Coach Mike Bonelli of the Connecticut Whale with USA Hockey

COACH'S CORNER #1: MIKE BONELLI HAS THE FLOOR & MORE


“So when I talked to you I tried to figure out what the sport I played was called, and we thought it was floor hockey, but I looked it up afterwards and I realized it was something a little bit different. Here is an explanation for floorball and what the gear looks like.”
Michelle Lowenhielm #67 Connecticut Whale

When we first interviewed M-Lo during Season Four, she told us the other sports she played as a youth in Sweden saying “I tried other sports like gymnastics when I was very little and floorball when I was a little older.” Then we spent the next bit of theat conversation trying to figure out exactly what it was that she had played. Cetacean Nation thought floorball was just another name for floor/Dek/street hockey. As you can see from Michelle’s follow-up message, we had it all wrong. So when we had a chance to talk with Whale Assistant Coach Mike Bonelli after Season Five, we brought the subject up. That is because, as you will see, Mike is a fervent advocate of the sport, for a number of reasons. We’ll get to that shortly, but let’s find out a little more about the man who joined Colten Orr and Laura Brennan behind the Whale bench last season.  Mike has had a long and varied career in the sport of hockey from his days as a player, a college, prep and youth coach, an instructor, administrator, innovator and advisor. Currently, Mike runs Mike Bonelli Hockey Solutions, serving ice arenas and hockey programs throughout the US, and I s Eastern District Associate Coach in Chief for USA Hockey. But since these days are what they are, we started off by asking about how he’s dealing with the pandemic. Mike laughed and replied

“Well, I found out I’m a terrible teacher at home! I have a 12 year old and a 7 year old and my wife and I have been trying. We got through the school year, but the kids miss the socialization. But for me, just from a work perspective, I’m trying to keep busy and stay on top of the contacts I have and the initiatives, and some of the programs we normally would run. And keeping that front of mind and continuing those conversations, with the understanding that we are going to open, and things are going to get back to normal. And to be prepared to hit the ground running when that does happen.”

Cetacean a Nation followed up by asking if the later opening of the season was a benefit for the NWHL. Mike said

 “Yeah, especially since on the NWHL side of things a lot of it is that the teams don’t have their own arenas. So they are at the mercy of what the local programming is doing. Certainly what happens in Toronto will be a lot different than what happens in Connecticut. (Note: Toronto has decided not to let the Blue Jays play there this season in MLB) or Minnesota. So as far as the league goes, not owning those buildings and not having a lot of control over that is an issue, but I guess there could be a benefit. One of the worse things to happen would be to start up and then have to shut down because of COVID. So starting up a little bit later, at least you know the likelihood is that Covid is going in the right direction and we can control the safety of the players and the staff and the fans. Whether that is watching on Twitch the beginning of the year, who knows? But these are professional athletes and they want to compete, so I think they’ll do whatever they can on their end to try to make that happen.”

He added “Dani and the group have done a great job. They are up against a lot of roadblocks, but they keep trudging through. It’s nice to see. And with Toronto, the players that signed, it’s unbelievable. Those players could have said we are going to join or stay with the boycott, but they put their money where their mouth is, Digit Murphy is someone I've followed for years, and she just has a real passion for the game. She’s a great promotional person and knows how to get the women’s game out there. So it’s great to have her involved.”

Cetacean Nation noticed that Mike had just made a brief mention of our amazing partner, Twitch. So we had to ask him a little more about that. He revealed

