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Lourdes teacher takes on hockey bench boss duties in Japan

On leave from teaching at Our Lady of Lourdes, Jeff Flanigan is now head coach of the Yokohama Grits

Guelphite Jeff Flanagan’s coaching resume is very much like the song I’ve Been Everywhere.

This season Flanagan returned to being a full-time coach, taking a leave of absence from teaching at Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic High School to become the head coach of the Yokohama Grits of the Asian Hockey League.

It was actually Jeff’s wife Rachel Flanagan, the University of Guelph varsity women’s hockey team’s coach, who made Jeff aware of the job opening in Japan.

“Rachel and I had been talking about me going back to full-time coaching at some point,” Jeff said. “She's a member of a kind of email group of a bunch of coaches and one of the members sent an email out.”

“On and off for years, we had talked about different coaching opportunities,” Rachel said. “It's really hard to get a job in North America if you haven't been in the game recently or if you didn't play at a really high level. That's always been a challenge for him.

“This email came across my desk and I don't always read them, but I just happened to read this one and I just sent it to him. It happened really fast after that. Within two weeks, he was going.”

“It's kind of how things work in hockey and other things,” Jeff said. “It's kind of who you know and who your connections are and there's always somebody looking and you just kind of have to be in the right place at the right time.

“It just happened to be when we were discussing and, of course, we had many more discussions about it. Between us and the kids, we decided that it would be a good thing for me and that the family would be okay so we decided to give it a go.”

“It's hard, but it's what he wants to be doing,” Rachel said. “It's what his passion is so for me to – I don't know what kind of a relationship you'd have to be in for your partner to say, 'I'm going to do my passion, but you're not going to be allowed to do yours.' It just felt like the timing was right for us.”

Jeff’s coaching career started in the 2001-02 season as an assistant coach with the University of Guelph’s varsity men’s team while he was a student at the university. He’d been a defenceman on that team for two seasons, the first one being their national championship-winning season of 1996-97.

After two seasons as an assistant coach with the Gryphon men, Jeff was an assistant coach with the Basingstole Bisons of Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League for a season. He’s also been an assistant coach with the Gryphon men again, the Gryphon women and the Reading Royals of the ECHL, an assistant general manager/assistant coach with the Powell River Kings of the tier 2 junior British Columbia Hockey League and head coach of Gherdeina of the Italy 2 league, Johnstown Chiefs of the ECHL, Guelph Hurricanes, Elmira Sugar Kings and Brampton Bombers of the junior B Greater Ontario Junior Hockey League, Toronto Furies of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League and Milton Icehawks and Caledon Admirals of the tier 2 Ontario Junior Hockey League.

All of the coaching jobs in the last decade were dovetailed with his teaching job.

While he initially thought that he might have some difficulty communicating with his team in Yokohama, that hasn’t turned out to be the case.

“It's not as big a culture shock as I expected it to be,” Jeff said. “First of all, on our team the general manager (Takashi Mikoshiba) speaks perfect English. My assistant coach (Kazuki Shibuya) is fairly fluent in English. About half the team speaks fluent English so from that perspective, it hasn't been as difficult as I thought it would be.

“The players have been really good. If I'm communicating with one of the players that doesn't speak so much English, somebody just jumps in and helps whether it's on the ice or off the ice. The food's great – love the food. It's certainly a change with the number of people around. If you're out in the evening maybe 7 or 8 o' clock walking around, there's always people around.”

As for the quality of play in the six-team league, it’s similar to leagues he’s already coached in. The Grits also compete in the All Japan ice hockey championship that is a 12-team single-knockout tournament.

“It's good. I'd say the level is somewhere in the ECHL range from top to bottom,” Jeff said of the quality of the Asia league.

“There are a number of players here, Japanese players, who played in the ECHL or pro in Europe. It's a good level and I've really enjoyed it. I would say it's a nice place to be from that perspective and it's nice to be back with pro players, even though our structure is a little bit different. The league is quite good and there's a lot of good young players here who could go to North America and play.”

The Grits, who are in their third year of existence, have a different philosophy than the other teams in the league and that keeps their players busy.

“Their concept is dual career,” Jeff said. “Our team is made up of almost exclusively players who have full-time jobs outside of hockey. The rest of the league is fully pro. Those guys only play hockey for their living. For various reasons, they decided this is the right way to go. We've got accountants, we have computer software engineers, we have vice-presidents of start-up companies and they're also playing hockey full-time.

“The organization, when they bring in players say out of university or from wherever, they look at their education and their career path and they help them get a job in their chosen career. It's sort of a sponsorship deal with the company where the company allows the players certain ways to work, whether they work fully online or they don't have to show up to the office until 10 a.m. after our practice and different things like that. It's a challenge, for sure.

“We're a growing team. We have a number of older players as the organization kind of gets going. The mental fatigue sometimes shows on the players. We play Saturdays and Sundays. Saturday we're usually quite good and Sundays we seem to have a little bit of a dip and I think that has to do with the dual career and players' mental fatigue.

"Physically, they're in great shape. We're a very fit team. It's just the mental fatigue. It's just like us. When you're tired, you know you make mistakes so that's challenging, but we're working through it.”

While Jeff’s coaching career has seen him on the benches of several teams, he hopes it’s one that can be inspirational for his children.

“Things just kind of presented themselves either through connections or meeting someone or applications,” Jeff said. “I'd like my children to grow up and try the things that they want to do. Although it's difficult, I like that they see myself and Rachel doing things that we want to do and working hard to do them, but there are opportunities for them to chase when they grow up.”