When Christopher Howe took over as the Concordia Men’s Hockey coach, he inherited a struggling program. But three years and one trip to a MIAC Championship later, Howe put the cherry on top of an incredible program turnaround by earning MIAC Coach of the Year.
“It’s a reflection of both the players and coaches I work with,” Howe said. “That’s what makes me feel the best about it, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”
Arriving in the spring of 2008, Howe was a welcome change after a season in which the men’s hockey team had managed only one win.
“When I first arrived, the program was one that was down a little bit,” Howe said. “It was in a little bit of a dormant state. It was asleep.”
Seeing what needed to be done, Howe wasted no time in waking the program back up. He immediately looked into the potential talent pool, and embraced his opportunities.
“The first thing I did was I got some local kids,” Howe said. “They were a group of guys I had watched since they were playing in high school. We needed to tap into the local talent. And then I went and tapped in a couple students from Canada. Mainly, I targeted kids that could trigger change.”
While Howe aggressively worked to create change, coaches from other colleges in the MIAC conference took notice. Scott Bell of the MIAC Championship-winning Hamline University is one such coach.
“I believe Chris pumped new energy into the program and got it moving in the right direction,” he said. “And I love his mix of recruiting local players along with going out-state.”
Howe remembers the first season optimistically.
“I thought progress was made quickly,” he said. “Everyone would look at me like I was nuts because we only won four games that first year, but it more than doubled the previous season’s win total. And then we won five [the next year]. This year we won seven more games [than the last year]…I’ve seen steady progress through a coach’s eye, and I felt there was as much progress in the first two years as this year.”
And although it is no coincidence that success came with Howe’s arrival, he tends to cite a different reason for the sudden upturn.
“I think it was confidence that was the biggest thing that happened,” he said. “We had a couple streaks…and guys believed more of what they were doing. Guys start skating a little freer. It’s hard to play this game if you’re worried about making mistakes. It’s like playing handcuffed.”
Head coach Jeff Boeser of the University of St. Thomas sees the success as having much to do with Howe’s approach to coaching.
“He’s very passionate and he’s got a good relationship with his players,” he said.
Junior Jared Collin, a captain on the men’s hockey team from Penticton, British Columbia, had something similar to say about his coach.
“I have never met a person who can be so energetic every day at practice,” Collen said. “His enthusiasm rubs off on us players, and I think it has shown in our drastic improvement over the last three years.”
This year the Concordia men’s hockey team skated their way to a 12-11-4 record. The uptick in wins comes as no surprise to Howe.
“We’ve always played everyone tough, it‘s just that before we couldn‘t get over the hump,” he said. “This year we’re still playing tough, but we’re winning some games by one, instead of losing some games by one.”
Brimming with confidence from early- and late-season streaks, the men’s team eventually found themselves in what previously had been an uncommon situation: competing for a MIAC Championship.
Unfortunately, the growing pains of a young team became apparent during the title game, as the men’s team gave up three goals in the first nine minutes of play. Concordia eventually fell to Hamline 2-5. Yet not all was lost, as Howe was quick to point out.
“It whet [the players’] appetites to taste a championship,” he said. “And we gained experience by being in that situation. That’s the only way to grow. Experience is not getting what you want, and it’s getting put in those kinds of situations.”
But experience was not the only thing that came out of Concordia’s championship run. Coaches from around the MIAC conference recognized the efforts of Howe and the men’s hockey team. Howe was accordingly awarded the MIAC Coach of the Year—an award voted on by other coaches within the conference.
Bell explained why Howe was the clear choice for Coach of the Year.
“The perception of Concordia men’s hockey in the past had been one of a solid program that hit a slight downturn over the past few years,” he said. “But now the perception is that Concordia is a young and hungry team that always shows up and plays hard. I think it‘s because Chris brings great energy and a competitive spirit.”
Boeser expressed similar sentiments, calling Howe a “hard-wired” and “very intense” coach that “gets his players to work hard for him.”
Yet Howe admitted that his style is something that has taken him time to figure out. He describes his coaching style now as one that revolves around passion and managing people.
“I try to make my guys know it’s a lot of fun,” he said. “And individually I’ve got to know how to manage them and how to motivate them. You have got to learn your players and learn how each ticks.”
Collen also sees those qualities in Howe’s coaching style.
“His best asset as a coach is, hands down, his love for the game,” he said. “He never takes a day off and always wants to be at his best.”
But that’s not to say that the progress stops there for Howe and Concordia men’s hockey. Howe continued to express the kind of ambition that helped make him MIAC Coach of the Year.
“If you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse,” he said. “We’re always going to try to make improvements.”
Showing just how positively infectious Howe’s mentality can become, Collen also explained his desire to achieve more.
“This year’s run showed us players that if we buy into the program Coach is developing we can get where we want to go,” he said. “Our goal is to get to nationals, and next year is our year…Enthusiasm and love for hockey can go a long way.”
Such a long way, in fact, that Collen believes what he learned will carry on with him far beyond college.
“Coach always treats people with the greatest respect, and I think this is why he has got to where he is in the coaching world,” Collen said. “I will definitely take some of Coach’s enthusiasm and love for life with me after leaving the team.”
Howe and the Concordia men’s hockey team continue to look forward, too. And with the continued passion and team comradeship that is characteristic of Howe’s time as head coach, a MIAC Coach of the Year award could be just the beginning.