 “I’m fifty years old and I had no idea what Twitch was. And when I started using it, my 12 year old was like: What are you doing, why are you on Twitch? So he helped me navigate it and save my NWHL favorites and things like that. But in general my kids are not gamers, they are not video taping their experiences on line:) They’re young, so I’d rather they be gamers on the ice. But I realize this is the reality of life that we’re living in, and if they are going to be spending time, Twitch is a good platform to do it on. If the kids are on the computer I love to see them to play NHL 2020 or whatever version, or they’re watching hockey videos or the NWHL online. If you are watching video, you are learning, and they can put themselves in that situation, fast forward, and rewind different areas of the game that can help their own on ice game. I think is a great thing, I think video in hockey is under utilized. Do I want them playing FortNight or Mine Craft? Probably not, I don’t know how much they’re learning from that. But all these kids need a release, and an opportunity to do something outside of somebody telling them what to do. So I don’t have a big problem with it as long as it’s not nine hours a day:) But the kids are very active, and if they play video games for awhile, they get bored so we don’t really restrict them. It’s all moderation, there’s only so much chocolate cake you can eat too. Moderate it, have fun, but then there is the time to put it away, jump in the pool, go for a run, or in my case, play floorball with me, so I can get a video of them playing in the driveway.”  He laughed ”It keeps me as active as possible too.“ .

Floorball info sent to us by #67 Michelle “M-Lo” Lowenhielm

As we mentioned in the beginning of this interview, Mike is a big fllorball advocate. We were anxious to learn more about floorball, and Mike is the go to guy for that. He explained things this way

 “As my wife calls them, I have a lot of great “volunteer titles” It’s all good, and floorball is part of it. A couple of years ago, I left the corporate world of recruiting, that I’d gotten into after a lot of hockey. I did a six year stint of going to the city and being part of the corporate grind. And then I kind of just discovered this floorball sport. I tried to take it from just knowing what it was, this Scandinavian, Finnish, Swedish juggernaut of a hockey development sport, and bring it here as a gateway sport I’m not so much of a floorball guy, although I think floorball’s great, I’m a hockey guy. And a I think one of the best ways to introduce hockey to kids is through floor hockey, and the beat way to do that safely, and the most modern way today, is floorball.”

 “I started introducing it during my years with the Florida Panthers, and now the New York Islanders, the New Jersey Devils, the New York Rangers.and now the Pittsburgh Penguins are a clients. And we’re hoping to bring some other NHL teams aboard soon. I use this outreach in my Mike Bonelli Hockey Solutions world. I primarily use the customized stick and program as a “grow the game” bridge or gateway for youth hockey programs. So we are working on projects right now where we go into the inner city and underserved communities, and even wealthier communities that don’ft have hockey in their ecosystem. And we’ll introduce that customized stick with kids playing floorball in school. And if you look at the stats, it makes the leap to try hockey more possible. If you take a five year old kid and throw them out on an 85’ x 200’ sheet of ice for the first time in their lives, they’re scared to death. Much better that you start building a culture of hockey in the gym and on the floor where most everybody is comfortable. It is the reason the reason everybody plays soccer. There is not anybody in the United States who can’t play soccer, All you need is a ball and a field. You don’t even have to be good at, you can stand out there, run around, and not be good at it. And floorball is the same way. You can be introduced to hockey without really having a lot of the skills, dexterity and ability that you would need to be successful on the ice.”

"The skating in itself is such a unique skill alone, and then: By the way, you have tp stick handle the puck on the way down the ice:) What that does in our mainstream society is be very intimidating. One of the aspects I do for hockey is under my title as Program Architect. I work work with youth hockey programs and we are actually architecturing their program: how do they get more kids in their system, how do they get more kids to play, how do they get their current kids better skill development, how do they increase the skill level of their coaches? One of the things that comes up is this: if you can get a kid indoctrinated into hockey, whether it is ball hockey, street hockey, roller hockey, or Dek hockey then the transition to ice is much more palatable. Because kids love the sport, they love the action, they love the speed. And now you just want to put that in overdrive and put them on the ice. But floorball gives us the opportunity to have a safe, low cost, I call it an access point. The very lowest access point you can, similar to soccer, where you can take your sneakers, buy a fifty dollar floorball stick, and you’re playing hockey.”


