Cory Herschk has a lot on his plate preparing to select a Men’s team to represent in 2015. He talks about his coaching experience, who his influences are, and why he thinks coaching is going to make the difference in the future….
Cory, thanks for taking some time out of your coaching duties for this interview with ASHI. Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I was born and raised in the heart of Pittsburgh, PA on the South Side. I could walk to the Civic/Mellon Arena to watch Mario and the Pens play from my mother’s house. I’m a Mama’s boy so I lived there for 27 years. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. I currently teach 3rd grade math for the Pittsburgh Public School District.
How old were you the first time you played street hockey?
So, there’s a slanted, pot-hole infested, asphalt parking lot next to my mom’s house that I started playing hockey on around 7 years old. My neighborhood friends and I would play there on 11th Street, or at a park on 12th Street everyday. If it wasn’t pouring rain or snowing 6″ we were there. Half the kids on blades, half on feet…it didn’t matter. Best memories are playing in the winter league at the Market House, which was a high school gym. We would have an all-star team play against other city neighborhood all-star teams. Then, a dek rink was built next to an ice hockey rink and we were in heaven.
What made you fall in love with the game?
Fun! Hockey is and always has been so much FUN! The laughs we had and still have, like late night video game sleep-overs playing NHL on Sega, memories of playing, scoring, and winning city titles. Not to mention, Mario Lemieux was a gift to our city. Watching the Penguins from early 80’s to present has simply been a blessing. They shape the mold for my men’s team, the Team Pittsburgh GODS.
Who were your biggest influences in your life that helped you growing up with the game. Dad, friends, coach?
My cousin Brian was always the coolest guy around. He’s about 5 years older than me and traveled to play ice hockey. I was constantly with him and his dad, my Uncle Frank. Those two turned the games on TV for me at a young age, and my uncle coached most of the teams I played on, he and my dad (my dad, who knows nothing about hockey lol). Mario Lemieux is my idol though. I wanted to be him…PERIOD! Needless to say I came up short.
What turned you on to competitive ball hockey? How old were you when you played in your first tournament?
I guess those Pittsburgh leagues and all-star teams were truly my closest tournament style competitions. My family couldn’t travel to play in tournaments, so my first high level tournament against other states was Mark Madden’s Men’s National at RMU Island Sports when I was 21. I didn’t know other cities even played street/dek hockey like we did, until then. I started asking questions and learning about other cities programs and tournaments.
How did you get into coaching street hockey? What hockey coaching experience do you have?
I started coaching at 16, when I was too old to play in local leagues. My brother’s needed a coach for their 15U team so I decided to do it, and haven’t stopped since. My South Side teams had a lot of success and I enjoyed coaching, building talent, running organized practices, recruiting, mixing the best line combinations, etc. I was coaching 7-9 year olds, 11-12 year olds and 13-15 year olds all at once. I liked coaching more than playing believe it or not. I heard about tournaments at Penn Hills and Niagara Falls, so we traveled. Later on, Mark Madden and Jerry Bass, who were two successful coaches and well respected around the country, took me under their wings. So did Jamie Ramano of Belmawr, NJ. Don Gregory and Team Pittsburgh let me bring my ideas to their mix. It’s taken off since then 10 years ago. I could talk all day about the tournaments that we lost while helping us learn to win. I’m most proud of 3 National Junior Titles, 5 International Junior Championships, 2 Men’s B National Championships, 2 Bronze Medals with the Jr National team and of course Back to Back North American Championships with the GODS. Teaching is what I was put on Earth to do!
Most of the people who play street hockey, even those who play in tournaments, have never been coached in street hockey or understand how a coach can help a team. What exactly does a street hockey coach do in terms of coaching? Strategy? Fundamentals? Positioning?
My job is the same as any ice hockey coach’s job, prepare my team to win. Our job is to organize structured practices working on basic skill drills to improve individual talents like speed, shooting, ball handling, redirecting shots, shot blocking, and much more, as well as to fine-tune teamwork with flow drills. We implement a system of defense, fore-checking, designed break-outs, set plays for face-offs and odd-man situations, and philosophy. Most importantly, we have to know our players. Know how to handle them, treat them, utilize their talents, tutor them to improve their weaknesses, motivate them, and push them to be better. We are the organizers of the gameplan. The players are the executors of it. You will see me constantly talking to players shift after shift about the positives and negatives of their work. If I’m not involved in all of these aspects, then I’m not doing my job.
How important a difference is coaching becoming at the high end level?
