By CLAUDE SCILLEY
Nebraska, it seems, agrees with Jim Hulton.
“I like to describe it as Napanee on steroids,” said Hulton, the Wolfe Island ex-pat hockey coach who plies his trade in the town of Kearney, in the south end of a prairie state where corn is No. 1 and football a close second—except, perhaps, on alternate Saturdays in the fall.
“It reminds me a lot of Napanee,” Hulton said, “only it’s about three times the size. Outstanding people. The people of the midwest are unbelievably friendly, warm, outgoing people. It’s been a lot of fun, really enjoyable.”
The town has rallied around the Tri-City Storm, the United States Hockey League junior club Hulton joined in November, 2013. Seven of the last eight crowds have been in excess of 3,000 fans, which, Hulton says, isn’t bad for a town of 30,000.
Of course, it helps when the hockey club is winning, as it has done this season. After inheriting a team that was seven games under .500 when he arrived a year and a half ago, Hulton brought the Storm home 11 games below break-even, with the third-worst record in the 16-team league, the pre-eminent junior circuit in the U.S.
This year the Storm improved by 16 victories (37-17-6), finished second in its division, and opened the playoffs Tuesday with a 2-1 victory over intra-state rival Omaha.
“It’s been a good group,” Hulton said. “It’s been a lot of fun to coach them, right from Day One.”
The reasons for improvement are not atypical. At least half of the roster is new, as Hulton and his associates determined that in order to be competitive, the team needed to be “bigger, older and faster.”
“We lost a lot of man-games to injuries a year ago, and we thought a lot of it attributed to the fact that we were just too small,” he explained, “and we are quite a bit bigger. We play a bit of a grind style but we’ve been able to avoid the injury bug compared to the last couple of seasons. That’s been a big difference, and the other one that jumps out is the fitness level. We didn’t think we were in near good enough shape last year, so we pushed that envelope in the off season and, to our players’ credit, they all came to camp in extremely good shape, which gave us a leg up at the beginning.”
Not to be discounted, however, is a subtle maturation in Hulton himself. “Over the years,” he said, “one thing I’ve learned is to be a lot more democratic, a lot more collective.”
The players have responded well to discussing systems and such, rather than simply having them drilled into their collective will.
“We do more one-on-one meetings than I’ve ever done in the past, and probably 75 per cent of it is non-hockey stuff,” Hulton said. “It’s making sure school’s all right, billets are all right, generally ‘How are things?’
“Looking back, I wish I would have done it more in the past but I think the nature of the players has changed a lot. They need a lot more individual feedback, and that makes it a lot more comfortable if things aren’t going well off the ice. I think we’ve stemmed any problems early and we can relay that to the captains to just keep an eye on them.
“It’s a more collective approach than it used to be in the old days.”
Not that the old days were anything to be ashamed of. After coaching in the Ontario Hockey League for 10 seasons—during which time he was an assistant with Canadian teams that won silver and gold medals at world junior championships—Hulton followed a year coaching the varsity at Royal Military College with three years as an assistant coach with the Florida Panthers of the NHL.
Being more communicative wasn’t difficult, Hulton says. “With getting older, and being a father myself”—his sons, Lucas and Jimmy, are now seven and 10—“I have a better understanding of the need for that.
“It’s the one challenge for coaches in all sports, to stay current with how kids learn and what their needs are. It’s an ever-evolving thing. I’ve actually enjoyed it. You get to know the kids on a personal level, and they get to know you a little bit more.
“They don’t seem to take the criticisms quite as harshly when they realize there’s another side to you.”
Hulton spoke of a player who lost his mother to cancer last summer. “We obviously knew it was coming, but we just made sure we spent a lot of time with him, aside from hockey. He struggled through most of the season with the hockey end of it, but we didn’t really care about that. We just spent time with him as a person and I think that’s a big step.
“Years ago I’d probably get so focused on the technical aspect of the game that you sometimes lost the personal side of it. One thing we’ve learned, over time, is that if the person’s not feeling good about himself, for whatever reason, the technical side really doesn’t make any difference.”
Hulton’s family stays in Kingston during the school year but they’re visiting him now, “here to enjoy a bit of the playoffs,” he says. He’s looking forward to coming home for the summer, where he will coach his oldest boy’s baseball team.
“They needed somebody to hit ground balls,” he chuckled. “It should be a lot of fun.”