 So what are the biggest differences in floorball vs other trees of off ice hockey we asked.  Mike responded

 “Basically, a lot more of the techniques and fundamental skills are more like soccer. Foe example, spacing. In ball hockey there is still a lot of dump and chase, and rimming the ball around. There’s more contact, and more equipment in other ball hockey forms. You’re playing in almost full equipment in ball hockey or Dek hockey , you’ve probably got on the helmet, gloves and using a wooden stick. Floorball which is also called Inner Bandy, is a huge sport in Sweden. In Sweden just as many kids are registered in floorball as they are in hockey, iIn Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, you don’t play hockey unless you play floorball. It’s a complimentary sport, but they see themselves as separate sports. In floorball the stick because of the way it is designed and the way it fits in your hand, and the ball is different, The ball is kind of a heavier walled wiffle ball. The the only way you are going to succeed with it is if you have better technique, better even than ball hockey. You follow through low, there’s no stick checks, you can’t come over the stick, no body contact and a lot of what I call puck protection. A lot of body protection of the ball, a lot of little look-offs, and I think a lot more control of the ball. The sport of floorball is much more possession based than even roller hockey or ball hockey. There’s not a lot of open space, not a lot of dumping the ball somewhere and getting it picked up by somebody, as is often the case in ball hockey.”

 Mike continued “If you watch someone like a Mats Zuccarello taking a penalty shot, it’s like a floorball play. That slow, really deliberate approach, waiting for the goalie to make a move, then taking the shot. If you look at a video of it you say, yeah, that’s floorball. It’s not lacrosse, he got those techniques from floorball. The way he comes in at the net is the exact same way a floorball player would do, except you are in sneakers :) The rules themselves are similar to roller hockey, where there are no offsides, that sort of thing. But it really is more of a team possession sport, a game you want to have control of the ball as much as possible and not just getting rid of it and chasing it. Passing the ball back or side to side is much more advantageous than just slapping the ball away.”

“The stick length is not up to your nose, it’s more belly height. So you are already leaning over the ball much more, about like a field hockey stick. In fact we find a lot of success with the young field hockey girls who do this. There is a lot of crossover with other stick sports, even lacrosse. But in field hockey especially, girls don’t get exposed to it until middle school, so floorball puts those girls into a simular sport much quicker and much safer. The floorball stick, if you’ve seen my social media posts, well, my kids beat each other up with them and nobody gets hurt. The dog doesn’t get hurt. It’s a light stick, a light ball, and it gives you a lot of freedom, And the thing that I like about the way a floorball stick and ball work together, is that it feels much more like ice hockey stick handling than any other off ice stick handling. The ability to roll the ball with your wrists for example” 

“I did an outreach in Puerto Rico with the Florida Panthers awhile back, and we gave sticks to a bunch of little kids in a cul-de-sac. And literally in ten minutes, they looked like they were playing hockey, and they previously knew nothing of the sport. They were holding the stick correctly, stick handling, making plays, and because they were good little soccer players, they were able to understand the concept right away. Spinning off a player, controlling the ball putting their body between the ball and another player. They could understand those concepts really easily. That was one of the reasons it was so appealing to me, when I came back to the US from the camps I was at in Oslo, Norway. It’s a great transition sport, and it’s a great off ice conditioning sport I can never remember when I had one of my hockey teams playing floorball as a training session where I didn’t literally have to take the sticks and tell them it was time to go home. They just won’t quit playing! The kids never want to quit, they’ll play until you turn the lights off. If you put this in every school in the Tri-State area, you’d have thousands of more hockey players within a year. The floorball purists would get mad because I often don’t refer to it as floorball, I just call it floor hockey. I’m trying to grow the game of hockey with it, but eventually it will grow floorball as a separate sport as well. There are only so many people who will be able to skate. In Sweden floorball and ice hockey don’t work that well together because they are competing for the same finite group of players. But here, we’ve got more kids in the Bronx than Sweden has in the whole country:) “

We asked Mike to tell us a little more about what the NHL teams are doing with floorball and he told us

