by John Barlow - Editor - Western Wheel
As the team was boarding the bus for their season opener in Camrose on Friday the Okotoks Junior A Oilers learned they would be doing so without their head coach.
On the eve of the 2010-2011 season Oiler head coach and general manager Garry VanHereweghe abruptly announced he was stepping down effective immediately and associate coach Chris Fuss will be the interim bench boss until a replacement can be found.
A tired looking VanHereweghe was sitting at his desk Friday afternoon as the team prepared to head to Camrose and said he was stepping aside for personal reasons and it was the best decision for himself, his family, the organization and, most importantly, the players.
“Now was the time,” said VanHereweghe who added a different personality was needed behind the bench.
“Obviously, I am not the right fit for the players’ expectations and the organization’s expectations,” said VanHereweghe. “They need someone who is a more suitable match for these players.”
He said the Oilers are an outstanding organization and with the players currently on the roster Okotoks will have a strong team this season. However, during an extremely competitive camp where rookies were pushing veterans for roster spots it became clear to VanHereweghe he was not the man to lead them this season.
“It was a difficult decision,” he said. “This is a great group of kids and it is tough to walk away, but they felt we were not going in the right direction.
“From the perspective of the team and where they want to go they have to be comfortable with the coach and if they do not fully trust the coach it is not going to work.”
VanHereweghe said stepping off the bench and retaining his GM duties was not an option either. He said he needed to severe the ties completely.
Okotoks is now actively searching for a new head coach and it is unlikely one will be found within the organization.
Fuss was offered the position and he agreed to take on the duties for the interim, but could not commit to being the head coach long-term.
“It would not be fair to the team or myself,” said Fuss who is entering his fourth season with the Oilers. “They need someone who is fully committed. This was not an easy decision.”
The other two assistants, Lyle Seitz and Rocky Zinger, will remain on the staff as well.
Fuss said with his commitments at home and with his own business he could not take on the head coach’s duties.
Fuss said having to find a new coach at this time of the season is difficult for the players, but the dressing room includes some strong leaders who will ensure the team focuses on hockey.
Oilers associate coach Chris Fuss is now the team’s interim head coach while the organization searches for Garry VanHereweghe’s replacement.
“We have strong leaders, strong character kids and they will find a way,” said Fuss. “We have a job to do.”
Oiler veteran Kyle Reynolds said the coaching change will not be a distraction for the players who will focus on what they need to do on the ice.
Reynolds, a third year Oiler, and many of his teammates went through a similar experience last season when VanHereweghe returned to the club to replace coach Dan MacDonald who was released just a month into the season.
“It is part of hockey, part of the game — guys come in and guys go out — we can’t worry about it,” said Reynolds of the coaching change. “We just need to focus on playing hockey.
“I am surprised, but if your heart is not in it then you shouldn’t stay. Garry was a great coach, and I think I can speak for all of the players when I say that. He is going to be missed.”
After a dismal 2-9 start under MacDonald last season VanHereweghe stepped in and guided the Oilers to a 38-18-1-3 record and the club’s first South Division title.
Reynolds said the team was able to rebound after a coaching change last season and he said that experience will be beneficial this time.
“We need to put this behind us and focus on getting a good start to the season and get some wins,” he said.
Oiler president Wayne Lauinger said the organization is disappointed to lose VanHereweghe, who was the team’s coach during their inaugural season in 2005-2006 until 2007-2008, but he added they must respect his decision.
“We hoped he would stay on in some capacity, but we have to move on without Garry VanHereweghe,” said Lauinger. “This organization will have the same principles and philosophies and we have been successful before because of people like Garry and we will continue to be successful.”
Lauinger admitted there is never an opportune time to lose your head coach and general manager, but he said it is better now when the team is still under construction.
He said there are no names on his wish list for a new head coach, but he said there will be no shortage of interest.
VanHereweghe agreed there will be interest as the Oilers are a coveted destination not only for players, but coaches as well.
“I don’t think I have had an opportunity to coach with a better organization than the Okotoks Oilers,” said VanHereweghe. “I will always support the Oilers.”
For prospective coaches, VanHereweghe said despite the turmoil to start the season they could not find a team with better potential than the Oilers.
“This is a good team and whoever walks in here is walking into a good situation.”