One on one with BC Thunder head coach Chris Wakefield

As the BC Thunder open the 2014-15 season, Head Coach Chris Wakefield is back to coach the team for the fourth time in six years. We sat down with coach Wakefield this week for an interview covering all topics, mostly ringette.

How did you get your start coaching ringette? I was coaching AA/AAA hockey in 2007 and with that traveling a fair amount and being away home. Because of work and personal considerations, I started coaching ringette as it fit better into my life at the time.

Did you start at the NRL level? No, I coached for 2 years at the U14AA and U16AA level as an assistant coach before coaching in the NRL in 2009-10 when I moved to British Columbia. I have been involved in the NRL sits its inception though, working in a commissioner/marketing/sponsorship role for the majority of the past 10 years.

What different roles did you have? I started as Ontario Division Governor, and then was Eastern Conference Commissioner for two years. After moving out West I spent two years as Western Conference Commissioner. Guess you could say I am a fan of the National Ringette League!

The BC NRL team has had many different names, owners, and leagues running it over the years. What makes this team and ownership structure different? Without getting into all the history of the past years, it comes down to caring and stability. BCRA did a good job sustaining the BC Reign for many years, and LMRL stepped up to revive the team again in 2011. The failures, as is usually the case anywhere in life, came from people who either didn’t want to or couldn’t manage the franchise properly. With people like Dale Hannesson, Gino Pastro and the veteran players on the current team, I have no doubt this team will succeed.

What is the highlight of your coaching career? From a ringette perspective, there are two things. First, off the ice is leading groups that helped to bring the NRL back to BC on three different occasions in 2009, 2011 and 2014. On the ice would be winning the NRL Championship and BC first ringette championship in 2012. In hockey, it would be winning the London City Championship in 2001.

Who is the toughest coach you coached against or admired the most? That’s a tough question, and I hope I don’t leave anyone out here. Coaching against would be Dave Mainwood. His teams are always prepared and he has a great knowledge of the sport. In terms of coaches I admire or think are strong coaches, I’d say coaches that have impacted me, challenged me or made me a better coach would fit into that category. They include in no particular order Gino Pastro, Harold Bakke, Cathy Lipsett, Jennifer Gaudet and Glen Gaudet. They all excelled in one or many areas that I try to excel at when I coach.

Along those lines, what was the best team and/or players you’ve ever coached? The most talented team I ever coached was the 2012-13 BC Thunder. The best overall team I coached, for various reasons, was probably the 2007-08 U14AA Cambridge Turbos. Great players and parents. Singling out players is much more difficult. I’ve had the privilege of coaching many great players, who probably did more to make me look good than the other way around. Again in no particular order, and excluding anyone I am coaching this season, I would say Salla Kyhala, Jenn Gaudet, Mel Thomas, Breanne Hutchings and Leigh Maxwell-Smith would all be up there.

Do you have any regrets or disappointments? Yes, the 2012-13 BC Thunder. That team was the most talented and committed group of athletes I have coached. Unfortunately things didn’t go our way at the 2013 NRL Championships. We trailed for a total 12 minutes in 387 minutes played and went 4-3 and lost in a mini game. In comparison, when we won in 2011-12, we trailed more than 50% of the time, but got some luck and rode 7-8 players to a championship. Cambridge, Calgary and Winnipeg were also much stronger in 2013, which is a testament to how much stronger our league is.

Speaking of the league, what changes have you seen over the years? Too many to comment on, but what I like the most is the NRL is always moving forward. It IS the premiere womens’ sports league in Canada now. The competitive balance is at an all-time high, and if you look at the past 4 years there have been 4 different champions and 7 different teams in the finals. This spread also represents 5 different provinces. It’s great to see.

If you could change anything in the NRL, what would it be? On the ice – nothing. The speed and skill of the game is at an all-time high. The league continually does what is best for the on-ice product, with the most recent example being the implementation of the 3 official system. Off the ice, there is always room to grow and progress. I’d like to see the league address the cost inequity of the teams on the coasts versus the middle, and I’d like to see the league come up with a way to ensure the top 8 teams are represented at the NRL Championships. Having said that, I am sure they are and will work on these and other issues that face the league. The NRL and its current leadership have done a great job on the league.

In terms of costs, do you think it hurts the NRL is the West? Does it have an impact, for sure it does. With costs as high as they are in the West, the NRL is more than just playing on a team it’s a lifestyle. When you are paying $5,000.00 a year and traveling as much as we do, it’s not just ringette, it’s your social time, down time and most of your time away from work and school. This isn’t a complaint, but the reality. Here in BC, for example, we also have advantages. We can practice 3-4 times a week if we want. I know teams in the East don’t have that luxury, so it’s important to focus on the advantages, and we do have many.

Does cost or time impact who tries out for the NRL teams? I am sure they do. I can say we have a great group of athletes this year from across BC and some from Winnipeg too. Are there athletes that aren’t here that would help our team – sure. But every team could say that, and I can count those on one hand for us. Players like Danielle Krusel, Mel Thomas, Tori Gunning, Emma Dowds and Erika Lipsett are all great players in BC and would help any NRL team.