“The NJ Devils have converted their whole intro program to floorball. The sticks look great, they’re cheap, they’re safe, and you can put kids into hockey with minimal equipment, Especially in today’s world, nobody wants to be sharing helmets , gloves, shin guards and elbow pads, with floorball you give them a stick and they’re off to the races. We do a program called “The Gift of Hockey” and the NY Islanders have really embraced this. It’s a duffle bag with 30 sticks, 30 balls, and two foldable nets. It’s the exact same thing as when you walk into a gym and there’s a rack of basketballs. The kids pick them up and go play. So our program that I introduced to the NHL is the gift of hockey program. The teacher rolls out the duffle, hands out the sticks, and in seconds they’re playing. And it’s safe. Because the way the stick is designed you can’t hold it in two hands and run, it’s too short. The way it’s weighted , your natural tendency is to run with the blade on the ground, which automatically puts your stick in the right position. When I first brought this over, I was coaching Iona prep, and it became our whole dry land training. Four teams of three on three, we rented a gym and played floorball every day. And to this day, it’s probably one of the most fun things they’ve done in a non-ice hockey session.”

“The NHL spends about $680.00 a bag to give equipment to a school. And our statistics show that for every school you give a stick to, you’re probably touching 209-400 athletes in each different district.The Florida Panthers did 360 packages, so in our mind that means conservatively 108,000 kids exposed to hockey in a year. , Crazy numbers! These sticks should be in every NWHL community as well. If they could get a sponsor and do ten of these floorball packages in each town, the number of fans would skyrocket. And you would give a vehicle for schools to have your NWHL players come to their schools to teach hockey. Kelly Babstock (our former #8, now with the Toronto Six) is doing just that right now. I watch her in downtown Norwalk and she’s out there in all those parks in Norwalk with floorball."

In addition to coaching with the Whale, Mike coached a youth team in the Danbury Arena last season, And this year he will be coaching a team in Stamford. He has also worked with youth hockey organizations over three years. So we asked Mike to talk about some of the issues and problems facing youth hockey and where some of the answers might be found. He believes

“The skating and the cost are real issues. You go from a free “Try Hockey” event, and then the next guy knocking at your door says I want you to play for my Mite team, that’s $4,000.00 a year. So we need to try to get programming to bridge the gap. I think in our area, here in the northeast, you shouldn’t have to pay more than $800.00 a year to play hockey. I don’t care where you live, it’s feasible. You can actually do it with creative use of things like getting more kids on the ice, better instruction, and better ice usage and organization. You can easily give many, many thousands of more kids access than what we are doing today. I think we are actually failing quite a bit in how we can grow the sport, which we could change if we just managed it a different way. So “Hockey Is For Everyone” until you have to pay for it. It’s great that we can give kids free hockey days, but the statistics are pretty miserable actually, from a kid that tries hockey for free and gets the opportunity versus them continuing to play hockey down the road. So we have this great initiative for bringing kids in, but we don’t have a gateway to enable them to stay in. So all you’re really doing is teasing that 6,7,8 year old kid and their parent that they could have a future in hockey when the reality is, they probably can’t “

“That’s because you’re not going to get free equipment the rest of your life. I just bought a pair of skates, $900.00 for a pair of skates. That should be the cost for your whole season! We are just pricing it out of reach by making people believe that the only path in hockey is travel hockey. And I just don’t think it is.The New York Rangers locally, have done a terrific job, and Shannon Doyle (with Sarah Hughson & Brooke Wolejko) just worked with them at a summer camp, And they are one of the leaders in the country with their U12 girls program, they were phenomenal. And the cost was like $250.00 for the whole year. And those girls got on the ice twice a week and had real coaching. We have to get rid of the stigma that house hockey, in-house hockey, rec hockey isn’t real hockey. Once we get rid of that idea that it’s just for fun and for lesser skilled players, there’s real viability in having more localized programs.”

