Bruce Zoldan described Tuesday as a “sad day for the Youngstown Phantoms, but also a proud day” for the USHL franchise he created in 2009.
Anthony Noreen, the Phantoms’ head coach for the past four seasons, on Tuesday became the head coach of the Orlando Solar Bears, the ECHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Pro hockey has always been a goal and the reason I’ve turned down college jobs,” said Noreen, who joined the Phantoms in 2010 as an assistant to Curtis Carr. “It’s too good of an opportunity to pass up.”
It could not have happened to someone more deserving. Noreen, 32, is one of the most positive, hard-working coaches you could ever meet.
“It’s awesome, it’s a dream come true, but it’s time to roll up the sleeves and get to work,” said Noreen, who describes himself as a process-oriented person rather than one who is results-oriented.
That’s why a favorite memory he will take to Florida is how Mike Ambrosia blossomed from a shy, introverted player into Noreen’s first team captain.
“The year I was an assistant was his rookie year,” Noreen said of the 2010-11 season. “When we did introductions at the beginning of that season, Mike was so shy that he couldn’t even look up to speak to the other guys. And he kind of mumbled under his breath.
“Fast forward [to a second season]. I’ll never forget walking into our coaches lounge after losing to Green Bay in the second round of the playoffs and seeing [Ambrosia] chin high, eyes wide, looking at every reporter in the eye, enunciating.”
Despite moments like those, Noreen’s legacy at the Covelli Centre is winning. In his four seasons as head coach, the Phantoms qualified for the postseason three times.
When Carr left the Phantoms in August 2011 to become an assistant at Merrimack College, Zoldan promoted Noreen three days later.
“I remember that moment like it was yesterday when I was interviewing with Bruce and Bill [Weimer],” said Noreen, explaining that he was “27 years old and probably said a lot of things I should not have said but I wasn’t going to leave any stone unturned.
“I’ll never forget their calling me back and telling me I had one year to prove myself.”
He did — and then some.
In Noreen’s first season, the Phantoms went 32-21-7 for fourth place in the Eastern Conference and their first playoff berth. A two-game sweep of Cedar Rapids was followed by a 3-1 series loss to Green Bay.
Noreen’s second season as head coach got off to a shaky start, at one point losing 11 of 12 games.
“How our guys responded, bouncing back by beating Green Bay, the defending champs, in the first round — special,” Noreen said.
The Phantoms advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, pushing Dubuque to Game 5 before bowing out.
Injuries wreaked havoc on the Phantoms the following season, resulting in a last-place finish.
What stood out to him was “how hard the guys practiced, and how much they genuinely enjoyed coming to the rink even though we weren’t getting the results.”
This past season was one for the ages as the Phantoms (40-14-6) finished 26 games above .500 to win the Anderson Cup as the league’s regular-season champions. A 17-game winning streak in February and March pushed the Phantoms over the top.
The USHL Coach of the Year said the players who returned from the last-place team were motivated.
“It was contagious, we just didn’t want to let anybody or any team out-do us at any moment,” Noreen said.
One of his biggest highlights was seeing Kyle Connor selected by the Winnipeg Jets with the 17th pick in last week’s NHL Draft. No Phantom (Scott Mayfield, J.J. Piccinich, Max Letunov) had ever been taken higher.
“That was a pretty special moment,” Noreen said. “There have been a lot of them.”
His players offered support, making the task feel almost too easy.
“They were great, unbelievable — they could not have handled it any better,” Noreen said. “They get it. They know this was one of my goals.
“They were pretty excited for me.”
Compared to baseball’s minor league system, the ECHL is the equivalent of Double A. It’s the right situation for a bright, enthusiastic coach like Noreen to flourish.
“The way my mind is wired, I’m obviously thrilled but those getting the biggest thrill out of it were family and friends,” Noreen said. “For me, I immediately go to what the work ahead is.”
Tom Williams is a sportswriter at The Vindicator. Write him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter, @Williams_Vindy.