Jean Laforest is already in Phoenix to draft players.
By TOM WILLIAMS
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
AUSTINTOWN -- Six weeks after the franchise's original timeline expired, the Youngstown SteelHounds of the Central Hockey League have hired a coach.
Wednesday, a few hours before team officials left for league meetings and an expansion draft in Phoenix, SteelHounds owner Herb Washington introduced Jean Laforest.
For the past three seasons, Laforest was the men's hockey coach at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.
His experience recruiting college players and his minor league coaching success with the Shreveport Mudbugs of the old Western Professional Hockey League from 1997-2000 are why SteelHounds general manager George Manias hired Laforest.
"He's familiar with the league," Manias said.
In 2001, Shreveport and the rest of the WPHL merged with the CHL.
"There are mandated, strict guidelines we have to follow, so we needed someone who not only knows the league and its players, but someone who has a relationship with its officials," Manias said.
"What stood out the most [about Laforest] is that I felt we need somebody who has been through this before -- an expansion team, a start-up team, somebody who has essentially built something from nothing," Manias said.
Strong desire to win
"Not only did he develop a team, but he won a championship," Manias said. "That is our goal.
"Our No. 1 goal is that we want to be a winning team immediately," Manias said. "We're not looking to just build a team from scratch and develop it so that five or six years from now we're competitive. We want to win and we want to win now."
Laforest's hiring caps a whirlwind three weeks.
On May 12, SteelHounds general manager Grant Buckborough resigned and returned to Hidalgo, Texas, to become the GM of the Rio Grande Valley Killer Bees. Buckborough was assistant GM there before taking the SteelHounds post.
In January, Buckborough said he wanted to hire a coach by mid-April so that person could scout the minor league playoffs and begin signing free agents when the CHL playoffs ended.
Unlike the National Hockey League where GMs select personnel, coaches have that responsibility in the minor leagues.
After three weeks of silence about his team's GM change, Washington confirmed at Wednesday's press conference at the County Inn & amp; Suites Youngstown West that Buckborough had recommended a coach -- not Laforest -- before he resigned.
But Washington, the former Oakland Athletics baseball player and the owner of 21 McDonald's restaurants in the Mahoning Valley, didn't agree with Buckborough that a coach was needed that soon.
"I didn't subscribe to that thinking and that's why the coach wasn't hired in April," Washington said. "I didn't see the need to have the coach here in that timetable.
"Grant made a recommendation on a coach," Washington said. "After having talked to that individual, it wasn't somebody I was interested in."
How the process took place
Washington said Buckborough had seen Laforest's resume but not acted on it. Washington then passed the resume on to Manias.
"I didn't tell George how I felt about Jean when I gave him his resume," Washington said. "I didn't want to influence his opinion.
"After he had a chance to talk with him, he said, 'This guy sounds really good,'" Washington said. "I just started to smile because I felt the same way."
Washington denied that the SteelHounds are behind schedule in acquiring players.
"A guy like Jean has coached in the league, he knows many of these players that are in the league and he has already begun his recruiting process," Washington said. "So he's comfortable with this timetable.
"I've spoken with other owners in the league and league officials, and they have assured me that we are not behind the eight-ball," Washington said.
Washington said he will continue to lobby CHL officials for a schedule that reduces the SteelHounds road trips as much as possible.
Two of the CHL's 17 teams during the 2004-05 season (Topeka, Kan., and San Angelo, Texas) have folded while a third (New Mexico in Albuquerque, N.M.) is shutting down for a year. Because Youngstown is the only CHL city in the Eastern Time Zone, travel expenses are a major concern.
"From day one, the league has been very, very reassuring," Washington said. "We've seen some preliminary [schedules] where we will go out and be gone 10 days. So when we go out, we will make a swing before we come home. We have to because we just can't turn around and make that kind of trip every week. It's just not practical."
In the expansion draft, the SteelHounds are allowed to draft up to five players. The most any established team can lose is one player.
Manias said the SteelHounds will open the season in mid-October. The soonest the first home game could be is Nov. 4 when the arena is ready to open, but Manias said the schedule has not been finalized.