“Canada might be worse.Their numbers are actually going in a different direction from the US. There is a problem up there, they see it, and they are trying to change it. More kids are playing basketball and soccer and other sports now in Canada than hockey. You’d never believe that! How are the registration numbers bigger in basketball than hockey? Demographics have changed anf we are pricing kids out. : How do you play hockey in downtown Toronto? You can’t afford to play hockey there unless you are wealthy. Same thing in Westchester County, it’s very hard to be on a budget and play hockey in Westchester County or Fairfield County. But again I’m more on the side of not seeing why that’s happening. It don’t see why rinks can’t see that financially, they’d actually be better off running rec hockey and house leagues. I always say to people I’m advising: Why give your money to a rink up in Marlbourogh Massachusetts, when the kids could be home playing each weekend. Why give Exxon and Mobil and the Marriott and Hilton money, why not keep that money within your own facility?”

“So I work with a lot of organizations that want help with this. These are usually parents that are volunteering to be presidents, Vice Presidents and treasurers of these youth organizations, and what I try to do is bring my 35 years of experience and kind of give them a fast track by having a professional hockey director by their side. Just to help them get through all the trials and tribulations of running a youth hockey program. I’m dealing with a situation in New York right now where in 2001 a couple of Dad’s went crazy and started an initiative to build a roller hockey rink, beautiful state of the art, lights, scoreboard, boards the whole thing. And then their kids aged out, nobody took over, nobody had the same passion. And the last five years it’s been closed, weeds are growing, and the boards stolen. You need continuity, having organizations that have some type of professional advising them, to keep the momentum going and then feeding the bottom all the time. Making sure you don’t just have 14U and 16U parents on the board of directors, you have to have your 6U, 8U and 10U parents on there too, so you are always feeding that group. What happens is, most people don’t get involved as board members in youth hockey organizations until their kids are Bantams, and they are focusing on that Bantam program. They are not thinking about how many U8 are in the program for example. And I think that ties in with all hockey, the growth of the NHL, the growth of the NWHL. Like the joke: There are 18,500 hockey fans in New York and you see them every week at the Garden.” he laughed. "We are around hockey people all the time, so we think there are a lot of hockey people, but there really isn’t, we just happen to be around them all the time.”

Mike feels that the NWHL can build on the passion of the hockey fans in their markets.. He reasoned

”You don’t see this in a lot of other sports, I’m not getting calls in December for baseball, wondering when we’re going to have the schedule out. In some other areas of the country, yes. But hockey, it is just a very unique group of people that join the sport. Places like BU, BC, and Providence built a culture of hockey in the northeast, and that’s great, you want to see that. And each youth organization in the NWHL cities have to look at that, and figure out how do we use the momentum of the NWHL to build our youth hockey organizations. Girls want to see other girls playing hockey, it’s a very powerful message. I had two girls on my youth team in Danbury and they would sit around after practice and watch our Whale practice. And they see these women doing the same drills they were doing, but at a crazy competitive and skilled level. They’re not only in awe, but it’s an aspirational vision too. Like: Wow, I could actually do this! Somebody posted on social media that this year’s draft class that was signed and is playing were in high school when the NWHL was formed. People were saying there would never be a pro league, and now these girls are signing their first pro contracts. It’s incredible to see this in the hockey world where five or six years is nothing, What’s been accomplished in that short period of time to have six teams representing a professional league is unbelievable."

"And for the girls who actually saw that materialize what that says to me is that for every 11 12 and 13-year-old girl now it’s no difference to them. They’ve always seen pro women’s hockey. And that is a really powerful message. That’s why I think when the pros and the youth are working together I’m really a proponent of that. If people are going to be beating each other down that’s only going to hurt everyone. And I think this is a viable fun, energized ownership that is putting out a product as best they can, and with the limitations that are existing, in fighting through all those limitations. It’s a great opportunity for these little five and six year old girls to see girls with ponytails and facemasks out there skating and playing. When my my boys are watching hockey. I’d much rather have my sons watch a college hockey game than a pro hockey game because it looks more like them. This is what the game really looks like the NHL, those guys are freaks! They are doing things that normal people just can’t do.”

