BY MURRAY PAM
Fifteen years ago this week Bill Muckalt was on an emotional high. A piece in one of the most lopsided trades in NHL annals, Muckalt was dealt by the Islanders along with Zdeno Chara and the 2001 second-overall draft pick (Jason Spezza) to the Senators for Alexei Yashin.
The former Michigan Wolverine was elated to play for a contender. However, Muckalt’s season didn't go as anticipated. In limited ice-time, the right winger failed to notch a goal in 70 games. After netting 11 the previous campaign and scoring 105 at Michigan, Muckalt compared his Ottawa experience to “missing the cut at the Masters.”
Inking a deal with the Wild during the summer, he quickly returned to form, scoring five goals in his first five games. Then disaster struck. Muckalt suffered a debilitating shoulder injury, limiting him to only eight more games the remainder of the season including playoffs, which turned out to be his last in the NHL.
Seventeen surgeries, 11 of the shoulder variety finally caught up to Muckalt, forcing him to retire at age 29.
Looking to re-invent himself in the business world, the former Canucks 1994 ninth-rounder forged a career in real estate and development - building luxury homes while managing college rental units.
After just two years away from the sport, Muckalt felt a “passion” to return.
“It’s a great game, so humbling, so rewarding. I missed that competitive spirit and I wanted to be able to mentor and develop.”
A two-time National Champion and Hobey Baker nominee, Muckalt reached out to colleges and universities throughout his home state in hope of a response. The call was answered by former Red Wing Lee Norwood who hired Muckalt to be his assistant at Eastern Michigan.
Muckalt took the reins the following season before moving on to stints as coach and general manager in the Western States and North American Hockey Leagues.
When Mel Pearson left Michigan after 23 years on Red Berenson’s staff to become head coach of Michigan Tech, Muckalt was the first person he contacted to assist him.
It was the second time their paths intertwined. It was Pearson who recruited Muckalt to play there after watching him score five goals in one game with Merritt in the BCJHL.
“I always admired his tenacity, his work ethic, his character; with his background it was a no-brainer hire for me,” Pearson said.
Pearson also eyed Muckalt for his own recruiting skills. “He’s such an out-going guy. You need someone who is personable and not afraid to go out on the road and work hard.”
After four years at Tech, the Surrey, B.C. native was named coach and general manager of the Tier 1 USHL Tri-City Storm, guiding the club to a Clark Cup championship in his first season at the helm.
Considering Muckalt and assistants Ben Gordon and Taylor Nelson had less than two months to field a squad that included six hold-overs and nine players fresh out of high school, it was a huge accomplishment.
The coach wanted to transfer this message to his young team.
“One of the things we wanted to work on as a staff was to establish a culture and focus as a group to get better every day,” said Muckalt. “That was our philosophy. Control the six inches (of ice) in front of our face, what we can control.”
The Storm started slow, earning victories in four of 12 games. However, they were consistent throughout the remaining 48 games, topping the Western Conference with a 28-15-17 record – an odd mark due to the club winning only three of 20 games requiring overtime.
As GM, Muckalt made several key trades, one of which included the acquisition of Providence College commit Brandon Duhaime from the Chicago Steel that helped get the Storm over the hump.
“The trades improved the depth of our group, but I thought the buy-in was fantastic. The leadership of Tory Dello, Mattias Goransson, Dan Labosky was great.”
“We had a saying, GOAT. The players thought it was the Greatest of All Time, but it was Greater Opportunities Arise Together. The better the team would do, the better success of the individual. This came to fruition.”
The trio of Alex Limoges-Wade Allison-Labosky was unstoppable during the post-season, combining for 49 points in 11 games. Allison, a second-round pick of the Flyers, broke Storm playoff marks for goals (9) and points (16).
Goaltender Jake Kielly who’ll attend Clarkson University, sported a nifty .950 save percentage while posting three shutouts on route to the championship.
Nicknamed “Full Throttle” because he doesn’t do anything halfway; the past month Muckalt has had knee surgery, travelled to Sweden to meet Frolunda junior Linus Weissbach, held a week-long tryout in Las Vegas and is now on route to this weekend’s NHL draft.
Pearson speaks highly of his protégé, “he’s a rising star, true student of the game.”
Muckalt has NHL coaching aspirations, one day hoping to follow in the footsteps of Jeff Blashill, Jon Cooper and Dave Hakstol who once called the USHL their home.
If Muckalt continues to go Full Throttle, who knows where that path may lead?