WARREN, Mich. - There will certainly be a lot of firsts for the De La Salle Collegiate varsity hockey team this year.
It very well may be a feeling-out process for all those involved.
New head coach Nick Badder inherits a team with a lot to learn, and a team hungry to learn from a coach who has a state championship on his resume. The Pilots lost 13 seniors to graduation and return less than a handful of players listed on last year's roster. Badder understands it's going to take some time, and he's ready and willing to invest in building relationships with his young team.
"Getting to know the guys is going to take time. And I think that's where my coaching style differs from other coaching styles," said Badder, who coached at Romeo High School for four years before spending last year leading the Oakland Jr. Grizzlies Bantam AA team. "I'm not like a dictator, a 'Do as I say, coach.' I'm more or less like, 'You guys respect me, I'll respect you. Let's figure this out together.' "
That style of coaching may just be what this year's De La Salle team needs. The Pilot roster consists of eight seniors, six juniors, eight sophomores, and two freshmen - a relatively young lineup for a high school team.
"Coach Badder is a great, fun and energetic guy," senior co-captain Matthew Rodgers said. "I love the guy because he is one of the boys and creates a pressure-less environment. I've always been taught the old school way of hockey, so it's a change of pace for me. I'm eager to see what his style and systems have to offer."
Rodgers, who has a couple of years of experience on varsity, is one of the few who can say that. Senior Jacob Frederick also returns from last year's team and will lead the Pilots from the blue line.
"He, I think, is our most skilled (defenseman) and he's going to be heavily relied on - on the blue line," Badder said. "He may have to put the puck in the net for us as well."
The coach admitted this year's team is going to struggle to score goals. That's why he has shifted Rodgers - who played defense last year - to a forward position. He's also counting on senior forward Nicholas Twombley for some offense. Twombley has a lot of hockey experience, but not so much at the high school level. The same thing can be said for senior Thomas Bechtell, who joins the team - his first playing for his high school.
"For me, we've got to find our identity - playing a style that's adept for playoffs," Badder said. "I understand we're going to have some tough games. I think we're going to have some good wins, too. But at the end of the day, if we're rolling by the end of February, that's our goal as a team."
Senior Easton Knott, who saw some time up on varsity last year, will be a big contributor for Badder this year. He was named co-captain along with Rodgers.
"Going into the season, I feel we have a great group of boys who all are willing to work," Knott said. "Yes, losing 13 seniors and other big names not choosing to play hurts, however, we are all willing to overcome it, work and get better.
"Coach Badder has been doing a great job adapting to us as well as us adapting to him. He always has something for us to work on and the player-coach relationship is very strong."
Other players back or moving up from the junior varsity team a year ago include seniors Jack Kosloski and Austin Cooley, juniors Teagan Fuqua, Quinn McIntyre and Avery Petri along with sophomores George Kravitz and Gabriel Sierens.
Junior Connor Pullen and sophomore Andrew Parmentier will both see time in goal early in the season.
Transitioning many of the players over from club hockey to the high school game will be of the utmost priority for Badder and his staff, which also includes assistants Jake DeWalt, Tom Peck, Nick Stefani, and Trevor Vosmik.
"At the end of the day, high school hockey is different," Badder explained. "There's pressure because there are only 25 games. There's more hype. High school hockey is so much different than travel, and it's not so much just the style. Things like, you've got your own locker room. You've got your school colors. You've got your classmates there. And these are all things they're going to have to get used to. They're going to have to learn as they go.
"There's going to be some room for them to grow personally and then, of course, as a hockey player too."
The Pilots will once again play in the South Division of the Michigan Interscholastic Hockey League (MIHL), squaring off against divisional opponents Grosse Pointe North, Grosse Pointe South, Trenton, and U-D Jesuit. The team will then cross over against MIHL powers Brother Rice, St. Mary's, Cranbrook, and Detroit Catholic Central. Its non-league slate includes top-notch competition such as Hartland, Eisenhower, and Livonia Stevenson.
"It's something I tried so hard to do at Romeo and one of the reasons I was so excited to take the job at De La Salle," said Badder, who won the Division 2 state title coaching the Bulldogs in 2016. "We have so many of these (tough) games. I'm so excited, personally. I love getting our butts kicked, playing the best teams in this league week in and week out, for us to set ourselves up come playoff time. I can't wait."
De La Salle opens up the season tonight as it hosts Lake Orion at the Mt. Clemens Ice Arena. The puck will drop at 7 p.m. It's the first step in Badder's quest to bring the team together as a cohesive unit.
"I think the adjustment period is going to take some time because we have to develop that relationship," the coach said. "It's what will drive the locker room, it's what will drive the team. If we don't have that, we're going to be 20 individuals out there playing hockey. And we all know hockey's not like that. You can't rely on one guy, or one goalie, or whatever it may be. You've got to have three lines minimum going. You've got to have good goaltending. And you've got to get the lucky bounces."