Thursday, August 11, 2016

Mike Souza, UNH Associate Head Coach, Reflects On Season, Looks to Future

UNH Associate Head Coach
Mike Souza


Last July, Mike Souza was officially named Associate Head Coach of the men's hockey program at the University of New Hampshire. A few weeks later, long-time UNH Head Coach Dick Umile signed a three-year contract extension. It was reported that Coach Umile would retire at the end of the 2017-18 season and Coach Souza would succeed him as the head coach.

During Souza's illustrious playing career at UNH from the Fall of 1996 to Spring 2000, the Wildcats qualified for the NCAA tournament each season and advanced to the 1998 NCAA Frozen Four and the 1999 National Championship game. Souza was the top scorer in the 1999 Frozen Four in Anaheim where the Wildcats lost a heartbreaker in overtime to the University of Maine. He scored the crucial game-tying goal in the third period of the Championship Game. He also scored 2 goals in UNH's semifinal win over Michigan State. Souza, along with Jason Krog and Jayme Filipowicz, were named to the 1999 All-Tournament Team. Over his four-year career, Souza made the UNH Century Club scoring 66 goals and 90 assists in 156 games. He was the team captain in his senior year.



After graduation, Souza played 5 seasons in the American Hockey League then played 6 seasons of professional hockey in Europe. He began his college coaching career in the 2011-12 season as an Assistant Coach at Brown University. Following two seasons at Brown, University of Connecticut Head Coach Mike Cavanaugh hired Souza as an Assistant Coach. In his second season at UConn, Souza was promoted to Associate Head Coach.

In his first season behind the UNH bench, Souza primarily coached the defensemen and power play. He and fellow Associate Head Coach Glen Stewart spend countless hours on the recruiting trail.

I recently sat down with Associate Head Coach Mike Souza to discuss his first coaching season at UNH, the team's prospects this season, and the ingredients of a successful Division I hockey program.

Thoughts on 2015-16 Season

Mike Lowry ("C-H-C"): During your four-year playing career at UNH in the late 1990's, the team averaged 27 wins and 10 losses per season. Which obviously was an exciting time for UNH fans and it must have been great for you guys as well. Last season, the team only managed 11 wins along with 20 losses and 6 ties. I was wondering, in general, what were your overall impressions of the season and, as followups, was there something that looked like a particular accomplishment and what was the biggest disappointment?

Coach Mike Souza: Yeah, the first part obviously... you could check into this but I think our class maybe had the most wins in a four year block of any UNH hockey class. Someone mentioned that to me which if that's the case is pretty cool. Testament to the guys that were here while we were all here. Very little to do with me if anything but something to be kind of proud of.

This year was obviously disappointing, it's no secret. The past is in the past. To draw comparisons to how things were when I played isn't prudent. There are kids that are here now, who probably know very little about the way things were when we were here. I know they want to win as much as we do so they were just as disappointed as we were at the outcome of the year.

I thought our guys competed very hard every night. We didn't get the result we wanted, more occasions than not but I think if you look at the one goal games that we were in, it was a testament to the fight we had. Obviously, it's a results business and we didn't get the result we wanted most of the time.

As a general statement, it was probably a disappointing season for everyone associated with us but especially for our kids because I know that we had great senior leadership this year. I know that on the surface, you look at the record and say why, or how? I know our seniors had great years. Danny (Correale), Max (Gaudreault), (Kyle) Smitty, and obviously Collin (MacDonald)'s leadership was great. I was disappointed for that, Mike to be honest with you because I know they put everything they had into this year and they didn't get the results they wanted. The past is in the past and I'm excited about this year.

Mike Lowry: The second part of the question was about a positive accomplishment? What was the most important accomplishment this year?

Coach Souza: That's a good question. Obviously, any time you get to knock off Maine it's always exciting. I know the kids were excited about that. Honestly, I think that the experience that our returning players gained. I thought that our freshmen played very well for us. They're coming back with a year under their belt. I thought that Danny Tirone, at the end of the year, was very strong. Although we had a disappointing series against Merrimack, the fact that our returning players have a playoff series under their belt, on the road, I think those are all positives to build off of. I'm very excited about the work that they're putting in this summer.

It's hard to pinpoint one... To be honest, to pinpoint one thing would be very difficult to do. There's so many and I don't want to miss any. You're talking generalities. The overall thing for me to take away was I really thought our seniors did a really good job of being great mentors for our returning players. Although we didn't get the wins we wanted. For me, they were a very positive influence on our overall program.

