CEDAR RAPIDS – Mark Carlson has had multiple opportunities over the years to take other jobs in hockey. He had a well-publicized flirtation this past summer with the University of Massachusetts, for instance, before turning down an offer to be the school’s head coach.
Carlson has over 400 wins in his established career, has been named the league’s Coach of the Year twice and was recognized as the United States Olympic Committee Development Coach of the Year in 2009. The RoughRiders have won the Anderson Cup twice for most regular-season points in the USHL and the Clark Cup championship in 2004-05.
Over 130 of his players have received Division I college scholarships, 21 have been selected in the National Hockey League draft, 24 have signed NHL contracts and 11 have played in the league.
The Gazette sat down with Carlson Wednesday for an interview about his career and why an East Coast guy (born and raised in New Jersey) is still in Iowa.
Q: You are so well thought of nationally in the hockey community and have had chances to take other jobs. Why are you still here?
A: (Laughs) I just think that the league is so special. I think that Cedar Rapids is so special. The city itself, the people of Cedar Rapids and the facility – there are so many positive things here. And then when you start to look at the league itself, I was thinking about this today. You work with your staffs on putting these teams together. You’ve got a centerman from Finland, a left winger from Stoney Creek, Ontario, a center-left wing from Richmond Hill, Ontario, a right winger from Winnipeg, Manitoba, a defenseman from New Hampshire, goalies from New Jersey and Detroit. You have an opportunity to work with this group of 25 people every year with the challenge of helping them come together as a group and helping them as individuals. I don’t know if there’s any other opportunity in hockey where you can feel like you are playing an important part in helping young people, young players in ways you can impact the rest of their lives in a positive way. Where else can you get that?
Obviously there are pluses to college (hockey) or the (professional) American League. No doubt. In the NHL, you are still having impacts. But to have the greatest impact you can possibly have, is there a greater place to be than in junior hockey and the United States Hockey League?
Q: Those are obviously the best things about your job. But what are the worst things?
A: The worst part, and it’s something you can’t control, is that sometimes you lose players September 1 (beginning of camp). It happens. You spend all summer (recruiting), but when September 1 rolls around, you lose a player (to another league) somehow. You scramble, and that’s our job. But if that’s the worst part, then it’s not that bad.
Q: Do you spend time reflecting back on the 14 years here and what you’ve built? If so, what goes through your mind?
A: I reflect on getting the opportunity to build a program in this community. To build a program that hopefully people are proud of. That when they come out to see us, they are proud of the way we work and the people that we have. That our young men contribute to the community is a big positive. Those are the things that I reflect on. Then, of course, all the players that you have worked with.
Yeah, there definitely is pride. But it’s being just a part of it. It’s all the people that come to the games, and the building we have. The great ownership that we have, all the people that I’ve worked with here. Just doing it together with everybody. You’re not going to win a championship every year, but when you’re helping young people and you feel like it’s an important part of the community and that you’re helping the community become as good as it can be, then that’s pretty good stuff.
Q: Have there been times, especially considering all the ownership issues this franchise has had over the years, where you thought ‘What in the hell am I doing here?
A: Yeah, there have been times where (wife) Tammy and I would be sitting there and saying ‘Are we going to get through this thing?’ As everybody knows, we’ve had lots of great owners. There was a fair amount of turnover, but everybody has always been great to us. The group that we have now is just fabulous. Tammy and I have been really, really fortunate to work with the Sdaos and the Jauchs and all the other people we work with. We’re really thankful.
Q: How driven are you to win another Clark Cup?
A: Very. Lots of things have to fall together for you. You’ve got to work at it, stay with it every day. I always say that at this level you are always striving to be great, striving to win every, single day. But it is certainly not a win-at-all-cost type of thing. You are trying to help people improve as people, improve as players, help them move on. I think championships are a by-product of doing all the right things.
Q: What was your best day here?
A: Oh, that’s a tough one. (Pause) I think some of my best days are when you get a call from a former player. Not that everyone has to make the NHL to be a success story, but when a player calls and says ‘Hey, I’ve got a choice of three NHL teams to sign me.’ Some of those players didn’t start out as stars, but they worked every day, were resilient and relentless and found a way to sign a National Hockey League contract. For me to know that I was a small part of that, that’s hard to beat.
Q: What was your worst day here?
A: I don’t know if there has been a worst day, per se. You remember times like coming back from Omaha late one night, and I think we had three guys in the hospital. Pulling the bus up, knowing that. We had the one night here about four years ago when Mac Bennett broke his ankle (during a playoff game) and Sam Warning broke his collarbone. Those are tough times. But you teach the kids about that. How you’ve got to bounce back and find a way.
Q: Have you changed as a coach in 14 years and how?
A: I think I’ve learned to be a little more patient, but hopefully just as demanding. I think you just change as a coach in general. You’re always learning every day, trying to learn things during the offseason every season. I’ve always tried to adapt year to year to try and make ourselves better.
Q: Who are your biggest coaching influences? You look at the books on your office shelves and you see stuff from John Wooden, Vince Lombardi and even (former General Electric CEO) Jack Welch.
A: I like taking a lot from a lot of successful people. And I’m not just saying this, but my mom and dad have had a huge impact on me, in terms of details and trying to do things the right way. The work ethic and all those things we try to bring to our team. I have just enjoyed studying a lot of different people from afar. People in different sports. You look at someone like (former Major League Baseball manager) Joe Torre for me is one of the best at managing a group, working with a group and staying poised and composed. For me, that’s the most important part of coaching. To be able to work with a group of 20-something people.
Q: What are your career aspirations, and have they changed?
A: I just really kind of look at it as a day-to-day kind of thing. I want to keep operating this program to the best of my ability. Help the young people here, work with ownership, the front office to have the best possible program we can. That’s my daily goal. To do junior hockey better than we’ve done it. Keep improving. We’re doing a lot more stuff with the RoughRiders, working with a lot of youth groups. We’re doing a lot of conference calls, doing seminars with the youth (teams) that are underneath us. Between here, Colorado and the East Coast, we’ve got hundreds of players now under the RoughRider umbrella. For me, to get the opportunity to talk with those coaches and share some of the things that were shared with me is exciting. My responsibilities are a lot different now than they were maybe even a year ago.
Q: Will there be a day when Mark Carlson coaches hockey somewhere other than in Cedar Rapids?
A: That’s really hard to say. We’ve got a lot of great things going here. We’re just really encouraged with where this is going. I feel lucky today, but I could feel even luckier in a couple of years by still being with the RoughRiders.
ON TAP: The Cedar Rapids RoughRiders open the home portion of the 2012-13 United States Hockey League season with games Friday night against Fargo and Saturday night against Youngstown. Opening faceoff is scheduled for 7:05.
SCOUTING REPORT: The Riders won their season opener last Saturday night in Green Bay, 4-1. Defenseman Gavin Bayreuther had a pair of goals, with Bryson Cianfrone and Judd Peterson also scoring. Chad Catt made 28 saves in goal for the win. Sioux Falls won its game last weekend in overtime against Sioux City, 3-2. Youngstown features perhaps the top player in the league in forward Austin Cangelosi.
PROMOTIONS: 2012-13 magnet schedules will be handed out to fans both nights. Fans can skate with the players following Saturday night’s game.
TICKETS: $14 to $20 at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena box office (261-GOAL) or online at www.ridertownusa.com.