Tom Coolen has coached a lot of teams in his 58 years.
His career has spanned seven countries and 25 years. He’s spent thousands of hours in rinks with teenagers in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, to grizzled pros in Europe.
And he knows how to win.
During the 1992-93 season, he led the Acadia University men’s hockey team to the Canadian Interuniversity Sport national championship at the storied Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto.
But nothing compared to what he felt on Feb. 26 of this year.
On that day, Coolen helped lead the St. Thomas University men’s volleyball team to the Atlantic Colleges Athletic Association championship as co-coach.
STU was the underdog in the match against Holland College, as a team made up of mostly first-year players taking on the top-ranked team.
“That moment that we won was as exciting to me as anything I’ve ever been able to accomplish with my teams as a hockey coach.”
The team moved on to the Canadian Colleges Athletic Association national championships. They finished last in the tournament of eight teams last weekend, outmatched against squads from Ontario and Quebec.
But for a team that sat out last season due to a hazing suspension and had to rebuild from scratch, an ACAA championship was more than what anyone could have expected.
“With the team being [suspended], I looked at it that we were a new team and this was a fresh start. It was a new beginning to the program.
“I really didn’t know any of the players from last year’s team. I had very little knowledge of what transpired over the past years. And I just looked ahead. I never looked back at all.”
It was that attitude, along with his winning reputation, that brought a professional hockey coach to STU to co-coach a rookie team of volleyball players.
Coolen grew up in Halifax and played baseball in the Canada Games. After that, he went on to an Atlantic University Sport football career.
But hockey is the sport that has taken up much of his life.
With a desire to keep playing in some form, Coolen started his hockey coaching career as an assistant coach with the University of New Brunswick men’s hockey team, then called the Red Devils, in 1982-83.
Coaching took him all over the world, from the U.S. college circuit to Switzerland and Germany.
But his credentials go beyond the rink.
With master’s degrees in athletic coaching and counselling, Coolen is one of only two people in the province certified by the Canadian Sports Psychology Association.
He now splits his time scouting major junior games for NHL Central Scouting and teaching at a school in Doaktown, N.B.
Last fall, he met with STU athletics director Mike Eagles to talk about rebuilding the men’s volleyball program. Eagles was interested in seeing if Coolen’s son, Patrick, would play for STU.
He also wanted to see if Coolen would guide the team with rookie co-coach Francis Duguay.
“He felt I had a lot of success as a university coach. I think he felt that would be a good place to start.
“I was familiar with the volleyball, that age level of kids entering university because I had been involved with the under-18 team [as] general manager.
“It doesn’t matter what the game is, coaching is coaching sometimes. [It’s] directing people and trying to develop people.”
They decided Duguay would handle the on-court coaching and run practices, while Coolen would handle the administrative side and provide general guidance on things like how to handle players.
As the season wore on, Coolen helped focus and motivate the young team.
“As a team, I think we were able to instill in them the belief that they could do it. Believing in themselves is a big thing.”
At Christmas, the team added Coolen’s son, Patrick, and veteran Andrew Keddy to the team. The libero and setter would be important keys to winning the championship, logging big minutes during the ACAA weekend.
In addition to having talent, Coolen knew the key to the team’s success would be taking the program seriously.
“It wasn’t going to be a program where guys practiced when they wanted to. We took it very seriously. We practiced hard, we practiced every day.”
The week before the championship weekend, Coolen used his sports psychology training to help the team get ready physically and mentally for the challenge ahead of them, starting with practicing at 100 per cent every day. He believes you play how you practice.
“Everybody played their best volleyball of the year and it all came together.”
Much of the roster can play at least another three years at STU if they want to, but Coolen isn’t sure he’ll be there to guide them next season.
“I came in to establish it and get it started.
“In a lot of ways, I feel like my job’s finished.”
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