This Year's Team

Lowry: You mentioned this year's team, 17 returning upper classmen and seven incoming freshmen. What do you think the team strengths will be right at the beginning of the season, from day one?

Souza: I think that we're going to have really solid goaltending. I should say I know that's a strength. Adam Clark's going to be back and I know Danny is working hard, I know Adam's working hard. I think there's going to be great competition between those two guys which I think is a tremendous positive from the start of the year.

I think we're going to have some players that are going to have the opportunity to step up in more offensive roles and I think that's what college hockey is all about. Guys graduate, guys sign, new guys step up and I think we're confident in some of the players that we have. They have the ability to come in and step into a more prominent role and be good players for us and I like our freshmen coming in. I think our freshmen have nice balance, speed, skill and size and grit and all those things that can help to make us a formidable team this year in our league.

Lowry: Do you think there will be any problems scoring goals or it will be more a question of keeping the puck out of the net?

Souza: I think that's a tough question to answer because I don't think it's fair to say that we're not going to score goals when maybe there's some players that are going have the opportunity to be in roles to score goals. Maybe they'll have the ability to score and get in a more prominent role.

I know Tyler Kelleher is one of the top players in the country and having him on your team, you know he's going to create offense. He's done it at every level and for every year here. Having him out there, having him on the power play, gives us an opportunity to score goals. Who's going to step up and do it? I think there's a lot of guys that will have that opportunity.

As for keeping the puck out of the net, like I said, I have a lot of confidence in our goaltending situation. I'm just excited to play. I as much as anyone, and I'm sure the kids want to see, they want to build off of last year's season and hopefully not relive that again.

Lowry: If you had to predict, by season's end, what do you think will be the biggest improvement as a team?

Souza: I'm not one for predictions but I think that if we could turn some of those one goal games into victories we'll put ourselves into a good position come the end of the year. I don't know Mike, I don't want to make any predictions because, I just know there's a lot of hungry kids coming back. They're eager, they're ready to get started. I've had communication with them through the summer, they're excited about coming back here just as we are. When you have a disappointing season, the athlete in you wants to get right after it again and prove that's sort of an outlier. Hopefully we're able to do that.

Winning A National Championship

Lowry: Back in the 98-99 season, you helped UNH advance to their first national championship game. I noticed looking back at your coaching career at Brown, two years at Brown and then two years at UConn, the seasons that you were there, you coached against three teams that ended up going on to win the National Championship that season. We're talking about Yale, Union, and Providence. You've seen teams play in front of you that ended up winning the National Championship that year. Based on your experience, and based on your playing experience, but also seeing these teams go on and win a National Championship, are there key ingredient that a team absolutely has to have in order to win the National Championship.

Souza: I think in any sport, you need a little bit of luck. Especially in a one game playoff type series. I think you need really strong goaltending. If you look at those three teams you mentioned, it's really strong goaltending performances - clutch goaltending performances. They got hot at the right time, which is always important. They had talented players. The funny thing about college hockey is that there are so many teams that the parity that is amazing.

Lowry: Compared to when you were playing in particular?

Souza: I don't know about that. I mean I guess, in Hockey East, back in those days, it seemed to be the core group of guys blocked near the top and that's probably changed a little bit. I think across the board the fact that you go out and win a National Championship is a testament to that. There's a lot of parity in college hockey.

I don't know if there's one key ingredient. I wish there was, I would like you to tell me what it is. I think that it's a combination of guys buying into playing for each other and getting hot at the right time. Obviously getting to the NCAA tournament is paramount. I mean you need to get to the NCAA tournament, in our league that's a difficult task. It's such a competitive league. I don't think there's anything that separates one team from the next, year to year.

It's a combination of doing a lot of things well at the right time. Whatever those things are that make your team perform at its best. Whether your a strong defensive team or strong offensive team, I think discipline is a huge part of it. Obviously competitiveness is a huge part of it but I don't think it's any one formula. Just like Pittsburgh won by being the fastest team in the league, but there's no telling that San Jose would have won being big and strong. Pittsburgh won so now everyone's going to want to be small and fast and quick up front. St. Louis has been successful and they're big. I don't think there is any one formula to win, I think it's just a matter of hitting all the things you do well at the right time. That's the only thing I would say. What those things are is up to the individual team. I do think goaltending is important, especially in a one game series. If you look at the game that we lost to Maine in 1999, the Maine goaltender played an out of his mind game. He played great and we lost. Our guy (Ty Conklin) played great too.