Structure and discipline is everything. The higher you move up, the faster and smarter your opponents get. A coach has to be able to read situations, make adaptations, find flaws & strengths, and execute the strategy at a high speed rate. We look for in-game match-ups and search for opponent’s weaknesses during a small given timeframe without much background knowledge of your opponent and very little if any experience playing against them. It’s not like we have much game film on what Team Canada is going to bring to the 2015 World Championships for example. So, we’ve got to study them in a much shorter window of time. Certain players will tell you that on and off rink discipline is everything. You can tell a well-managed synchronized team from a team thrown together who showed up to party and play hockey. The biggest challenge is getting players who live in different cities to unite into one team that proves to be on the same page. Our ASHI team is developing ways to raise funds and organize scrimmages, pre-World Championship tournaments and a friendly or two, plus camps to help develop chemistry needed to win. Team USA is going to be focused on one thing, WINNING GOLD!
What is the difference between winning and losing in your opinion in this game? What does it generally come down to?
One of my favorite all time coaches, Scotty Bowman, said “You’ve got to learn how to lose before you learn how to win.” Team USA has lost at the world championships enough to know that NOW is our time. Gold is it. It may not be the EVERYTHING, sure any medal at this level is an accomplishment, but it’s our EVERYTHING. I get the butterflies in my stomach just excited about the thought of playing for the ultimate prize in our sport. It comes down to every single part of our team, from the men on the rink, to the GM’s high up in the booth not taking one shift off between the time our team is selected to the time we make this country proud.
Toughest loss? Greatest triumph?
Why do you have to bring that up? I’ve had my fair share of tough losses. One that sticks out to me right now was in 2007 or 2008 in Leominster MA at Men’s A League Nationals when I was coaching Pittsburgh United with Mark Madden. I’ve tried to block most from my memory, but what I do remember is having a one goal lead with less than a minute left in regulation. The Rams scored a game tying goal with the net-minder pulled, then capped off the victory in overtime just a few minutes in. I’m sugar coating the most upsetting part that many of my United teammates would tell you was a pretty obvious to us missed hand-pass that lead to the game tying goal under 10 seconds left in the third. We went from one of the biggest wins in Pittsburgh hockey history to one of the most hurtful losses in a flash. Congrats to the Rams though. We haven’t made it back to Leominster to fix a wrong.
Along with many tough losses came some of the most glorifying moments in my life. Winning a bronze in 2008 and 2012, back-to-back North American Championships, men’s National Championship in 2010, but there’s nothing like the first huge win. The win that sets the standard and raises the bar for your program. Our first National Championship win 2007 was something special. The drama in the game and how the win unfolded was memorable. We were down 2-0 against our rival, Penn Hills Wizards, who practically owned us in the history meetings. Dan Tonin scored a PP goal to pull back into the game early in the third. Then Joe Powell scored a game tying goal with under 3-minutes to play before Aaron Hahne set Powell up for his game-winner with under a minute to play. It was the bench-mark and proved that we could play at the highest levels. A little less than half of the players on that team still travel with the GODS today, but yet we are all still very close like family.
Who are the best players you’ve ever coached and why were they great to coach?
Well, I’ve been fortunate. With success comes great talent and a huge pull of talent. I’ve always felt that Bobby Housser, Cody Warila, and Andrew Hildreth of Leominster were the top players from MA and I’ve been lucky enough to coach all 3. Denny Schlegel, in my eyes, is the greatest goal scorer of our day and he’s played with my teams before. Recently, Jon Ruiz of NJ was a pleasure to coach at the last World Junior Championships. But I’ve got to say that for a good part of a decade, some of the top talent I’ve ever seen has come from my home town. I’ve been blessed to coach all world talent on a weekly basis like Aaron Hahne, Chris Liebers, Steve Gregory, Mitchell Faust, Joe Powell, Rick Zimmick, Dave Molitierno John Rethage, Ryan Jones and so many more. I could be here all day making this list. All the guys work hard, do what they’re asked, and are an out-of-this-world talent. Thank you all for making me the coach that I am today.
Let’s transition into your team, the Pittsburgh Gods. Talk about how you got involved with them.
GODS hockey is not just a team, they are my family. Some were in my wedding, while all attended it two months after our first [North American Championships] A Division title.
