Tom Coolen: a life in ice hockey filled with travels and great memories

Tom Coolen could have been in Italy this autumn. Instead he is sitting back in Betty Nicols with a lunchtime pint of Guinness talking hockey - a sport that has taken him around the globe and created friendships, and given him, experiences and memories that could fill an ice rink several times over.
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After 40 years of coaching, his enthusiasm for the game remains undiminished. In little more than one month in town, he has tapped into the passion of the fan base, and given them a team to get excited about once more. Merano’s loss has been Kirkcaldy’s gain.

Tom wrapped last season coaching in Slovakia and Romania on the back of three years in Poland - the list of countries he has worked in nudges around a dozen - but had no firm plans to coach after landing back home in Canada.

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“My wife said I’d drive her crazy sitting around, so if I got a job in a place that was really nice that’d be good,” he said. “I got offered a post in Italy. The club was good but it wasn’t the league I wanted, and then a call from my agent told me about Fife. I had an interest in the UK, and I’d wanted to go to Scotland – I’m a big Braveheart fan! - and I thought this would be a place I’d like to coach.”

Tom Coolen on the bench (Pic: Scott Wiggins)Tom Coolen on the bench (Pic: Scott Wiggins)
Tom Coolen on the bench (Pic: Scott Wiggins)

The offer from Flyers included the chance to build his own team - another key reason for coming. Tom Muir, owner, offered him the job on the Friday. The following day he broke the bad news to his Italian club, and set about recruiting a host of new imports. It was a busy, productive summer.

“It feels good and it feels right,” he said. “I’ve been coaching for 40 years - I guess it’s fun and when you do well, people call. I’ve been around long enough that a lot of players I coached are now in positions of administration and management. I always had good relationships with them - treat guys with respect and they’ll call you back.”

Dressing-rooms and ice pads have been his second home all his life. At the age of 69 he is still hooked on hockey, and can still be found firing pucks and running drills at each practice, even if one of the early shifts left him with a cut hand and bruises on his hip. Drops of blood from a cut finger were still fresh on his glove when we met for the first time.

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His engaging manner has gone down well with the fan base, and he has quickly been welcomed into the community - as we ate, folk came up to say hello and wish him well. He’s still tuning into the local accent though!

Tom Coolen on the bench at Fife Ice Arena (Pic: Jillian McFarlane)Tom Coolen on the bench at Fife Ice Arena (Pic: Jillian McFarlane)
Tom Coolen on the bench at Fife Ice Arena (Pic: Jillian McFarlane)

A native of Halifax, Nova Scotia, Tom laced up aged eight or nine - “I was a late starter, but I had enough drive and I wanted to play” - but sport quickly became a huge part of his life as a player, coach, motivator; someone who builds and leads teams.

He also played baseball, turning out in the Canada Games, and was a running back in American Football - “I was doing two-three sports when others just did one! - but hockey was his focal point. Tom played junior before making his first journey to Europe in his early 20s, playing with Utrecht in Holland. He came from a hockey town, but one that didn’t have the infrastructure for players to develop that way it does now, hence the early journey to Europe.

“Nobody pushed you forward back then,” he said. “Three guys I grew up with and trained with went to the NHL, and there were a lot of great players coming out of college, but there weren’t the leagues for young players to aspire to. When the leagues expanded into Atlantic Canada that was a huge deal. It meant every kid playing hockey could visualise where they could go.”

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Tom continued to play, returning home to Halifax where he studied - his degrees include kinesiology, athletics coaching and, more recently, a Masters in counseling and sports psychology - and then made the move into coaching as well as teaching.

“Some people said I was the last guy that they thought would be a coach,” he revealed, describing himself as “a renegade” but the ability to mould individuals into teams and get the best out of them has taken him to the very highest level and created a number of decorated teams.

Speak to the players in Flyers’ dressing room and they’ll tell you how they enjoy his high-tempo training sessions, and the support he gives and the atmosphere he creates in the room where teams bond. Video footage of him in the room after a big win in Dundee saw him specifically praise Fynn Page for his goal and his fight with import Johnny Walker; small, but important moments of recognition that helped the team to a fine victory.

Four seasons as assistant coach at New Brunswick and the Ferris State University led to Acadia Axemen at the University of Arcadia. He spent eight seasons coaching there, and led the organisation to a first ever national championship in 1993. He was inducted into Acadia’s Hall of Fame in 2015.

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“It was a jump up from assistant coach. Expectations were not super high but mine were, and we built a great team. We became a top level team, and there was a real sense of pride at becoming national champions. We were a good team at a school people wanted to go to - winning those championships generated a lot of publicity for the college.”

