New Guelph Gryphons men’s varsity hockey coach Josh Dixon has coached from one end of the country to the other, but is back in the area he considers home.
“This is really home, this part of the world, for sure,” the 40-year-old said. “My wife and I both grew up in Oakville and then I went off to coach university hockey and go to school in Ottawa.”
That was the start of a coaching journey that including time behind benches in major junior and U Sports hockey. He comes to the Gryphons following two seasons as an associate coach with the Prince George Cougars of the Western Hockey League. He’s also been a head coach with the Saint John Sea Dogs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, an assistant coach with the WHL’s Swift Current Broncos and an associate coach with the WHL’s Regina Pats.
Coaching experience in U Sports includes time as an associate and assistant coach with the Mount Royal Cougars of Calgary, Calgary Dinos and Carleton Ravens.
He’s also been a head or assistant coach at the U16, U17 and U20 levels in the Team Canada Program of Excellence.
For Dixon, who replaced Shawn Camp after Camp retired in the spring following 16 seasons with the Gryphons, it’s been a busy summer.
“The first two weeks were kind of remote at the beginning of July,” he said. “I was finishing up at a hockey school that I'd committed to up north, so I was doing that remotely. Getting to know the players, getting to know who was back and trying to put our schedule together as well with exhibition games and travel. I've been on campus since the middle of July.”
Getting to know the returning players has given Dixon a good impression of them.
“Certainly it's a group that's very motivated to get back to the playoffs,” he said. “(It's) a team that believes that they underperformed last season. It was one of those seasons where you lose seven games in overtime and you miss the playoffs by a point. You get very hot down the stretch.
“I watched the last five games very intently to get a sense of the team. They won four in a row to finish the season. Looking at the roster and the quality of the players and the way the team performed when they absolutely had to win, it gives you great optimism.”
Of course, those seven overtime losses haunt the team. That’s seven dropped points for a team that finished a single point out of a playoff position.
“If we can get out of the gate with a good start, we could have a good season,” Dixon said. “The goal certainly with this program is not only to be in the playoffs, and that's our expectation to be in the playoffs, but you want to give yourself a chance to make some noise and it should be a program that is competitive every year.
“Ultimately, it has been a program in the past that was of national prominence and certainly a program that had the opportunity to compete for and win national championships almost on a yearly basis. There were some great stretches, three or four years in a row, with the team going to U Sports (championship tournament).
"That's something that we'd like to get back to. That doesn't happen overnight. For this season it's get back to the playoffs. That's step No. 1 and we'll build from there.”
The Gryphons are to open their five-game exhibition schedule with a pair of games in Ottawa as they’re to play the Carleton Ravens Sept. 9 and Ottawa Gee-Gees Sept. 10.
All of the preseason games are road games, as is their OUA season opener Sept. 23 in North Bay against the Nipissing Lakers. Their exhibition games continue after the regular-season opener with games in the U.S. against NCAA opponents RPI Engineers in Troy, N.Y., and RIT Tigers in Rochester before finally getting a game at the Gryphon Centre.
Their home opener against Brock on Oct. 12 is to be the first of four consecutive home games. While the Gryphons didn’t line up a home exhibition game, it wasn’t for lack of trying.
“There's a cap on how many games you can play and when I took over, we needed to get some exhibition games on our schedule,” Dixon said. “In order to accommodate needing to have some games but also needing to find opponents that also were looking for games to make it work, that was the best of the options. Given a new coaching staff and players coming back, it certainly worked out well. It gives us the chance to get away as a group right off the bat and hopefully get some team building in, get to know each other. It's not the worst thing in the world to start on the road like that.”
The new coaching staff includes associate coach Dave Leger and assistant coach Scott Simmonds, the former Gryphon two-sport athlete (hockey and rugby) who retired from active play after a 50-point season with the Manchester Storm of Britain’s Elite Ice Hockey League last season, his fourth with Manchester.
Of course the goal for the Gryphons during the season, starting with the exhibition games, is to improve every time out.
“The way we play the first two games of exhibition play certainly isn't the way we're ideally going to finish against the two NCAA teams and ultimately not the way we're going to start at home,” he said. “For me, I've always been a big believer that teams have to compete. You have to compete every single night. That's first and foremost and that needs to be engrained right off the bat.
"We're going to be a team that works hard. We're going to be aggressive without the puck and then with the puck we want to try to create offence and allow our players and their skillsets to have some creativity to make that happen.
“I like to play with pace. I like to try to play with the puck, play an up-tempo game and at the same time be cognizant of the fact that we're playing on Olympic ice at home so we have to be responsible without the puck. Ideally I'd like to see a team that can make the switch between playing on the big ice and being responsible without the puck and playing on the smaller ice and being a very aggressive team in trying to create turnovers and ultimately trying to create scoring chances off of those turnovers.
"So those are some of the pillars that we're looking to put in place. But for me it all begins and ends with compete. We want a team that competes with passion and purpose every single night.”