It may have seemed like an odd decision to some university hockey fans when the Golden Bears moved head coach Stan Marple to the front office as the organization’s first general manager, but the move looks like a stroke of genius just three years later.
Most Canadian university hockey teams place a huge burden on their head coach. At most schools, that figure is responsible not just for leading the team to success and player development, but also for recruitment, fundraising and the general operation of the team. That’s the role Stan Marple took on for a year, after spending time as a player and assistant coach with the Bears, and as a coach and general manager with the Guildford Flames of the British National League.
Just before the start of the 2012-13 season, the U of A bucked that trend. The Golden Bears moved the Marple to the front office as its first general manager in program history. To replace Marple behind the bench, the organization looked to its past and to one of the new GM’s old teammates. Ian Herbers, a former Golden Bear who scored the game winning goal to win the 1992 national championship on the same team as Marple, was hired away from the American Hockey League to bring professionalism and improved player development to the Bears.
Since making that decision, the Bears have won a Canada West conference championship every year of Herbers’ tenure as coach, and are now two-time defending CIS national champions.
“I think Ian’s record speaks for itself in that we chose the best person for the job three years ago, and he’s done a terrific job,” Marple said.
“When I sold him on coming here, I sold him on developing as a coach and his main job would be developing our players to become the best players they’re capable of becoming. Then that allowed me as general manager to look after all the off ice stuff.”
The switch allowed Marple to spend more time bringing in sponsorship money, run the team more professionally and hire a full-time strength and conditioning. This past season, Herbers and his players have consistently attributed their conditioning as a major factor in their success as national champions.
Allowing a coach with as much professional experience as Herbers, a former AHL and NHL player, to spend his time nearly solely on player development, has proven to bring success to the team and add to the storied history of the Golden Bears.
“We’re trying to create an environment where when guys come from the Western Hockey League, they’re not saying ‘Oh darn, I didn’t go pro, I guess I have to settle for the CIS’ ” Marple said. “It’s a real great opportunity for guys who were maybe on the verge of going pro, but decided to not put all their eggs in one basket, get a university degree first, develop their skills as a player individually and as part of a team, and then now they’re at the stage where they have the opportunity to play professionally in Europe, where that opportunity maybe wasn’t available after junior.
“We want the (player) that wants to excel academically, and we want the guy that wants to excel at his hockey career and get to pro hockey. Those are the types of players that we’re looking for and that we actively recruit.”
Besides the four conference championships in the last five years that the Golden Bears boast, and their five national championships in the last 11 years, the excellent player development of the team is possibly the biggest indicator of the program’s success. Nine Bears players in the last 11 years have signed a contract with a team in the AHL, the second biggest pro hockey league in North America, the most recent being this year’s leading scorer, TJ Foster. The ability to develop that many players to the point they are playing at a level just below the NHL is an impressive indicator of the tradition of excellence that’s so commonly talked about as being expected of every Golden Bears team.
“When you surround yourself with excellent people, I’ve been fortunate in that regard. I’ve been able to surround myself with excellent people,” Marple said. “We’ve got the best coaching staff in the country, we’ve got the best players in the country and when you have the work ethic to match that, it’s a recipe for success.”