My brother Jarrod and I were coaching our neighborhood Market House team in the Mid-west regional tournament when we were approached by President Don Gregory about merging our program with his at Team Pittsburgh. We saw tremendous upside and a great future. We coached the Cadet A team who eventually graduated to Freshman/Juniors. While coaching the junior team, we struggled to finish ahead of our rival Penn Hills Wizards. I remember losing to them in Philadelphia in 2006 in the National Semi-finals. We were eating at a restaurant when Tim Tagmyer jokingly asked, “What’s the only thing that can’t beat a Wizard? A GOD.” The team name was put into place and we haven’t looked back since. We’ve had so much fun and created so many memories together. It’s exciting to know that we have a bucket list with a lot more to accomplish. Roy Duttine, Mitchell Faust, Jon & Jeff Gingell were 12 and 13 years old the first year we joined Team Pittsburgh, and are still members of the team today. My nearly 6 month old daughter has lots of uncles.
Gods have won back to back North Americans. How hard was that and how great does it feel to have that in your belt?
Next to Worlds, I believe that North Americans is the most prominent trophy in our sport and the largest event of the year. It is truly a blessing and an honor to be named champion of such a prestigious award. It goes without saying that the top teams from all over the continent come to play. It’s physical, it’s fast, and it’s packed with skill and top talent. Most of the players that make it to the quarter finals have had some experience playing in the World Championships at some point in time. It took us as United 3 visits, and as the GODS 2 trips to Eastern PA to figure it out. I’m not sure we have figured it out to be honest. You just have to be resilient, willing to bleed for one another, you have to get hot at the right time, plus take advantage of good breaks and bounces. Good things happen to those who work hard. My guys dedicate themselves to weekly practices nearly all year long. That work has provided us with positive recognition in this sport that we respect and love so much. We have a lot of work still to do to improve and get better.
How did you get the Team USA Coaching Job?
My long time rival & great friend, Mark Madden. His junior/freshman team, Penn Hills Wizards, rivaled our Team Pittsburgh GODS for a few years. He saw a lot of him in me, and gave me a chance. Chris Housser was GM at the time and accepted me on board as well. I traveled to with a prospect team to Vancouver, BC and the Canadian Nationals in 2007, then was a part of the bronze medal staff as an assistant in St. John’s 2008, then World Jr. Head Coach in 2010 & 2012.
Have you assembled the rest of your staff yet?
Yes & No. Mark Madden as accepted the assistant coach position, my brother Jarrod Herschk will be one of two members of the player personnel staff. I’ve begun discussions with a few others. My ideal staff would include Eric Schultz of Buffalo, player personnel; Mike DeFazio, statistics; Jim Dougherty, assistant coach. Jim “Doc” Dougherty and Mike DeFazio are both capable of being rostered players on the team however. Thus my staff will not be complete until after the team is selected this Spring. We have a good core with great experience, dedication, passion & a solid game plan to move forward.
What are you looking for from the Team USA players who will be trying out?
Character, pride, heart, dedication & guys willing to do whatever’s asked and required of them… to start. As far as ability goes, we are going to base our team around speed. Speed kills in this sport like most. It’s something that you can’t teach, and we have a lot of it. We are also looking for players with experience at this level, guys who can fill the net, guys who are willing to put their face in front of a ball to make sure it doesn’t get to the net, & guys with Ball Hockey skill. This team is going to have top level talent mixed with role players like no men’s team has seen before. We aren’t taking the best players, we are taking the players who fit the system best.
Where do you see areas for improvement in the USA game?
Our goal is to be as organized & disciplined on the rink and off, as a team, more than any other team in the past. We are hoping that pre-world championship “friendlies,” camps with practices & team building activities will help build the chemistry and trust needed to win a gold medal.
What do you expect to be your biggest challenge in bringing home a gold?
As of now, the biggest challenge are those top teams. We aren’t the team with a target on our back. We are a team that’s coming after everyone else. We have dug our way into a hole as a men’s senior program full of inconsistencies. I remember when the United States hosted the WC in 2005 in my home town. I watched our men win 9th place, then again in Germany, a medal shot fall short in 2009, 2011, and another drop in 2013. We have no where to go but up, and let me tell you, we are setting the bar high!
What is USA’s best strengths?
Anyone who’s played against the Flyers, Fusion, Celtic/Stars, Gamblers/Supreme, Americans & GODS knows, that SPEED is of the abundance. Our top players are peeking at their prime, and are tired of losing. Tired of not feeling complete. Tired of falling short of the gold medal this country dreams of. Listen, I’m not going out and asking NHL prospects to play on this team, because the players that have put their blood, sweat, and tears into OUR sport deserve to be a part of something magical. We have a long way to go, but our train is in full throttle with a fully loaded tank, and we are NOT stopping. We have each other and that may very well be our greatest strength of all.