That's something that everyone is searching for but there is no magic formula. I think that Providence was obviously a really competitive team and Union had a great player and Gostisbehere and Yale... I remember Yale, they got hot at the right time, they just got into the tournament and they got hot at the right time and they're well coached and they collectively had a good group of players. I don't know if there's a magic formula. I wish there was.

Lowry: If you look at those three teams, they had relatively few NHL draft picks playing for them. Does that surprise you at all, teams that have one, two, three NHL draft picks can go ahead and win a National Championship against teams that look like all-star teams?

Souza: No because if you look at our 1999 team, I don't think we had very many NHL draft picks either. There's something to be said for having kids that stay three or four years. It's hard to win when you're recycling every year or every two years. I would need to dive into it a little bit more to see what trends there are but I do think that they just had good teams. Gostisbehere was at Union and he's up for rookie of the year in the NHL so he's a hell of a player. Then John Gillies was at Providence and he's a hell of a player and Yale had a really good group of players that year. All three of those teams are well coached. All three of those teams were competitive and well coached and I think that's why they won. I think they got hot at the right times but they got to the tournament. I say it all the time, if you get to the NCAA tournament, anything can happen. That's our goal.

Lowry: Historically, I think if you look at the run UNH had getting to the NCAA tournament every year for 10, 11 years, whatever it was. Often times it was because of their out of conference record. Playing games against some of the top teams in the country early in the season and winning them. That was often times the route of getting to the tournament and I can remember at least one or two years that UNH got knocked out in the quarter-finals of the Hockey East tournament and still qualified because of the strength of the schedule.

Souza: The year we played Michigan (1998 Frozen Four), remember? We lost here to Maine (Hockey East Quarterfinals). We didn't even make it to the Semis at the Garden.

Lowry: That brings up the strength of schedule. It's going to be harder given that the schedule and the teams you're playing out of conference this year. Is it going to be harder to accumulate the points that you need to get an invite to the NCAA tournament?

Souza: The PairWise formula is an algorithm beyond my math capabilities. All I know is that you're right on the money. You need to win in non-league games and the bottom line is that the more games you win the easier it is to get into the NCAA tournament. You definitely need to win your fair share of Hockey East games.

In terms of strength of schedule, I don't know... certainly, the stronger your schedule maybe gives you a little bit of wiggle room to lose a game here or there. The bottom line is that we want to win. You hit the nail on the head, you want to win the majority of non-league games. If you do that, you finish in the top half of hockey east, you've got a good chance of making to the NCAA tournament. That's about as cut and dry as it gets. You know all the Hockey East teams are going to be competitive. Last year we had six teams in the tournament, it's amazing. Six out of 16. It's a tough conference and we want to be at the top of it.

Lowry: How close do you think UNH is to having what it takes to win the National Championship? If you look at the 98-99 team, you obviously had some key ingredients in terms of scorers and goaltending and so forth. I'm assuming that you could have predicted at the beginning of that season that your team was going to be competitive and maybe go all the way to the championship game. If you looked at this year's team and maybe next year's team, how close do you think this year's team is to making it, first to the NCAA tournament and then, the ultimate goal, the National Championship?

Souza: It's tough to answer in July but I think we have seven freshmen that are going to have a chance to compete and play. What will their contribution be is unknown right now. I'd like to think that we're going to compete to make the NCAA tournament. I don't think there's any reason we can't make the NCAA tournament this year, to be honest. If you get in the NCAA tournament, like I said, anything can happen. We feel that we have really strong goaltending. I think that if we play to our capabilities, what we deem as staff our potential, there's no reason we can't make the NCAA tournament. I really believe that. I think these kids believe that and that's all that matters. I really believe that we can make the NCAA tournament this year. I hope I'm telling you that in January too.

Recruiting Philosophy

Lowry: In the recent article "AIC Surges in Recruiting Class Rankings under Eric Lang" on neutralzone.net, American International College's new head coach Eric Lang (a former AIC player) described in detail the recruiting philosophy that he has developed and how he has tailored it for AIC. Would you describe what your recruiting philosophy is in general and do you see yourself adapting your recruiting philosophy to meet the particular strengths and needs of UNH, both as a hockey program but also as an academic institution?

Souza: That's an interesting question and I probably wouldn't go into it as much as he did. I think because of all the information sharing that goes on. I do know that we have a sign that hangs in the locker room that says "How you do anything is how you do everything." It's important for us to meet kids that have high aspirations to be good in all areas of their life. Whether it's in school or the community, certainly on the hockey rink.

