Thursday, May 29, 2014

Q&A with Fuel head coach Scott Hillman

On Wednesday, the Indy Fuel named Scott Hillman the first head coach in team history. Hillman comes to the Fuel after five years with the CHL's Missouri Mavericks, and two championship-winning years prior to that with the Knoxville Ice Bears of the SPHL. 

Fuel coach Scott Hillman in Missouri (

The 40-year-old Hillman is a veteran of nine professional seasons -- nearly all with the CHL's Odessa Jackalopes -- before turning his skates in for a suit and heading behind the bench in 2007. His first two seasons, both in Knoxville, ended with SPHL championships. He then went to Missouri -- based in the Kansas City suburb of Independence -- and started the franchise, posting five successful seasons. This year's Mavericks team was the CHL regular season champion. The Fuel will be Hillman's third head coaching stint, in a third different league, and will be his second time coaching an expansion franchise. 

Hillman graduated from the University of Windsor (Ontario) -- where he played college hockey --  and also has a master's degree from the University of Texas.

I had the opportunity to chat with Coach Hillman about a variety of topics Thursday afternoon. It's easy to see how he's described as a "rising star" in hockey coaching circles. He'll be very well-liked very quickly in Indianapolis as the first head coach of the Fuel. 

Our conversation is below the jump:

Describe your excitement about coming to Indianapolis and becoming the first head coach of the Indy Fuel
It’s extremely exciting. It's a little bit overwhelming at the moment. We’ve spent the last two days getting here, getting our feet wet, looking for a home for our family, slowly getting settled into the office a little bit. It’s very exciting. The response around the community, there seems to be a real heightened awareness of the Fuel’s presence and the affiliation with the Blackhawks. That's exciting. 

Describe the opportunity to play the newly-renovated Fairgrounds Coliseum (note: Coach Hillman's Odessa teams played there as visitors to the CHL Indianapolis Ice) 
It is an incredible facility now. The job that they’ve done in refurbusing that. It’s certainly not the building I played in 13 years ago. The fan experience is going to be top notch. The old and new hockey fans are going to appreciate it. 

What are your impressions of the front-office staff? 
Everything is just exciting and first-class. The group that Jim and Sean (Hallett) have put together here are really on the ball and moving things in the right direction. It’s an exciting place to be working right now. We’re real pleased with everything we’ve seen.  

Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you become a hockey coach? 
I think all along, I just been a student of the game. I always strived to analye things and figure out the best way to survive on the ice and be effective against often much bigger, and often more talented players than myself. As the years progressed, it was apparent maybe that I was going to need to quit playing the game that I’ve been very lucky to build some good relationships in. A coach I competed against for six years made a phone call. His old job opened up and he wondered if he could put my name in. From there, it’s kind of history. It was one phone call to Knoxville. Terry Ruskowski (who was coaching in the CHL with Laredo at the time) was the original guy that wanted to see me coaching. I have a lot owed to him for these last seven years and heading into my third position now. It’s been a great life so far. It’s been a ton of fun. I don’t think I’ve worked a day since then, although my wife would argue that point, because I put a lot of time in. It’s been a tremendous experience. 

Who are some of your biggest influences?  
My whole life in different stages – all the coaches I’ve had. My first coach was my dad. He didn’t know a ton about the game, but he knew that you could work real hard and be defensively responsible. That’s how I became a defenseman. He wanted his best skater to be on the blueline, and that was me, and I've been a defenseman ever since. It was a great experience. My coach at the University of Windsor (Rick Cranker) had a huge influence. I had one coach for about eight straight years in Don McKee in pro hockey (in Odessa). Guys like that, you learn a lot from. I’m taking lessons every day. I don’t watch a hockey game at the NHL level as a fan anymore. I watch to anaylyze. There’s certain teams I look to as the best at one particular thing, and you try to combine the best of the best. I’m looking in every direction.

This is your second chance to start with a new team. What have you learned from coaching and building an expansion team? 
It’s a very unique opportunity, not only to have a second chance at it. You never get things perfect your first opportunity. What I learned over the last five years is that it’s a very unique experience to truly get to handpick everything – the product, the style. We have a real chance to set the groundwork here. We’re looking to establish a hard-working mentality. Players are going to know that if they’re lucky to be selected and if they don’t fit that expectation, they’re not going to last very long. It’s going to be something I think the fans in Indianapolis will enjoy.

