By Tom Williams
The Youngstown Phantoms’ winningest coach is back in town. Tonight, he’ll be at the Covelli Centre, but this time he’ll be patrolling the visitors’ bench.
After coaching the ECHL’s Orlando Solar Bears for one full season plus 11 games, Anthony Noreen is back in the USHL.
“Excited,” said Noreen of his return to Ohio. “It will be great to see [familiar faces] around the [arena].
“I’m sure I will feel some emotions when I step on to the rink.”
Noreen is the head coach/general manager of the Tri-City Storm, the second-place team in the USHL’s Western Conference.
Phantoms head coach Brad Patterson, Noreen’s assistant coach for the four seasons he was Phantoms head coach (2011-15), is happy his friend is back.
“I’m excited to coach against him,” Patterson said. “We’re competitive, it doesn’t matter what, and I think that’s why we have such a good relationship.”
Patterson was not surprised when Noreen left professional hockey to again coach juniors.
“If you’re not coaching in the NHL or AHL, I think [the USHL] is arguably the best league, Patterson said. “Anthony has shown, not only at this level but at the next level, that he can be successful.”
Noreen had plenty of time to choose his next destination after the Solar Bears, the ECHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs, dismissed him in the fall of 2016.
In the 2015-16 ECHL season, Noreen guided Orlando to a 33-30-4-5 record. The Solar Bears then got off to a 5-5-1 start, which prompted ownership to fire Noreen because there were not enough wins at home.
Among the opportunities tempting Noreen were assistant positions in the American Hockey League and ECHL as well as with college teams. What he wanted most was the chance to work with an owner who agreed with his priorities.
“I wanted to coach somewhere where my morals were aligned with the vision of ownership,” said Noreen, whose coaching philosophy is to develop players on and off the ice.
Noreen connected with Kirk Brooks, owner of the Tri-City Storm, which finished in last place in the USHL’s Western Conference in the 2016-17 season.
“A lot of what he said about what his goals were and how to handle things, were similar to what Bruce Zoldan told me when he hired me,” Noreen said.
Zoldan co-owns the Phantoms with Troy and Aafke Loney, who run the team’s day-to-day operations.
Noreen’s USHL magic hasn’t deserted him. Tri-City (19-8-1-1, 40 points) is three points behind first-place Fargo in the Western Conference.
“It’s not a shock at all,” Patterson said of the Storm’s surge. “Anthony is a great motivator, he has a great hockey mind.”
It’s been on display since Noreen joined the Phantoms for their second season in 2010. Midway through the first USHL season, Zoldan promoted Curtis Carr to head coach. Patterson joined the staff as an assistant. That summer, Noreen came on board as the other assistant.
After the Phantoms second season, Carr left for Merrimack College and Noreen was promoted to head coach/general manager in August 2011.
Over Noreen’s four seasons as head coach, the Phantoms made the playoffs three times. In the 2013 playoffs, the Phantoms came within one victory of the Clark Cup Finals, losing to the eventual champion Dubuque Fighting Saints in Game 5 of the best-of-five series.
Two seasons later, Noreen was the USHL’s Coach of the Year after the Phantoms were awarded the Anderson Cup as the USHL’s best regular-season team. That season’s highlight was a league-record 17-game winning streak.
“He’s helped me a lot,” said Patterson who became the Phantoms head coach in June 2016 after John Wroblewski took over the Team USA 18-U squad after one season as Phantoms head coach. “I give him a ton of credit.
“The coaching staff we’ve had over the past eight seasons was willing to learn from each other and push each other to get better.”
Under Noreen, the Phantoms went 126-99-19 in the regular season and 9-10 in the Clark Cup Playoffs. His departure led to the promotion of Jason Koehler from assistant general manager to general manager
Last season, Patterson guided the Phantoms to a fourth playoff berth. Youngstown was eliminated by the Chicago Steel in Game 5 of their best-of-five series.
Many players from Noreen’s time in Youngstown have gone on to do well in college and in the NHL. Kyle Connor was a Hobey Baker Trophy finalist in his one season at the University of Michigan and now is one of the Winnipeg Jets’ top scorers.
Andrej Sustr has been a solid defenseman for the Tampa Lightning for four seasons. Defenseman Scott Mayfield recently signed a contract extension with the New York Islanders. Forward Sam Anas is playing for the Minnesota Wild’s AHL affiliate. Jiri Sekac will represent the Czech Republic in the Winter Olympics. Australian Nate Walker has played this season with the Washington Capitals.
Noreen is not surprised at how Patterson guided the Phantoms to a playoff berth in his first head coaching job or that they are again postseason contenders.
“I never looked at Brad as an assistant — to me, he was a co-coach,” Noreen said. “He was more than prepared.”
The Phantoms (14-12-3-1, 32 points) are among the eight Eastern Conference teams seeking the four playoff berths. The Phantoms are tied with Muskegon and Dubuque for fourth place.
“We’ve got to get back on a roll,” Patterson said. “Consistency from everybody has got to be there.”