Good players come in all different shapes and sizes, if you're good enough, you're big enough, you're smart enough, you're fast enough. So there's no cookie cutter player that we're looking to bring to UNH. We're looking for good people that are good hockey players. I think we've got an eclectic mix of kids. Different backgrounds, they have different skill sets.

We definitely want kids that want to come play at UNH and understand our tradition, understand that playing here is a tremendous honor, and having a sense of wanting to be a part of the first group to win the National Championship here. We want guys that are driven to be pros and guys that are driven to get a degree while they're here and are willing to be pushed because I think that's our job, to push these guys. To make them better in the community, to push them towards getting their degree and pushing them toward realizing their ultimate goals of hopefully playing in the National Hockey League but if not, at the highest level of hockey possible.

So to sit here and say that this guy needs to be 6'1" and skate like Pavel Bure, that would be naïve of me to say. We want kids who are, obviously competitive, and obviously have certain skills that fit the need of what we need them to be for that particular position at that time but be a good person, and realizing that coming to UNH is a privilege. I think that the kids that are here and the kids we're recruiting, the ones we get obviously realize it.

It's something that's real personal to me because I really have a strong affection for UNH and what it's done for me and what it's done for my family, for my life. It's a privilege to be here. I realize there's a lot of people that would love to coach at UNH so I realize that it's an awesome responsibility to keep bringing kids here that share the same values of all the guys who have come before them and me and Coach Umile.

To be honest with you, we haven't talked about it but those are the values that were instilled in me by Coach Umile. I think that's what separates us, Mike, I like to think what separates us, and something I learned from him is, we treat every kid here like they're our own kids. He treated me like that, he treated every kid that's ever played here like that and that is why he has run, arguably one of the best programs in the country for the last 25 years. There's no denying that. I know we've fallen short of winning a National Championship to date but there's no denying that we've been a blue chip company and not a dot.com company for a long time and we owe that, in large part, to Dick. I really believe that. I think that, we've all, you, me, everyone wants to win the National Championship. We get it, everyone gets it. I know we will.

Lowry: After you graduated from UNH, you played several seasons in the American Hockey League. Then you played pro hockey in Switzerland and Germany your first season over in Europe and played the remainder of your career in Italy?

Souza: Yeah, I went to Italy...was contacted about going to Italy. Someone found out I might be able to get my Italian passport and the reason I left Germany to go to Italy was with the hope of trying to play in the Vancouver Olympics in 2010. So I was going to have to play two years in Italy to be eligible to play for their National Team. It was sort of a decision that my wife and I made and one that I certainly never regretted. We had the time of our lives.

I played two years in the Italian Serie A Hockey League then I played on Italy's National Team so I ended up just staying in Italy. It worked out well for us. That's how that whole thing came about. At the time, there was a UNH guy that was running the Italian National Team - a guy by the name of Mickey Goulet (UNH,'69) and I was in contact with him. I still had to play as an import in Italy for two years. We fell a game short of making the Olympics. We lost an unbelievable game to Latvia in Riga, so never had the opportunity to play in the Olympics but was fortunate enough to play at some World Championships for Team Italy which was a lot of fun. It was a way to extend my career a little bit longer.

Lowry: One of the trends that seems to be happening in the last few years is there are more and more international kids committing to US colleges to play hockey. Has the UNH Men's hockey program ever had an international player?

Souza: Not that I know of.

Lowry: Obviously, Canada doesn't count as international. Is that something you would be interested in? Do you feel that you have knowledge of the junior landscape in Europe?

Souza: This gets back a little bit to the recruiting philosophy. I do think there's a lot of really good players in Europe, certain countries in particular. I also think there's a lot of really good players here in North America. I always say there's a really good play in Helsinki but there might be a better one in Boston so I think that just because the kid's a European doesn't mean it's going to help your program more than the kid from North America. But I do believe that there are a lot of benefits to having international players. It's a market that we've been involved with so we'll see where it goes. I think that when I was at Connecticut and at Brown we were able to bring some European kids to both of those programs. We want to get the best possible players for our program and it doesn't matter necessarily where they come from.

Lowry: I think that the AIC coach, in the extensive interview that he had, said that was part of the mission of the University, American International College obviously, and that was partly why they sought out juniors from Scandinavia or wherever.

Souza: I think that if it was the right fit for us we would welcome a kid from anywhere, but he's got to be the right fit for our program.

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