His skates took him University of New Brunswick, Moncton Wildcats in the QMJHL and the St John Flames in the AHL before the dawn of the Millennium saw him stretch out and depart for Italy, the first in series of new territories - Austria, Switzerland, Finland, Latvia, Germany, Denmark and Poland were all to beckon.

That Moncton link was also pivotal to his story. Tom served as assistant coach to Ted Nolan, and their working relationship took them from New Brunswick and the QMJHL, to Latvia and the world championships and Winter Olympics, and on to the NHL. The very pinnacle of the hockey mountain

Every role comes with stories and memories which could fill a book, but Tom picks out one as the ultimate pinch-me moment.

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In 2014, he and Nolan took Latvia to the winter Olympics and came within one goal of upsetting Team Canada in the quarter-finals.

“A Canadian coaching against Team Canada at the Olympics.” he recalled with a smile. “They were expected to win gold, and to have lost to us would have been the biggest upset in the `1980 Miracle On Ice when USA beat Russia.

“We played Sweden, the Czechs and Swiss - teams packed with NHLers. We beat the Swiss to qualify for the quarter-finals - unreal! It was the best ever finish by a Latvian team in international competition. Against Canada everyone in the hockey world watched this game. We kept going and were tied at 1-1. We accomplished everything we could have dreamed off.”

When NHL star Sidney Crosby steps into your dressing-room post game and congratulates you on how you played, it really doesn’t get much better - but it did.

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En route back from Sochi, Nolan got a call at Frankfurt Airport from the president of Buffalo Sabres. He found himself en route to Toronto for dinner and a ticket to the NHL. Tom’s role with the Latvian national team expanded before making the move to Buffalo the next season.

“We had worked our way up to the NHL, and world championships coaching against the very best players in the world, so I didn’t find the jump too big, but Buffalo were going through a tough time. It was a tremendous coaching challenge.

“The team owners looked at last place so they could get the best draft pick. We wanted to win as many games as we could with a young team. We didn’t have all the talent of the other teams but we worked hard and fought hard and competed, We beat Toronto 3-1 in games, and won our series against Montreal - those were accomplishments

“To get through it with our heads up was a great result. With the group we remained together and supported each other.”

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Tom’s NHL journey ended when the organisation removed Nolan and he spent two seasons with Grand Falls Windsor Cataracts before returning to Europe to coach GKS Katowice where Shane Owen was one of their netminders.

He led them into the Continental Cup where a visit to take on Belfast Giants gave him his first insight into the British hockey scene. With his daughter studying at Cork University, it was also a chance to spend some time with family. Coming to Scotland also opens those doors once again. Tom’s wife and son have both been to Kirkcaldy and loved the town.

“I love it, I am really having fun,” he said. “I have a great group of guys in the dressing room that I have been talking to over the past few years. I’m enjoying working with the people at the rink, and getting round town, and love where I live. I grew up on the water so it is good to be here.”

That ability to get the best out of athletes is the goal of every coach. Amid all the hockey on successes, one other landmark stands out - in volleyball, a sport Tom amidst he knows little about.

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The story of how he came to be co-coach of the St. Thomas University men’s team that won the Atlantic Colleges Athletic Association championship isn’t one you’d expect to find on a hockey coach’s CV, and comes down to his contacts and his winning reputation.

“I was at home and got a call from a good friend, Mike Eagles, who was the athletics director at St Thomas University. My son played volleyball and he wanted to recruit him. The team had been paused for a year so I helped to rebuild it - I like the psychology side and motivating players. We finished fourth in the league and won the championship.”

His team was filled with rookies up against a top-ranked team. It savoured a win that would stay with the players for the rest of their lives.

In an interview with The Aquinian, the university’s official student publication, he described the joy it brought: “That moment that we won was as exciting to me as anything I’ve ever been able to accomplish with my teams as a hockey coach. I really didn’t know any of the players from last year’s team. I just looked ahead. I never looked back at all.”

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With master’s degrees in athletic coaching and counselling, Tom - then one of only two people in the province certified by the Canadian Sports Psychology Association - also knew how to get the best out of a first-year team, starting with his belief in training at game tempo; his ‘work hard and like it’ ethos which will chime with Flyers’ players as they lace up for each morning training session.

His sports psychology training also got the team ready physically and mentally for the challenge on court. For volleyball read ice hockey.

“It doesn’t matter what the game is, coaching is coaching sometimes. It’s directing people and trying to develop people,” he told the university paper.

Both missions sit at the heart of his role at Flyers where the first month of hockey has given everyone the injection of energy and enthusiasm the club needed. There are many tough challenges still to come, but life in Fife is proving hugely enjoyable.

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As we depart, another fan wishes him well and promises to be back rinkside- his side’s impressive start to the new season has not gone un-noticed. Saturday nights might just become hockey nights once again for many more lapsed fans.

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