SIOUX CITY | Long and fast.
Sioux City Musketeer skaters found out on the first day of this week’s training camp that those words are the stamp Luke Strand has implemented in his second stint as the franchise’s head coach.
“I think he really wants to push the pace a lot and have the guys moving and advancing in the zones,” said forward Micah Miller following Monday morning’s practice at the IBP Ice Center. “He wants us to put the pressure on all game long. His big thing is a high pace.”
Miller is one of 40 players who greeted the new coach who was hired the day after reigning USHL Coach of the Year Jay Varady departed the Anderson Cup champions and Clark Cup runner-up to guide the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs.
Miller describes Strand’s practices as “pretty hard.” He departed the morning session with a great first impression of a leader who had a 58-47-15 record while coaching the Musketeers from 2009 to 2011.
“We will play long and fast,” said Strand, who will also serve as the squad’s director of hockey operations. “Offensively, we will play possession. We are going to keep the puck as long as possible. Without the puck, we are going to play pressure in all three zones. That’s going to be our goal.
“I want defensemen to be part of the offense and on defense, the forwards have a job to do to help the D. We’ll never play without numbers. It takes work, but at the same time, it’s a prideful moment when it all comes together.”
Those are the philosophies of a 44-year-old who has several coaching influences, two he worked with in the AHL ranks, Kevin Constantine (Houston Aeros) and Troy Ward (Abbotsford Heat).
Strand also admires Tim Coghlin, who has made St. Norbert one of NCAA Division III’s winningest programs. Varady is also on that list, as Strand served as the Musketeers’ general manager for the final six months of the 2013-14 season.
Strand hadn’t blown a whistle since 2015-16 when he was the associate head coach at the University of Wisconsin. While he appreciated last season's opportunity as an amateur scout for the NHL's Calgary Flames, coaching is his passion.
“I missed the whistle,” he said. “I want to coach. I’m a coach. I love to mentor young men. I love to create an environment for kids to succeed. In doing so, our goal is to come back here and win and put these guys in better places as what has been happening. That’s a trend we want to keep.”
Strand feels the USHL has become younger and faster since the end of the 2010-11 season and also adds that the league’s coaches have become better. He feels he’s a better communicator, but one philosophy from those first two years in Sioux City hasn’t changed.
It’s getting players who want to play in Sioux City. Defenseman and Dakota Dunes native Brady Ferner is on the team for the third straight year. Defensemen Keegan Mantaro and Connor Mayer are like Miller, among six players who logged at least 20 games for the defending Western Conference regular season champs along with forwards Solag Bakich and Cole Koepke.
Meanwhile, two of the key newcomers are first-round pick and right wing Martin Pospisil along with goaltender Tomas Vomacka, who in late June was a fifth-round pick of the NHL’s Nashville Predators.
“Your attitude is the way you win,” said Strand. “You win by wanting it more than someone else. I don’t know if that ever left me.”
Strand hopes that eventually, he’ll become like Chicago’s Dan Muse, who jumped from this season’s Clark Cup champions to become the first USHL head coach to take an NHL assistant position. Muse will work closely with Nashville's forwards and will also run the team’s power play.
It’s a dream that he shares with his close friend Varady who like himself, has coached in multiple leagues. There’s another philosophy that the two share.
It’s the one day at a time approach. Even players like Miller state that if the Musketeers are to make a push in 2017-18, they’ll need to take it one step at a time.
“We’re young, but we have speed and I feel like we can skate,” said Strand. “Our goal is to be better. We have to take everything as a day, one day at a time and take that day like winning that day. Players at this level are too influential on the moment. If they leave the moment, their outcome usually goes down. If they stay in that focused pattern of themselves right now, they’re going to have success.”