Bernie John Q&A

Catching up with the coach in the early stages of the offseason

May 10, 2017

With his contract freshly renewed for 2017-18, Head Coach and VP of Hockey Operations Bernie John is embarking on his second offseason at the helm of the Fuel. The summer months are an interesting time for ECHL coaches; since every player on the league is on a one-year contract, each team essentially has to build their team from scratch each season. While the final four teams in the Kelly Cup Playoffs prepare for the Conference Finals, the remaining 23 clubs are eagerly awaiting June 16 – the first day they can sign players for the 2017-18 campaign.

Even though the last traces of ice are long gone from the Indiana State Fairgrounds, and the focus around town is now on the Indy 500 and baseball, within his office at Indiana Farmers Coliseum John is already hard at work for the hockey season. Lists of prospective players sprawl across the whiteboards surrounding his desk, along with a calendar counting down to a few key dates coming over the next couple of months. For instance, each ECHL team must complete all pending future considerations deals before submitting their end-of-season roster on June 15. On July 1, each team will announce their list of qualified players – a maximum of eight players with whom they have can claim exclusive negotiating rights with for 2017-18.

With the added hindsight of a year’s experience under his belt, John’s first few weeks of the offseason have consisted of preparing his plan of attack for constructing a roster to improve on last year’s disappointing result. His goal is simple, to use the momentum from a strong finish to 2016-17 to guide the Fuel to the Kelly Cup Playoffs in 2018.

Soon, he will not be alone in this endeavor. In addition to John’s extension, Fuel Chairman Jim Hallett’s other announcement on April 24 was that the club would be adding a full time assistant coach for the first time. Previously, the club’s assistant coaches all contributed on a part-time basis, which left nearly the entirety of the day-to-day work of running a team to the head bench boss.

Coach John took the chance to chat with IndyFuelHockey.com, sharing what he learned in his first go-round as an ECHL head coach while explaining what to expect from his club moving forward to the 2017-18 season.

Indy Fuel: Now that you have had a couple of weeks to step back and reflect, analyze your first season as Fuel head coach.

Bernie John: It didn’t really go as planned. Obviously when you sign on to take on a task you look to be successful, but seeing how the season panned out that wasn’t the case. We need to fix some things heading into next season and make sure we get off on the right foot come October.

In the meantime, we have to make the right player personnel moves and really do our homework on the guys coming in. You look back at a few things that happened last year, and when guys leave the team to go to Europe or go back to school it really hurts your organization, because you not only lose players but you lose trade assets as well. It’s hard to improve your club when you when you don’t have enough bodies in the room to make the necessary moves. We will monitor that better this upcoming season.

There was a lot of turnover from two years ago to last season, and we want to keep that to minimum next season. The good teams I played on or been involved with didn’t have a lot of changes from year to year, so the guys you have can build a bond with each other. However, sometimes circumstances can change that you have to make moves whether you like it or not.

I learned a lot on the coaching side. Times are different now than when I played, and you really have to understand players and how to motivate them.

IF: What were some of the most difficult challenges you had to face last season?

BJ: So much of it was just getting used to a lot of the things you had to do day in and day out on the General Manager side. Coaching the team was only one side of the job, I had to learn how to better understand the league and how to juggle a number of different things at once. It took some getting used to managing all the player movement and processing all of the transactions, especially when it came to managing the salary cap in a way that can best suit your team on the ice. Again, with some of the departures, injuries and call-ups we had to deal with, many times the GM side of my job took away from the time I could spend scouting, drawing up game plans and breaking down game film.

IF: The team played extremely well down the stretch in 2016-17, to what do you attribute the strong finish?

BJ: The guys just started to buy into a few things and everyone became familiar with each other. We had extra bodies for the first time in a while – when you have the ability to rotate players in and out of the lineup, it can really make a difference.

IF: Although obviously the record wasn’t where you wanted it to be, what things from this past season can you build on from year 1 to year 2?

BJ: Our record was terrible, that will be better this season. Knowing the players you have really helps in building a team. Being able to identify some of the players that are about to be free agents that we have high interest in can go a long way in building the type of team we want. In addition to that, I think there is a good core of guys we like that finished the season with us that we want to have to back. You look at all the teams that are having success and they all have a core group of guys that have been together for 3-4 years. That in turn can also be a big help when it comes to recruiting.

IF: What are a few things you are going to try and do differently heading into next season?

BJ: Some things need to change heading to the upcoming season. We have to defend in our zone better, and our special teams need to be at the top of the league. I am planning to add more speed to our team, and I want find a true offensive defenseman that can control our power play. The game is a speed game and that’s what we want to create here, but also we know we need to be tougher in our own end. We need guys that want to make a commitment to the defensive zone.

IF: What kinds of things are you looking for out of the new assistant coach, and how will having another full-time hockey operations staffer make your day-to-day job different?  

BJ: Most of all we’re looking for someone with some experience and who can win. We’re not looking for someone to just hang out and spend time with the players, but someone who can bring value to the team. Having another full-time coach will take a few things off my plate and allow me to focus on a few more things that I wasn’t able to really dive into this last season.  The assistant will have a role in some of our structure and schemes, which will allow me to give more attention to other areas.

IF: What is it like as a coach seeing some of your former players thrive at the next level, with Ben Marshall, Justin Holl and Kevin Lynch all still competing in the AHL playoffs and Evan Mosey winning a Gold Medal for Great Britain at the World Championships?

BJ: I’m very happy for those guys. Aside from the wins and losses, giving our players the opportunity to succeed at the next level is what this league is about.

IF: How have you spent the first few weeks of the offseason?

BJ: Really just been putting together list of players, from amateurs, veterans, AHL rosters and guys that were in Europe last season. I’ve been reaching out with player agents to let them know that we have interest in some of their players and when free agency opens up we would like to have discussions about the upcoming season. I have been reaching out to coaches of  amateur players in college and junior to get a take on the person these kids are and if their game can translate to the pro level.

IF: Have you been watching the Kelly Cup Playoffs at all? Who is your pick to win from the final four teams?

BJ: I have definitely been paying attention. I’m not so much interested in which team is going to win, but I’m trying to find the players that could be available for next season, figure out which ones we like and watch how they are performing.

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