The next generation of young hockey coaches, average age only 25 years old, is leading the Niagara-on-the-Lake Wolves U18 rep team this winter. The four young men behind the bench are all former Wolves themselves and thrilled to be giving back to an organization that has meant so much in their lives.
At 27 years old, less than a decade older than much of his squad, head coach Devon Neudorf is the senior statesperson of the staff. He’s joined by trainer Kyle Juras, 26 and assistants Mackenzie Berg, 24 and Alex Read, 23.
From hockey school all the way to their own playing days at the U18 (formerly midget) level, all four played their entire minor hockey careers in NOTL.
“The reason I coach,” Neudorf tells The Local, “is that I know through all the years that I played minor sports here, someone was always giving their time to me, for my team. To be at this point where I can do the same, I think that’s great. I think these guys all feel the same way, too.”
The other three nod in agreement to Neudorf’s remark.
Even at their young ages none of them are strangers to coaching hockey.
In 2019-2020 Neudorf and Read both helped current club president Pete Flynn coach a U15 team that won the Niagara District League’s C championship. Last year the four of them worked with the U15 Wolves rep team, who were a finalist in the Niagara loop and the only team to win a game all season against the championship Fort Erie Meteors.
“We had our sights on coaching this team right from the start,” Neudorf explains. “But we wouldn’t have been ready to coach this age group until after we had a chance to coach the younger kids last year.”
“It was a really big year for us,” adds Read, “we grew so much as coaches. It was our first time coaching on our own, without an older adult on the bench taking over. We learned from them and used that last year and now we’re mentoring these guys.”
All four are excited to have the opportunity this year to take their coaching experience to the next level. At U18, they are working with Wolves who have mostly been playing for years, who have developed most of the skills and basic knowledge involved in learning to play the game.
“It’s a huge difference in the skill gap,” says Read. “We’ve gone from boys to Grade 12 men. There’s a lot more to do coaching-wise. There’s a lot more thinking and analyzing that goes into coaching at this level.”
Neudorf adds that they are able to talk about the game at a higher level with this team. They’ve introduced systems and designed plays that can build on the hockey sense his players have developed at younger age groups.
Flynn has coached all four of them and had Neudorf, Read and Juras on the the bench with him in the past.
“They are all such great guys,” Flynn says. “They did a really good job with their own team last year. They are all about Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
Flynn stresses the importance of young people to step up and volunteer for minor sports organizations. One of his goals since taking the helm as president a few years ago was to ensure that he increased the number of non-parent coaches with the local club.
Berg, Juras, Nedorf and Read feel that they interact with their players almost as peers and friends, just old enough to command respect but not old enough to be seen as father figures. They insist that anyone on the team can speak to any of the coaches about anything, any time, and not feel they are being judged. .
All four began to help out behind the bench almost immediately after their own days as Wolves concluded. From the get-go Flynn says they’ve been generous with their time and committed to developing the younger players.
And Neudorf knocked it out of the park at his interview for his head coaching role this year.
“The parents are impressed with how professional they are and how prepared these guys are for every practice and game,” Flynn adds.
Craig Roberts' son Lucas Roberts Ramos is a member of the team.
"It's a significant time commitment from these guys," says Roberts. "We're on the ice three to four times a week and there is a lot going on behind the scenes, too, including training and tournaments, etcetera. Their coaching philosophy outlined earlier in the year certainly checks all the boxes as a parent. And Lucas has shared that it is a fun and very comfortable atmosphere."
The coaches spend two hours at the arena for each practice and three hours there on game day. Add in the travel time to locations such as Lowbanks, where the Haldimand River Kings play, Fort Erie and Port Colborne, and time dedicated to being there for their teams stretches beyond an average of 10 hours a week.
It's not like they’re not busy away from the arena, either. Neudorf works in business development for Kruger Products, a paper mill company out of Toronto. Read just graduated from Brock University with a business degree and Juras is the operations manager at Niagara Flower Growers. Berg will be leaving the team behind in January, unfortunately, as he heads to Liverpool for two years to become a physiotherapist.
This weekend they are off with the team to Midland for their first road trip, a Silver Sticks qualifying tournament. While the team will be staying with the parents at a hotel, the coaches have booked the same Airbnb that they rented last year when they travelled with the U15s. It’s to ensure there is a bit of professional distance between them and whatever is going on at the team’s hotel.
Speaking of tournaments, at the recent Harvest Classic hosted by the Wolves, the U18 team went 1-2 in pool play and took the eventual champion Saugeen Shores to a seven person shootout before losing 2-1.
The Local was struck by the fact that fathers Danny Neudorf, Rick Juras and John Read were all at the arena for parts of that weekend watching their sons coach, not play, hockey.
All three were involved to some degree with their kids’ sports through the years, as was Berg’s father, the late James Berg, who served with the club as its president years ago.
Last Wednesday the U18s knocked off the first place Port Colborne Sailors 5-0. Noah Whyte scored two goals in the game, while Dylan Price, Josh Dulas and Billy Pillitteri-Smith added singles. Braden Sawyer got the shutout.
They followed that win with a 2-0 victory over the West Niagara Flying Aces Sunday afternoon.
Things are clearly starting to click on the ice for this team at the right time. The coaches are happy about that, of course, but to each of them it’s more about helping to develop every one of the Wolves as both players and people.
“We have a three-pronged approach,” says Neudorf. “We hold them accountable for everything they do. We require them to be disciplined both on and off the ice. And we expect them to put in a full effort every time they step on the ice.”
Surely those are lessons the four coaches have learned from their own mentors through the years. Now they are imparting those to another generation.