By Rich Palzewic
This past April, a new era for the Green Bay Gamblers began with the hiring of head coach/general manager Mike Leone.
A few games into the 2022 season, the move appears to be paying off.
The Gamblers are off to a 5-3-1 start under their first-year coach.
Leone, who joined the Gamblers after spending three seasons as an assistant coach with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program (NTDP), said he’s pleased with his team’s start.
“It’s going well — I like the group a lot,” he said. “We’re young, but the guys are competitive, coachable and want to get better.”
Leone said the youth of his squad has been a learning curve for everyone involved.
“First off, we wanted to get good kids into the organization,” he said. “There was a lot of turnover, and that was by design. I was hired to come in and change the culture, so it will be a process. When you set the standard early of what is expected, you’re only going to get better.”
Leone didn’t want to talk about individual players this early in the season but said his team has things to work on.
“I think we can make better decisions with the puck, not give it away as much and better manage the game when teams push back,” he said. “We’ve defended well, too. If you watch the best teams at the highest level, they’re fast and possess the puck a lot. They’re also good at defending.”
With playing nearly every weekend — with a few games sprinkled in during the week — from now until the end of April, Leone said his players are getting used to the grind of the USHL.
“Early on, we stressed how hard this league is,” he said. “A big part of this league is developing players.
Strength and conditioning and on-ice development are equally as important. This organization hasn’t won a playoff game in eight years, so we want to focus on improving daily — it won’t happen overnight.”
Leone said the players’ days start early and end late.
“They’re up before 7 a.m. and by the time workouts are over, it could be 5 p.m.,” he said. “That’s by design. If you want to play at the next level, it’s hard. We try to simulate how it happens in college and help them get better.”
From a player’s perspective
Barrett Hall, a first-year USHL player from Apple Valley, Minn., is a forward for the Gamblers.
In six games played, the St. Cloud State University commit has tallied three goals.
“I played high school hockey with Gentry Academy last season,” Hall said. “Before and after that high school season, I played in the NAHL (North American Hockey League) with the Minnesota Wilderness. That led to me getting drafted into the USHL by Green Bay.”
Hall said things are going great so far this season.
“We’re growing as a team, on and off the ice,” he said. “The coaches are pushing us hard, but that’s making us better. We’ve had some success to start — it’s a long season.”
Hall said the USHL — widely considered the most competitive junior hockey league in the country — is “way different from the NAHL.”
“The biggest difference is the skill level,” he said. “The USHL has a bunch of NHL draft picks and Division I committed players. The NAHL has a reputation for being a bit older, more physical and less skilled. The USHL is younger, more talented and faster overall.”
USHL teams play a minimum of 62 games — more if they make the playoffs.
“Much of the season is mental,” Hall said. “Being able to get through 62 games, playing every weekend, traveling on a bus, being around the rink all the time — many guys aren’t used to that. You have to stay disciplined.”
Hall is one of 11 first-year Green Bay players who haven’t played in the USHL before.
“The older guys who have played in the league have to take charge,” he said. “We have to stay locked in. I’d guess (having) 11 guys who haven’t played in the league before is among the most in the league. I think that will help us — we have room for growth and will adapt.”
Despite the team’s youth, Hall is expecting big things.
“In the games we’ve lost, we learned,” he said. “In the games we’ve won, we’ve felt strong. We have a team to go all the way — we’re playing everyone and playing to win.”
For the complete roster and schedule, visit gamblershockey.com.
By Rich Palzewic