Gary Shuchuk earned the respect of most players on Team Wisconsin’s 16 & Under team before he blew his first whistle in practice.
Shuchuk wrapped up an all-American career at the University of Wisconsin two years before any of them were born. And he skated with Wayne Gretzky during the Los Angeles Kings’ run to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals while they still wore diapers.
Thanks to the Internet, they knew every detail of Shuchuk’s career before playing for him. The 12th leading scorer in Badgers’ history played parts of five seasons in the NHL with Detroit and Los Angeles, and that gave him instant credibility when he took over the coaching reigns.
In Shuchuk’s first season, Team Wisconsin reached the quarterfinals of the 2009 USA Hockey National Championships 16 & Under Tier I tournament in Chesterfield, Mo.
“They’ve all Googled me and seen me on YouTube, so they know I’m not lying,” joked the 42-year-old Shuchuk, who won an NCAA championship with the Badgers as a senior in 1990.
“They know I’ve played with Wayne and with Steve Yzerman, so maybe I know what I’m talking about. And when I pass along something I learned from Barry Melrose or Jeff Sauer – the two most influential coaches in my career – they’re all ears.”
Still, Shuchuk doesn’t have to name drop.
“Just knowing that he played with the greatest player in the world and that he was on a team that played for the Cup, you’re going to listen to anything he has to say,” said forward Jake McCabe, of Eau Claire, Wis.
“Most coaches teach you all the basics. But he can show you all the little tricks that get you to the next level.”
Shuchuk’s wealth of experience paid dividends late in Team Wisconsin’s first game of the National tournament. Clinging to a 2-1 lead, Team Wisconsin failed to clear the puck on a penalty kill, and the Connecticut Wolves’ Corey Shea quickly tied the game with 4:39 remaining in regulation.
“We had all the momentum until they scored that goal,” said Joe Fiala, a defenseman from Verona, Wis. “A lot of coaches would get upset about a goal like that, and guys would start hanging their heads. But [Shuchuk] was really calm on the bench. He didn’t let it bother him. He just told us to keep doing what we were doing, and we’d get the momentum back.”
Team Wisconsin, a before-and-after squad of high school all-stars, kept plugging away until McCabe’s blast from the point found its way through traffic and into the back of the net with 45 ticks on the clock. It was the kind of game-winning moment that drew Shuchuk into coaching at this age group.
“I loved my time at the University of Wisconsin, and I always appreciated how well we were treated everywhere in the state,” Shuchuk said. “So, when I moved back to Madison after I retired [in 2004], I wanted to get involved in coaching and give something back. The entire state has some really talented hockey players, and I want to help them showcase that talent so they can get to the next level.
“I played the game with passion. That’s something I’m trying to instill in these guys.”
Fiala began taking lessons from Shuchuk two years ago. They concluded each session with a one-on-one battle for an imaginary championship belt.
“He’s been out of pro hockey for a few years, but he still has sick hands,” Fiala said.
“All those Sundays, I’ve only beaten him two or three times. But I can’t begin to tell you how much I’ve learned from him.”