As the Cyclones bench boss steps back, the Banner sits down with Listowel’s most revered hockey coach
NORTH PERTH – When Jason Brooks first stepped into the Listowel Cyclones’ head coach position in the summer of 2014, he had a five-year strategy that he planned to execute.
He didn’t set out to achieve two 40-win seasons (check) in that time. Or win back-to-back Cherrey Cups (check). Or win the Sutherland Cup (check).
What Brooks really wanted was to change the junior hockey culture in Listowel – to lift a team that for so many years played catch-up to rival clubs in Stratford and Elmira. To bring the Cyclones into the limelight as a perennial superpower in the ultra-competitive Midwestern Conference and the Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League as a whole.
Check. Most definitely.
With the formal announcement earlier this year that the 43-year-old Gowanstown resident would be stepping down from his role as Cyclones bench boss (maintaining his position within the organization as director of hockey operations) and the recent assigning of the team’s new coaching structure led by incoming head coach and current general manager Jesse Cole, the Listowel Banner sat down with Brooks to discuss the decision and his tenure leading Listowel through its most successful junior hockey years…
Listowel Banner: Thanks for doing this, Jason. On a lighter note to start, are you taking your family anywhere for a holiday this summer?
Jason Brooks: Yes, we’re going on a family vacation; we’re going to New Brunswick actually to see a little bit of Canada. We’re going to drive on out and spend a week touring the Bay of Fundy and some different little adventures we have planned. I’m looking forward to that. Anytime we are able to get together and just do something together that isn’t associated with a sport is nice.
LB: How difficult was the decision to make this your final season coaching the Cyclones?
JB: I’ve enjoyed the last five years doing it. But it wasn’t a tough decision. When I look at the time I’ve put into the Bs and the time it took away from my family, this was the right time. It was the right time to step aside and put that attention back into the kids, and put that time back into Jess – I’ve taken away a lot of that time that we could have had together and spent it at the arena. That was an easy decision from that perspective. But from a coaching perspective, I will miss it. You get attached to the kids, you like the camaraderie.
LB: You’ve coached OHL clubs before in much larger markets – what made Listowel different, and did you feel more pressure to succeed in your hometown?
JB: There’s always a pressure to succeed. Coaching in the OHL obviously pushed me to have success. I wanted to turn the program around. I wouldn’t say I felt more pressure here. I just felt confident that this plan would work and that we were going to have success. I wanted us to be an upper-tier team, not fighting for sixth, seventh, eighth all the time. I wanted us to fight for the top four and be in that top four. I think back to the Elmiras and they were consistently always there, and the Stratfords and they were always there. I wanted that to be us, I wanted Listowel to have a shot at that. And if the stars aligned and you could win, well great.
LB: If you’re able to say, did you receive a lot of coaching job offers from other junior clubs over the past few years?
JB: I had opportunities. I had opportunities to go back to the Ontario (Hockey) League. But it just didn’t work out with family and being here. It’s always nice to be wanted. But in the big picture it wasn’t going to work out; the kids were getting older and I was enjoying what we were doing.
LB: You were coaching a Junior B club full-time, with three kids in minor hockey and this on top of the extra coaching and skating sessions you would take on over the course of a given season. Could you estimate how many hours a week you spent at the rink at a season’s peak?
JB: No. Honestly, it’s what I was always used to in the winter. There were a lot of hours, but they were enjoyable hours.
LB: You’ve often talked about the relationships you’ve forged with your players rather than the specific on-ice memories as your favourite aspect of coaching – when you look back on the 2018 Sutherland Cup win how will you remember that group as a collective?
JB: It will be one of the greatest hockey memories I’ll have is just that group. As a coach you watch them grow, you watch them develop and watch them go from kids coming out of Triple-A thinking they knew the game and knew what they wanted. Then they come in and they’re faced with my practices and faced with the demands that I placed on them, and the expectations and the work ethic I expected. To watch them go from Year 1 to that Sutherland Cup year is phenomenal. Think about how many local kids were on that team. Not just the Listowel kids…these guys became a part of the community, and that’s what is meaningful. They don’t just become players for you, they become your friends. That’s what I like about it, that brotherhood you get with those players.
LB: How did you celebrate the 2018 Sutherland Cup win? Details please.
JB: I was more relieved. I think the year before when we won the Cherrey Cup, I probably celebrated too much in the sense of thinking that we’d hit the pinnacle…Then you get to Game 7 against Waterloo (the following year) and it’s the semifinal, and you think that jeez if you don’t win this, is this a letdown? Is this utter disappointment because of the team you had? To those players’ credit they found a way and made history after that, they played some fantastic hockey.
LB: You come across as a man who doesn’t overly like surprises, but what surprised you most about this year’s edition of the team?
JB: The whole season was a little bit of a shock. Mostly because you graduate so many bodies and you brought in so many young guys. That’s the part that impressed me, the play of the young players. From goaltending on through, they impressed me. They bought in right away. And the thing that I was so encouraged about – and I give all the credit here to Holdyn (Lansink), Herf (Chayse Herrfort) and Brenden Clayton – is being three guys returning that were keys to winning. It’s that winning culture. This is what we know. Even when we didn’t expect to, we found ways to.
LB: Was Jesse Cole the only clear choice to be your successor?
JB: Yes. He’s a great coach, very passionate and he cares about the program. He’s a winner. He’s won as a junior player in Stratford, he won as a college player. He came back here and won as a coach. He’ll be an excellent coach for this program moving forward.
LB: What’s something quirky about Jesse that the average fan wouldn’t know?
JB: He’s a bit of a worry wart that boy. Which is what drives him. He’s meticulous.
LB: Off of your 2018 Sutherland Cup championship team, who do you think would be the best candidate to become a junior head coach themselves?
JB: I really like Brady (Anderson). There’s little things about Andy that I see being around him and being around the kids and watching him at practice. Are there areas where he can learn? Sure. But he’s a student of the game. He’s not afraid to share his opinion, which is a great attribute to have as a young coach.
LB: You look healthy and happy, how is your health as a whole?
JB: I’m doing just fine, thank you.
LB: Really great to hear. If you had to choose, who would be the NHL head coach you’d like to swap lives with for one day? Past or present.
JB: I don’t have just one guy that I’d like to be or not be, because I find coaches intriguing, and everyone’s story intriguing. I look at Mike Babcock’s story – I think the world of Mike Babcock as a coach. It’s amazing where he came from. This was a coach of the Moose Jaw Warriors who got fired. Then he was fighting to be a coach and not sure what he was going to do, and he winds up going to Lethbridge University with a program that was going to fold, he takes them and wins a CIS championship. Then he goes to Spokane and then he’s in a Memorial Cup. From there he goes to Cincinnati in the American league – Anaheim’s farm team but also Detroit’s farm team. Ends up in Anaheim and goes to a Stanley Cup Final. Works there until he gets let go and then where does he wind up? In Detroit replacing the legendary Scotty Bowman. I find that intriguing. But then I look at a guy like Craig Berube…he goes to St. Louis and has the most amazing second half of any NHL team. From worst to first. That’s fascinating. How did he do it? What did he do that was so amazing? To get inside their minds.
LB: Do you play rec hockey, and do you get bugged to play a lot by your friends?
JB: No. I used to (get asked to play). I think my injury history is well known in town and amongst the rec hockey group. The competitor in me loved playing, but the competitor in me hated playing. I actually threw my gear out. I just have my skates and my gloves, and a helmet for when I coach minor hockey. I just kind of said no more. You just kind of flip the page.