“It’s the same thing with the girls see these women play for the Whale. Even a lot of moms and dad’s when they go to the game, are shocked at the level of play when they see it up close. They’re like :I didn’t think girls could do this. I tell them they should come to a practice. I know for me in our practices, I like to run a lot of small area games and competition type drills and try to have a lot of fun in practice. And I always put a lot of limitations and rules in the game, because they figure it out almost too fast! So that was challenging for me, but fun. That’s the great thing about coaching, to be able to see what you need to teach and then think about how to make it harder and harder and harder for that athlete. And the Whale responded so well this year it was really fun to see.”

In her most recent interview with us Laura Brennan had praised Mike’s ability to run exactly those kind of drills, while she was serving as Interim Head Coach at the start of the season. We mentioned this to Mike and he replied

"I appreciate that. It’s a little different than most people coach, I’m not a big flow guy.. Not a lot of passing drills or skating, I’m more about let’s just compete. If we’re competing, that’s going to show in the games. If practices are harder than your games, then the games are a little easier. I think having Colten there with his energy and attitude, and Laura has a great attitude, and she’s so connected with the players. She could really push their buttons. And for me coming out of nowhere, the only person I knew was Bray Ketchum. Watching how Laura knows what players you could push and which ones you couldn’t was fun to watch. We really have some great coaches in the league, people who are dedicated to seeing this grow and being a part of history. But also being part of a real viable league. You’re not going to see these type of people involved in a failing league. Who could have imagined Colten Orr coaching a women’s hockey team and being successful at it? And he’s done an unbelievable job! His ability to transition from working with the men in the morning and the women at night, treating them the same but teaching them differently, and demanding the same results. I think that’s a real tribute to Colten, who doesn’t have a long resume of coaching, that he could find ways to send a message and make ir resonate with the women. Bray’s doing a great job, burning the midnight oil putting this group together. And once again goaltending will not be a problem, you’ve got a pretty good duo right there! It was frustrating last year when I was doing drills, because nobody could score on those three goalies we had! I had to modify parts of the drill to make it harder for the goaltenders, otherwise it just became a 15 minute game of saves and rebounds:) I’m going to be in Stamford this year with my youth team that last year was in Danbury. It was just so convenient to get off the ice with the with my guys and go right over to the Whale practice. But my house is only 15 minutes away in Danbury so we’ll see if they have room for me, and if not I’ll still be a big fan."

Mike added “Speaking to the limitations the woman have in the league, you must understand that some of them might have had to work until 11:30 on a Friday, then get on a bus and go play a game in New Jersey the next day. They come in from all over, work an hour and a half in a Colten Orr practice, which isn’t easy, and then get up the next morning, go to work, come back Thursday, get on a plane or bus Friday, and come to a rink 4, 5 or 6 hours on a Saturday..Nobody sees all that. And to play at the level they do, it just goes to show you how committed they are. Also, a lot of our girls were at Prentiss at five or six in the morning training three days a week. Ben Prentiss Training was a big part of it for the Whale last season. . We were strong, our girls had stamina They were tough they never gave up and that was because they were mentally and physically stronger. We had a group of women that really fed off each other‘s energy. One reason was they were close, but they also had a lot of support systems around them? Like the opportunity to go to a guy like Prentice and work out together in a gym and also working with someone like Laura Hill, she’s just out there working out and teaching other people how to work out. And her her level of stamina Is just better than anyone else. I think last year across-the-board, our best athletes were on D. Great to watch your ability be out there for a long period of time I liked Hanna Beattie a lot moved back on defense too. She has great awareness, she’s great in the corners and she has really good vision. She never just throws the puck away off the glass, a really good possession player. Gives a lot of good opportunities to get out of the zone, she doesn’t get bottled up. She’s such a smart player, and on defense she actually opened up her vision of the offensive lanes and it was great watching her play back in that position.”

