New coach has a history of success
He has a knowledge of the Central Hockey League.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
AUSTINTOWN -- Jean Laforest's success with an expansion minor-league ice hockey team eight years ago was a primary reason the Youngstown SteelHounds pursued him to become their first coach.
In 1997, Laforest, 37, was the coach for the expansion Shreveport (La.) Mudbugs when they joined the Western Professional Hockey League.
In introducing the new SteelHounds coach Wednesday, general manager George Manias proclaimed that Laforest won the WPHL championship with an expansion team in his first season.
Turns out Laforest is not quite that good of a coach.
"The first year, we went to the semifinals," Laforest said. "The following two years, we won championships back-to-back. As an expansion team, we were strong right from the get-go.
Right man for the job
"He is very familiar with our league and knows how to recruit," Manias said. "Jean knows we expect him to win immediately and we feel he is the right man for the job, long term."
Laforest coached the Mudbugs to a 133-56-9 record, then moved on to the Port Huron Border Cats of the United Hockey League for not quite two seasons. In 2002, he left the pros to coach at Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
"It's definitely a step up," Laforest said of returning to the minor leagues. "Here you have kids who have the capability to one day go to the AHL [American Hockey League] or NHL [National Hockey League].
"I really enjoy the college game," he added. "The kids are intrinsically motivated which makes a nice positive environment. It was refreshing to be in that environment but I yearned to get back into the professional ranks. I thought this is the right move for me."
Laforest returns to his professional roots, sort of. In 2001, the WPHL merged into the Central Hockey League.
"It's the same type of situation," Laforest said. "With the merger, some faces have changed, but the parameters and the framework as far as how the league operates and the players' talent level is the same. My comfort level is obviously strong."
Although the SteelHounds have no players signed for the season that begins in October, Laforest is not worried.
"This is the exact timeline that I had when I went to Shreveport," Laforest said. "I don't know any other timeline [so] this is comfortable.
"There is a big pool of players still readily available in free agency plus some developmental players from the junior ranks and colleges still not signed," Laforest said. "Right now is a perfect window."
Today, Laforest and Manias are in Phoenix for the CHL owners' meetings and expansion draft. Sunday, Laforest will be able to select players from five of the 14 other CHL teams.
"George is in charge of the total franchise, the finances, marketing. And the hockey end of things is left to me," Laforest said. "So I'm going to be selecting the players in the draft."
Next week, Laforest will pursue free agents and an affiliation with an AHL or NHL club.
"There's a very strong possibility" of the SteelHounds hooking up with another franchise for this season, Laforest said. "That is something I am striving to attain, something [high] on our list of priorities.
"It would get us access to players that we wouldn't necessarily have access to because NHL teams like to place their players within a system. I'd like to be part of a system."
Because Youngstown is closer to most AHL teams than its CHL rivals, Laforest believes he has a shot.
"We may not be able to offer golf in December but we're right in prime American Hockey League country," Laforest said.
The three CHL teams not returning in October had no AHL or NHL connections.
Laforest believes the SteelHounds are a success story waiting to be written.
"From ownership to management to the building, it's going to be successful. It is a fantastic league ... in my opinion the best in the nation," Laforest said. "The management there is second to none. You're going to see a great product in that building.
"I wouldn't have made the professional commitment to come to Youngstown if I didn't believe in the vision that [owner] Herb [Washington] had -- he wants it to be the premiere franchise in the Central Hockey League."