By Ryan Lund
Dan Boeser had a lot to think about during the nearly nine-hour bus ride between Bensenville, Ill. and Lincoln, Neb.
A former assistant coach with the United States Hockey League’s Chicago Steel, Boeser was named the team’s head coach and general manager on Feb. 11, after former coach Scott McConnell and the Steel mutually agreed to part ways, according to a statement released by the team.
“I was notified by ownership that I was taking over, didn’t have any practice time and basically just hopped on a bus for Lincoln for a two-game road trip,” Boeser said.
The Burnsville, Minn. native joined the Steel prior to the 2014-15 season after spending two years as an assistant coach at Burnsville High School, but his stint with the Steel is the 34-year-old’s first experience as a head coach.
“I didn’t really expect to be in this position this year at all,” Boeser said. “I was hired as an assistant and was planning to spend three or four years in the USHL before getting an opportunity like this.”
Despite Boeser’s lack of experience, forward Robby Jackson is a fan of his new coach’s performance thus far, which has translated into a 4-2 record for the 21-21-3 club.
“He really knows his stuff and he’s done a good job of coming in and letting us know that he’s not just here to finish the year,” he said. “He wants to win just as badly, if not more, than we do.”
However, Jackson said that McConnell’s departure hit the team hard, and that the former head coach was well liked in the locker room.
“We all loved coach McConnell. A lot of guys shed tears in the locker room when he told us,” Jackson said. “That’s how much he meant to us.”
Assistant captain Brendon Kearney said the team’s leadership group stepped up to try and fill the void in the immediate aftermath of McConnell’s departure.
“We did your best to keep things going in the right direction,” Kearney said. “[We told the team] that everything was going to be OK and that we still had a job to do.”
According to Kearney, McConnell’s optimistic style endeared him to the young squad.
“I think coach McConnell was a really positive guy. He let the guys go out and play loose, play a certain way, and work hard for him and have fun,” Kearney said. “You weren’t really too worried about making mistakes.”
But despite the team’s initial heartache, Boeser said the transition has been smooth.
“They came back the next day and I talked to the group a little bit, and everybody understood that this is a business and things happen,” he said. “I gave them all a clean slate with me and we moved forward into the weekend on a fresh start.”
Boeser is now six games into his new role behind the bench, and while his unexpected promotion wasn’t originally part of the plan, Boeser is embracing his new role with the Steel, one that includes more than just coaching.
“It was a lot that’s been put onto my plate, having to learn the GM side and taking over the team as a head coach,” he said.
And while coaching changes are rarely an easy process, Boeser found himself shorthanded from the start.
“The change was made when our other assistant coach happened to be out of town for two weeks,” Boeser said. “It was tough just because of the timing of it.
The coaching change was abrupt, but McConnell called for his team to embrace Boeser in his new role.
“He told us if we had any respect for him that we would finish out the year strong, the way that we could,” Jackson said. “I think that guys have really harnessed that. Guys are really excited to play for coach Boeser.”
A veteran of the USHL, Boeser spent two years as a player with the league’s Green Bay Gamblers from 1998-2000, before moving on to a four-year collegiate career with the University of Wisconsin.
His background in the USHL and the NCAA has given Boeser a high degree of credibility with the team following his promotion.
“You just know that he knows what it takes to get the job done,” Kearney said. “He knows how to win in this league and get kids to the next level.”
Boeser said he is treating the unexpected promotion as a long-term commitment, regardless of the uncertain nature of the situation.
“I’m just focused on doing my job at this point,” he said. “I’m trying to do what I can for these kids and put them in a position to succeed.”
McConnell’s ouster has provided a Steel squad that has spent much of the season mired in the middle of the USHL’s eastern conference with a new level of energy.
“I think it was just a really big wakeup call for us to see coach McConnell leave,” Kearney said. “It really was a shock to most guys and a wakeup call for most of us and it’s given us the boost we need.”
The Steel knocked off the Lincoln Stars 3-1 on Feb. 13 in Boeser’s first game as head coach, adding a 5-4 win in the follow-up.
Home wins against Green Bay and Muskegon followed, before the Steel wrapped up Boeser’s second weekend at the helm with a 5-2 loss to Madison.
The Steel also dropped a 3-2 loss to Bloomington on March 1 after a rare weekend off.
According to Jackson Boeser has been a major player in the team’s recent success.
“So far there’s been a good balance of him being able to joke around with the guys a little bit, but not too much, and making sure that we stay dialed in and playing the way that we can,” Jackson said. “He’s done a great job so far.”