 

"’I've been coaching girls hockey in one form or another, since I started coaching in 1981. One thing I learned is never treat the girls differently than the boys in terms of what you expect out of them. They appreciate that and it resonates with them and that’s why the message of the NWHL is so great overall. Even myself, I don’t refer to them as women’s hockey players, just as pro hockey players or athletes.They deserve that recognition. At the same time they are often fighting a lot of issues themselves work, and extenuating circumstances. What other pro athlete has to carry their own bahpg into a locker room, one they’re not always sure they’ll have, or where they’ll be sitting in it? And then not get the respect they deserve. I think that’s wrong. If you want to sponsor a pro hockey team, the more you treat them like pros, the more professional,the finished product will be. Overall the teams and the organizations have done that, but there are still so many limitations. They’ll say they don’t have the gate, they don’t have the sponsorship, but again your looking at a program that is only six seasons in. What the NWHL has done with Dani’s leadership has really adjusted to the roadblocks and done a good job of getting out of tough situations. They have formed another team, they are getting more fans more Twitch viewers and more people following on social media. These are all good things."

During their comparatively brief existence, the NWHL has become the premier women’s professional hockey league in the world. Mike agtreed, and gave us these thoughts and impressions from the season.

“For the first month with the Whale, I couldn’t give a recommendation on any of these girls. I’d seen work ethic and I saw what they did in practice, but I hadn’t seen them play. Somebody like Shannon Doyle, you knew the minute she stepped on the ice, who she was. There was no question about who she is because her work ethic is through the roof. And Jordan Brickner, early in the year when she was healthy, you knew right as she was a top hockey player. Phenomemal athletes, tough, dedicated, and on a mission, And sometimes you don’t get tp that out of players at a practice. But that’s what I really liked about the team from the beginning, they all competed. Showing up on a Tuesday or Thursday night for practice, that’s tough. And the crew of three or four players driving down together from Boston! If you don’t see the dedication there, you just don’t know what the league is then. They’re doing it not for a cause, but I think because they love hockey. They can play well into their twenties, and what better way, if I can do it financially, if I can do it with my family, do it with my work. Who wouldn’t want to keep playing? It’s a great opportunity for the players, not only to:be a leader and help grow the game, they think want to play hockey, it’sa great opportunity, so let us play. “

"I have this conversation with parents, Dad’s mostly. They find out I’m coaching for the Whale and say: Hey Mike, can you leave me a couple of tickets? I want to bring my daughter to a game. I tell them: Listen, if you really want to support women’s hockey, why are you asking me for tickets? Go out, show your daughter your spending money at the table, buy her a tee shirt, buy her a hat! Support these women, because by supporting them, you’re giving your daughter a future. If you don’t want to support it, don’t introduce your daughter to it. Don’t ask for something free, because this is how these women make their living. That’s how sponsorship money comes in, that’s how more people get involved financially., because there is a value to what they’re getting into. If you undervalue the product by begging people to come, that’s no good. You’ve got to find a better way to connect to the community. I’ve seen the Whale and the players do that. They were at a lot of these rinks, a lot of youth hockey programs, they’re out there skating with the girls in the Be A Whale skate before the game .Women bringing their kids, or their students or kids that they teach or coach, that’s how you grow the game, that’s how you grow fandom. Not by giving away free tickets.” 

“I have a lineup card with the power play and penalty kill stuff on there and the roster. The first game I did behind the bench for the Whale, one of the little girls at the rink that I knew, she was there with her Dad, I said: Here, take this and get it autographed. For me that was my first professional lineup card, every player player found their name and signed it. She’ll probably have that the rest of her life. But I love seeing them get the posters out there, the tee shirts, out there, the game programs. You might not see it this year, or next year, Shannon Doyle might not see it until after she retires, but somewhere down the road people are going to see the league become a full blown career league. It’s really fun getting to see that happen.. My twelve year old boy watching the games, there’s no difference to him. The nice thing for me is I had both boys and girls playing and they all just treat it like what it is, a pro hockey game, just like a Hat Tricks game they’d go to the following night. In that way, in the world of hockey there is a whole new group of professionals in the building who they and can see what they do to prepare, to train, what they do in practice, how they tape their stick, how they suit up, all of that. All of that is part and parcel of helping the women’s game grow.”

