By Kevin Connelly
When current Green Bay Gamblers coach and general manager Derek Lalonde was named head coach of Team USA for the World Junior A Challenge in Nova Scotia earlier this month, the veteran hockey mind knew who his first call needed to be when putting together a staff.
“I’m kind of a guy who likes having assistants around to lean on and this was no different,” said Lalonde, who has spent the better part of 18 years behind the bench. “Anthony [Noreen] was that guy I immediately turned to and we kind of did it together.”
Noreen, in his third season leading the Youngstown Phantoms organization, has earned almost immediate respect around the United States Hockey League for not only his team’s success, but also his ability to connect with players whose ages range from 16 to 22.
Last season, Noreen led the Phantoms to a third-place finish in their conference and set a new franchise record for wins with 37. He also had the league’s top penalty kill at a fraction under 86 percent — something Lalonde noticed.
“With it being such a short tournament, I know he’s an energy guy that young players relate to very well and that’s the vision I had for him,” Lalonde said. “I knew from playing against him I wanted an aggressive penalty kill with energy and he brought that.”
Lalonde learned of Noreen’s style the hard way. The Phantoms knocked the Gamblers, who were the defending Clark Cup champions, out of the playoffs in last year’s first round and a stout penalty kill was a big reason why.
The six-team junior tournament was Noreen’s first time coaching on an international level and he described the experience as first-class.
“It’s one of those things where obviously it was an unbelievable honor to be there,” Noreen said. “There was a lot of work to be done there that I had to keep my focus on and make sure I was doing everything the right way and treating that team like it was my own.”
He wasn’t the only Phantom to make the trip north to Yarmouth, as his forward in Youngstown, Kyle Connor, was named to the U.S. roster. In his first full season in the USHL, Connor, 16, isn’t only turning heads of opposing goaltenders, but also college and professional scouts as well.
“We envisioned [Connor] being a very important part of our team and it helped Anthony knowing him,” Lalonde said. “With Kyle being such a young player I think you need that and sure enough he gets us the game-winning goal.”
The Shelby Township, Mich., native scored the second goal against Russia in the championship, which turned out to be the difference, as Team USA went on to win its second gold medal in a row and fifth overall.
“It was really nice to have a coach, someone I can relate to,” Connor said. “And it helped knowing the systems that he’s trying to teach to the guys, too.”
Not coincidently, Russia went 0-for-2 on the power play in the title game and under Noreen’s guidance, Team USA finished tied for the top penalty kill in the tournament at just over 83 percent.
“The biggest challenge as a staff we felt like we had was to come together,” Noreen said. “There was no doubt we had the talent, there was no doubt that the individual pieces were as special as any team that could be put together at that age, but the challenge was getting us to become one and become a team.”
Lalonde was on last year’s gold medal staff as an assistant, so he knew coming in what kind of makeup this year’s team needed to have. He felt a winning mindset was important in not only the players, but also his coaches — another way Noreen’s experiences in Youngsown made him a valuable asset.
“Part of being successful every year is installing a culture of winning, where guys walk into [Green Bay’s] locker room or Youngstown’s locker room and it’s a responsibility to win when you come in,” Lalonde said. “That’s part of the culture and you preach it every day.”
Both Lalonde and Noreen agreed their experience coaching a national team ranked second to none.
“To see the American flags and the USA jerseys celebrating, it’s an experience you can’t describe,” Lalonde said.
Noreen added, “I think it can be summed up by the picture of all the guys, arm-in-arm around each other after we won the gold, across the blue line with the flags draped around them.
“That was the most rewarding part for me.”