In spring 2012, the Youngstown Phantoms made a strong connection with the prestigious Ivy League when players Mike Ambrosia, Kevin Liss and Jonathan Liau left the USHL for Princeton.
The bond has grown stronger as Phantoms assistant coach Rob Rassey accepted an assistant coaching position with Harvard.
“It’s exciting,” Rassey said. “Harvard is one of the most respected universities in the world and has one of the most respected hockey programs in the country.”
Rassey, who played for the Mahoning Valley Phantoms from 2003-05, replaces Jerry Forton who has joined the Buffalo Sabres organization.
A native of Shelby, Mich., Rassey is quite familiar with Boston as he played for Northeastern University from 2005-09.
Harvard’s head coach is Ted Donato and one of his assistants is Albie O’Connell who was an assistant coach at Northeastern when Rassey was a senior.
Rassey has been an assistant coach with the Phantoms for two seasons. Head coach Anthony Noreen didn’t think Rassey would be around for a third.
“When Rob came here, I told him he had two years,” Noreen said of moving up to the collegiate ranks. “That was my goal, that was his goal.
“At the beginning of the summer, it didn’t like that was going to happen,” Noreen said.
“I’m extremely proud and happy for him,” Noreen said. “It’s as good of a job as you’re going to get in college hockey as far assistant coaching positions go.”
The USHL’s primary goal is to prepare players for college scholarships.
“As much as we are trying to develop players here, we’re trying to develop coaches for the next level,” Noreen said. “Rob is ready for that step.”
After Rassey graduated from Northeastern magna cum laude with a degree in finance and management, he was a volunteer coach for Northeastern and then worked for USA Hockey Massachusetts Player Development.
He joined the Phantoms two years ago when Noreen replaced Curtis Carr as head coach when Carr became an assistant coach at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass.
“I’m going to be forever indebted to the Phantoms organization for giving me the opportunity as a player and then coming back and giving my first opportunity to coach [professionally],” Rassey said.
“I’ll always be a Phantom.”
Preparing for their fifth USHL season, the Phantoms are coming off their most successful campaign. In Rassey’s first year as assistant, the Phantoms swept a first-round playoff series against Cedar Rapids before losing to eventual champion Green Bay, three games to one in a best-of-five quarterfinal series.
Last season, the Phantoms rebounded from a dreadful 5-11 start to finish in third place in the Eastern Conference.
They then bounced second-seeded Green Bay, 3-1, before falling to eventual USHL champion Dubuque, 3-2, in the Eastern Conference finals.
“As a coach, the last two years have become one big memory for me,” Rassey said of coming back to Youngstown. “The playoff run that we had when we beat Cedar Rapids and [challenged] Green Bay the first year was a lot of fun.
“And this year’s playoff run was some of the most exciting hockey I’ve ever been a part of,” Rassey said.
Now, he’s ready for a new challenge.
“Having the opportunity to work with the coaching staff there is going to be great for me,” Rassey said. “I’m pretty excited.
“[But] I’ll always call Youngstown a home.”
Tom Williams is a sportswriter with The Vindicator. Write him at email@example.com.