GVSU roller hockey coach pioneers change

GVL / Courtesy - Isaac Washburn
Kenny Wurth, sophomore defenseman

GVL / Courtesy – Isaac Washburn Kenny Wurth, sophomore defenseman

Adam Knorr

Isaac Washburn sat down for an interview in a tucked-in black Grand Valley State polo and khaki pants, carrying a binder armed with all the information a varsity coach needs.

Only Isaac Washburn isn’t a varsity coach.

Washburn is the coach of the Division I and III GVSU club roller hockey teams and has been the catalyst to a massive culture shift that is starting to change the way people look at club sports.

“It’s really improving the overall future of the program,” Washburn said. “Making sure that we’re getting student-athletes of high character and not necessarily characters. We want to improve the experience and give them a unique experience.”

GVSU has long had talented players in its roller hockey programs, but Washburn’s work along with assistant coach Nick Dow has taken things to a new level.

Washburn is a video coach for the Kalamazoo Wings hockey team, and spends his time watching and breaking down film for scouting reports. Washburn decided to bring that skill set to GVSU roller hockey, and the change began.

“I think we’re ahead of the game coaching-wise,” Dow said. “No program has coaches who have been around three years or show up regularly. A lot of programs are student-ran and I think we’re way ahead of the game where no one else is doing this.”

Although the coaching techniques are ahead of the curve, it can take the players time to adjust and buy in to the process.

Club sports are often viewed as an opportunity to play competitively without putting in varsity-level work. The roller hockey workload isn’t as extreme as varsity sports yet, but players are expected to show up to games and practices an hour early.

“We have exceptions but you have to be bought in to what we do no matter who you are,” Dow said. “If you have an all-star player and you’re not adhering and doing everything on your own it’s not going to help the team out. The ice hockey program has the expectation if you’re not at practice you’re not going to play. We have this standard.”

The raised standards have caught the eye of potential players. Last year, the roller hockey club didn’t have any new players signed up to try out for the next season. This season, the club has at least 15 players signed up, not including returning players.

The team gets players from all experience levels – some who have never played competitively, some with high school experience and players who have even played at the junior level.

Washburn has kicked around the idea of running satellite camps in Detroit and Chicago, similar to what Jim Harbaugh did for Michigan football this summer.

The moves Washburn and Dow have made are trailblazing for the sport. Miami (Ohio) got a new coach halfway through last season. More and more teams are starting to show up early for games for a proper warm-up. Teams that don’t adjust could quickly be left behind.

“I’ve been involved since ’98 as a player, coach, staff member and now director,” said Midwest Collegiate Roller Hockey League (MCRHL) Regional League Director Jeff Nolan. “At times throughout the history its been taken more seriously than others… What Nick and Isaac have done recently is probably the biggest change that I’ve seen from one year to another year and they’ve really got a lot of buy in.”

The scouting, game film breakdown and pregame strategies are the biggest changes, but without the players being sold, all the planning in the world is liable to go to waste.

Washburn and Dow say the buy in from the players varies year-to-year. Laker squads often come brimming with talent, but the coaching staff and players need cohesion to click at top potential.

“The thing about athletics is that it’s all about potential and whether guys work hard to live up to that potential,” Washburn said. “We have a good core group of guys coming back and the potential is there to make another run.”

Washburn was recently awarded the Award for Outstanding Contribution to Collegiate Roller Hockey – an award handed out by the MCRHL. The award is annual, but not mandatory, meaning it is only presented when it is truly earned.

“Every region has the ability to award it if they feel they have someone strong enough, and really Isaac was top and only on my list,” Nolan said. “There are other guys that do a lot but what he’s done there, he not only wants to help Grand Valley he wants to grow the entire sport. He’s just one of those guys that gets it.”

The Division I Lakers finished 22-13, playing in 10 tournaments and losing in the Sweet 16 of the 2015 National Collegiate Roller Hockey Championships. GVSU competes in the MCRHL and plays its home games at Rivertown Sports in Grandville, Michigan.