out Chris was leaving, we were all wanting Russ to be our head coach. He was the guy we wanted, and our athletic department listened”.
Now with a recruit class on paper, and a roster littered with almost every key player from last year returning, the Lions are ready to begin their title defence. Even with a new face behind the bench, the expectation remains high, but achieving that goal may prove to be much harder than in years past.
“You’re not going to win the national championship on day one of training camp. There’s a process to it”, says Sheppard. “Our job is to show up in shape ready to go, and we’ll be fine”.
As for Herrington, he knows the road ahead isn’t going to be easy.
“The stars need to align a little bit, especially with our division”, says Herrington. “We need to stay healthy. We’ve had a terrific run of health the past two years, and we need that to continue. We need to have everyone achieve the same or above what they produced last year. Ultimately, you need to be strong defensively and have terrific special teams. It’s chemistry, it’s a little bit of luck thrown in, but it’s a lot of hard work and sacrifice. Hopefully our guys are spurred on to replicate what we did last year”.
If there’s one guy Herrington can rely on to have the ambition to replicate previous success, you can bet it’s Derek Sheppard.
“The goal is definitely to get back to nationals”, says Sheppard.
It’s a hefty goal for York to achieve, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility. York always seem to play a little better when they have something to prove, and with another set of challenges awaiting this season, Herrington’s Lions will be ready to roar come October.