It’s as if someone flipped a switch on the Alberni Valley Bulldogs. After finishing last in the Coastal Conference each of the past two season, the `Dogs appear to be a team to be reckoned with after winning five of six to open the 2009/10 campaign. What explains the change? There are any number of possibilities given the number of on- and off-ice changes at the club, but the man shaping the organization’s new direction is Head Coach and General Manager Nolan Graham.
When Graham took over the Bulldogs this summer, he immediately went to work putting his stamp on the team. He speaks in a relaxed yet focused manner about the turn-around in Port Alberni.
“Our players have been battling extremely hard in practice and I think we’ve been able to translate that over into games,” says Graham of the Bulldogs’ improved play. “Our level of `compete’ has been high going into games. I think our guys right now are focused on trying to be better hockey players each and every time they put a jersey on.”
The new head coach’s philosophy puts a heavy emphasis on the time between games. According to Graham, a team must approach the day-to-day grind with the same serious attitude as sixty minutes versus a rival club.
“We’ve been competing hard and keeping each other honest in practice and in the weight room,” he emphasizes. “We’ve really been trying to have our guys push each other to increase our level of intensity in practice. I think guys are starting to respect each other for that and we’re starting to make each other better.”
Graham’s tactic has been nearly universally effective so far. Of the teams his group has faced this season, only the Powell River Kings, who sit atop the Coastal Conference, have found a way to beat Alberni Valley.
A native of Nanaimo, Graham returned home when it was time to make the switch from player to coach. It was the city where he started his BCHL playing career as a member of the Clippers, and it seemed like a natural place to get his start behind the bench.
“I think without my time in Nanaimo I wouldn’t have gotten an opportunity in Alberni,” says Graham. “Being able to work with a Grade A organization like Nanaimo off the ice and on the ice was definitely a huge plus for me, and made the transition easier.”
In particular, Graham cites Clippers’ head coach Bill Bestwick as a huge factor in his progression to BCHL bench boss.
“Being able to be on the ice with Bill Bestwick, I was able to learn a thing or two about the level of commitment and time it takes as a coach, and the level of expectation you can bring to your players,” recalls Graham. “He expects nothing but the best from his players there, and that becomes contagious.”
Stepping into the lead role for the Bulldogs has involved more for Graham than just his job as head coach. As general manager, Graham spent the summer working to reconfigure the Alberni Valley roster. He speaks enthusiastically about the type of player he wants on his team.
“Number one, I look for a kid with a relentless work ethic,” explains Graham, “and a player that’s an absolute competitor – somebody who won’t accept failure.
“On top of that, obviously, you need to be able to play the game. I like players that are good on their skates and able to get around the ice well. Combine that with a determination to win and I think you can ice a pretty good team.”
Aside from his on-ice aspirations, Coach Graham has another priority for his players, one that he says eclipses athletics: a well-rounded education. It’s something Graham himself is thankful to have received from a life in hockey. After playing two seasons in the BCHL, including one in which he racked up 101 points in 58 games, Graham spent four years playing in the NCAA and earning a degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.”
“The game was good to me and allowed me to get an education,” says Graham. “That’s first and foremost for me – helping players get what I got out of the game. I love the game, and I love what it can do for young men, not only as athletes, but as citizens in the community. I’m happy to be in a position where I can give back and help relate some of the lessons I’ve learned.”
One of those lessons is focus and patience. With the Bulldogs off to a hot start, it’s easy for expectations become inflated, especially when previous years have been so disappointing. But Graham and his team won’t get ahead of themselves.
“We’re definitely happy about our start, but at the same time it’s early in a 60-game schedule,” says Graham. “We think that if we can continue to improve every single day, then hopefully we’ll be in a position to play some hockey after February. But we can’t worry about that right now. We’re worrying about one game at a time and trying to do what we think we have to do to be successful every night we get a chance to play.”
With the momentum Nolan Graham and the Alberni Valley Bulldogs have right now, it’s not hard to imagine those chances to play will continue well into the post-season.