As a youth player in his native Cobourg, Ontario, Dan Gadbois first learned how hockey is supposed to be played.
“That’s where you learned how to be a tough hockey player,” he said. “The coaches would whack you on the head if you weren’t doing something right.
“I was extremely fortunate to learn how to play the game the right way from some very good coaches,” he added. “We had three players on my junior team go on to play in the NHL. We would just play hockey all day long.”
Gadbois, 65, hasn’t resorted to physically intimidating his Grand Haven varsity hockey players during his six years as the program’s head coach, but he has stressed an old-school approach based on hard work and being physical on the ice.
His message is resonating loud and clear, as Grand Haven recently clinched its first regional title in the program’s 13-year history following Saturday’s 6-2 win against Forest Hills Northern/Eastern. The Bucs look to extend their magical postseason run this evening in the Division 2 state quarterfinals against Saginaw Heritage. The puck drops at 7 p.m. at Ferris State University’s Robert Ewigleben Ice Arena in Big Rapids.
Gadbois said he hasn’t enjoyed more of a thrilling experience during his coaching career than his recent success with the Bucs. He got his start in coaching in 1970 with a Bantam minor league team, but took an extended break from the bench when his employer, Chemetron, transferred Gadbois to the company’s headquarters in Holland.
“I’m long retired now,” Gadbois said. “I guess if you call this retirement.”
His passion for the sport eventually drew him back into coaching, first with the West Ottawa junior varsity team, then on to Grand Haven, where he assisted at the same level.
He was promoted to the Bucs’ varsity program in 2007-08 in a time when it needed a breath of fresh air. Grand Haven had just dropped down to the lowest level — Tier 3 — in the O-K Conference following an 8-16-2 record.
But the Bucs slowly began to turn things around, and Gadbois credits the rejuvenation of the program to the players who remained loyal to their school instead of opting to play travel hockey in Grand Rapids or the Detroit area.
“We’ve been fortunate to have some great kids stick it out here, like Luke Reenders, Conor Fredricks, Jake Kramer, and Will VerDuin to name a few,” Gadbois said. “The players have a choice. All of them could have easily decided they’d rather go play travel hockey somewhere, but they wanted to represent their school.
“When we got Jake Kramer and VerDuin that second year, that’s when it really started to take off.”
It’s been a steady progression ever since, cumulating with Grand Haven winning the Tier 2 conference championship two years ago, and moving up to Tier I last season.
With the jump up, it’s allowed Gadbois to schedule tougher opponents and implement his message that his youth coaches stressed — toughness equals success.
“I’ve always tried to get the toughest schedule I can,” he said. “I’ll do the same thing next year if I can. Before, it was a case where we’d try to schedule tough, but teams would simply turn us down. But once you get recognized, that’s when they’ll agree to play.
“I’ve always believed in facing the toughest competition possible. Even if it meant some losses and rough stretches, you’ll eventually see the benefits.”
The rough stretches this season included two lopsided losses to rival Mona Shores, and setbacks to east side programs from Northville, Salem and Flint Powers.
One of the problems, Gadbois said, was the Bucs were blowing too many leads.
“One of the things we accomplished was we toughened them up,” Gadbois said. “The kids were too soft, so we dialed it up in practice. Things come too easy for kids nowadays.
“You have to be physical out there, like finishing your checks. That wears the other team down. Now I’m not talking about being a goon out there, because you have to play disciplined. There’s a fine line there.”
As a result, Grand Haven wasn’t intimidated last week Wednesday entering enemy territory against an offensive powerhouse in No. 2-ranked Traverse City Central, or the Trojans’ raucous home crowd that supported them.
“We’ve been there before (in that type of situation),” Gadbois said. “Now, it’s no big deal.”
Gadbois said the Bucs are now riding a wave of confidence entering their showdown against Saginaw Heritage (23-5). They’re welcoming back sophomore Bodhi Nicosia from a broken arm, which gives the Bucs’ depth at center and three strong lines; and riding a hot goalie in senior Zach Kooi.
“We played (Division 1 state-ranked Salem) earlier in the year and it was a high-tempo game and we stayed right with them over at their place,” Gadbois said. “We believe we can play with any one in the state,” Gadbois said.