The Whale have by far the latest number of players who played NCAA DIII in all the NWHL. The are part of our core, star players, and in fact even All-Stars. DIII hockey is not like other DIII sports. Having coached in the college ranks, we asked Mike to tell us a little about how DIII hockey works.

“Both DI and DIII women don’t make the same decisions men do, in their route to the pros. So you might have a woman who decides to go DIII just because that school is a better fit for them. But on the men’s side, you might have the same situation, and they’ll say I won’t go there because a I want to go to BC or BU because I want to play pro. The talent level of some of the women going into college, you could flip a coin as to whether you think it’s DI or DIII. I would like to see a survey, but I think a lot of women make their college decision based more on academic than on what athletic division the school is. Up until now you were only looking for the school that fits academically for you to enable you to get a job coming out, because there was no hockey career as there was for the men. A lot men going to DI or DIII schools to play hockey are also like 21 years old, because they’ve played juniors for a few years, The Women are graduating at that age! They’ve matured and developed,while they were playing in college and maybe someone who was a DIII talent at 16 is quite different after four more years of competition. It’s very hard to recruit a 14 year old girl for hockey, but you see that all the time with boys. A guy that goes into pro hockey is 24 years old some times. Very few male NCAA hockey players come in at 18 or 19 years old. As an Admissions Director in high school,for a number of years, nobody could understand why these players weren’t going to the schools they were accepted to. But it was because they were going to go play junior hockey for a few seasons. Their future is they wanted to play college hockey, and you are not going to do that right after high school. And that was ten years ago, imagine what it is now? “

 “It’s funny, when somebody comes up and says: Hey Mike, I’m sorry, you’ve probably never seen this before… Trust me, if it’s hockey, there’s zero I haven’t seen:) I very rarely get shocked at a parent or student doing something you couldn’t believe they were doing, or the decision they made. I always feel like I’m the I told you so guy. I explained this was what was going to happen, but most people say, but that’s not my kid. I may not have seen it all, but my track record let’s me speak to it. I’m not looking at three kids (the way a parent might) I’m looking a 3,000 kids. That’s why when you look at the players on the Whale, those are very special athletes.”

Mike concluded with this amusing anecdote

In what I’m doing, I’m not always right. When I was coaching at Plymouth State, we went to watch this kid play up in a Reading, MA. That was our date night ,, my wife was living in Waltham and I was living at Plymouth State. I would come down from New Hampshire and set up recruiting dates:), I would get her a hot dog and a hot chocolate at the Reading Ice Arena, watching Arlington play Reading.. There was a kid out there wheeling and dealing, flying around, and my wife said: I really;like that kid, he’s good. But I was like : Ahh, I don’t know, I’m not a big fan, I like another kid. But I said I’d ask the coach about him. So I went down and asked the coach, said I wasn’t really that interested. And he said: Oh? He’s committed to UNH, full ride." Mike laughed "It took me a while to tell my wife how wrong I was! 

"That’s why I am not a fan of three day tryouts, I am so against that for hockey. I want to know your body of work. I want to know what you did for 25 weeks, to me that’s so much more important than what you can do in three days. Especially multi sport athletes who are running from football or baseball or soccer, jumping on the ice and there competing and the kid looks kind of tired., maybe he just played three sports that afternoon! Everything’s in context. “

Well, we have no crystal ball so Cetacean Nation can’t predict what the future holds for Mike in terms of the Whale. But we don’t need one, and neither do you, to know that the sport of hockey and particularly women’s hockey will be on the rise with people like our Coach Mike Bonelli involved. Cetacean Nation hopes to see you back next season, but however the scenario plays out: Fins Up Forever!