That hard-working mentality -- is that something you carried over from your playing days, and especially, from being a defenseman? 
Being a severely undersized defenseman, I believe I only survived and achieved because I believed I was outworking and outthinking the others. If you’re not willing and able to do both, we’re probably not going to get along very well. I expect a lot. There’s few things we can control, but one is the level that we work at.  

Your first year as a head coach (in Knoxville), you won a championship. How did that experience help propel your career? 
It’s an unforgettable experience. In some ways, it feels like it was a million yrs ago. In other ways, it feels just like yesterday. I remember the excitement of the first training camp, being anxious about the first transition. Fortunately, it went very smoothly. Obviously, it was very exciting to win a championship, and gain a lot of experience from having done that a few times. Certainly, you learn even more from your mistakes and the failures you have along the way. For myself, as a player, and the players we’re looking for, I’m trying to get better every day. I’m going to make mistakes, the players are going to make mistakes, the idea is to grow and learn from those and finish the day better than you started it.  

Starting out as the coach of a new team, one of the most important jobs now is recruiting players. How do you do that, finding the free agents that are available to build the team and bringing them to Indianapolis? 
There’s an incredible amount of free agency at this level. The job really is a tedious one in looking all directions. We’ll look at guys who have maybe been in Europe, guys who have been in the ECHL, CHL, AHL, all the amateur players coming out of the amateur leagues -- the NCAA, Canadian University and major junior. It’s a vast amount of players. We’ve certainly been fortunate in that I’ve been looking at the same pool of players for the last five years, so we’re familiar with all of those sources. It’s a matter of reaching out to those same groups, and explaining the benefits of coming here to Indy, the ECHL, how exciting it’s going to be. I’d struggle to find a city better than this one in the ECHL. The Coliseum is a great selling point, as well. There’s going to be a little bit of an education process. It’s been a number of years since we've had a professional team in Indianapolis, so a lot of these people haven't come through here, so we'll have to educate them on the benefits of playing in Indianapolis.

There are 20 other ECHL teams, plus European, CHL, AHL and other leagues who are all recruiting the same pool of players. How competitive is it? 
No question, free agency is a very competitive market. However, we believe we have some of those advantages with the city of Indianapolis. There's no bigger advantage than to have established a strong affiliation (with the Chicago Blackhawks) that’s been put down on paper and has already started to work. We’re going to be working very closely with them. It’s certainly going to be an avenue for our players to be seen with an incredible amount of regularity not just by (AHL) Rockford and (NHL) Chicago, but by the entire system of the American Hockey League, because we’re in a great location. One of our goals is to provide great entertainment, and help these young players advance their careers. We want to be a stepping stone for these players to play in the AHL and hopefully, eventually, the National Hockey League.
The ECHL is unique in that the league blends free-agent players and players under contract to the AHL and NHL affiliates. How do you balance the two -- the needs of the affiliate clubs and the players who are under contract to the Fuel? 
Obviously, there are some challenges, these are challenges we embrace and celebrate. We hope our fanbase will, as well. We’re here to win a lot of hockey games, and also to support these guys. The biggest thing for us is to have a very close relationship with the staff in Chicago and Rockford. That groundwork has been laid. The more communication we have, we can prep for those moves. We expect to see a lot of up-and-down movement (between Indy and Rockford). If a player gets called up, it’s an incredible opportunity for another player who maybe hasn't gotten a lot of ice time, and gives them a chance to play a more expanded role. It keeps me on my toes. We might get a player called up or sent down the day of a game, and we look at those as opportunities. The whole environment -- the developmental environment -- will be celebrated. It’s up to us in the locker room to set the bar higher and get to work.

What is one thing you'd like to tell the hockey fans in Indianapolis?  
The biggest thing is, regardless of what their experience has been in hockey, you've got to give it a chance. I can guarantee from seeing it happen in Kansas City, which was pretty similar to this -- where they had had high-level hockey, and then not had it for several years. It’s a whole new game. Not only has the game changed a lot at this level the past 8 to 10 years, but the entertainment value you get, this is so much more than hockey. It’s two and a half hours of a show. It's entertainment. We love the hockey fans, but for everyone else looking for something new to try, they’re going to fall in love with the game of hockey. 

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