Gary Wright: A Pillar for AIC and the underdog in College Hockey

Photo Credit: RJB Sports

For AIC Hockey, the first thing nearly everyone outside of the program talks about is its culture. Eric Lang has taken this team to three Atlantic Hockey Championships in a row and multiple NCAA Tournmaments in a row in part because he has players that love the culture he has helped establish. Well, Lang, as the second division one head coach in this program had decades of help from its first coach at this level, his friend, former coach, and mentor for life, Gary Wright. Lang, and Coordinator of Communications Seth Dussault both would not be where they are with AIC without Grary Wright. With Wright receiving the John “Snooks” Kelley Founders Award from the AHCA, both have a lot to say about their mentor, and their friend on what he means to them, and all he has done. The award “honors those people in the coaching profession who have contributed to the overall growth and development of the sport of ice hockey in the United States.”

First, as to what Wright did with what he had at AIC , Eric Lang put emphasis on this

” Gary had some outstanding teams, some of the best in AIC history. He did this with one hand tied behind his back. He was never afforded the resources we have to date. He is an all time coach in every sense of the word. He could coach swimming, hockey, wrestling, you name the sport he would have been a great coach. Everything he taught us as players and for me later as a coach is about doing things the right way. It’s hard for me to quantify the impact he has had on my life. One thing is for certain. I’m not here answering these questions without him.

Coach Wright’s story goes far and above wins and losses. It’s way deeper than that. Get 3-4 AIC hockey players in a room and we can’t get a sentence out without talking about him and the impact he has made on all of our lives.Get 3-4 coaches (there are a lot of us in this business because of him) and we can’t not bring up a Coach Wright story. In terms of AIC historically being an underdog. There is certainly some truth to that but we never believed it. He never ever made an excuse.” Lang never backs down from challenging schedules, and that is one of the many things he shares in common with Gary Wright. While AIC may always be considered an underdog by those outside of its walls, this program has always viewed itself as able to compete with anyone. That common belief started with Wright.

Lang felt that Wright took chance on him as he talked about after AIC played Uconn yesterday , he said “Gary is one of the most important people in my life. He gave a very below-average hockey player an opportunity to play college hockey and the same below-average hockey player with zero coaching experience an opportunity there. He’s as special a person as there is. Any time you spend over 30 years at one institution, affecting the lives that he has, it’s pretty neat. It’s an award well-deserved and warranted. A lot of things we do are things I learned from Gary.”

Dussault noted that as to his involvement with AIC Hockey, that would not have happened without Wright.

He said “Coach Wright made it a point of ensuring that I could be a part of things. The opportunities I had – traveling with the team, being around practices, being involved in general – it wasn’t that he tolerated my presence, but that he actively wanted me to be part of the team. He made sure I got to travel with the team, and that came out of the team’s budget, but it was worth it to him. The extra experience and opportunities to hone my craft made me better at my job, and I also got to go to incredible places – Penn State, Michigan, Air Force, Maine, you name it – and be part of some amazing moments, like beating PSU in overtime in the first varsity game for the Nittany Lions. I’ll never forget Jon Puskar tipping that shot in with under 30 seconds left in OT after 61 saves by Ben Meisner, nor will I forget Coach quipping as he sat down to do the postgame presser in front of dozens of reporters that he wasn’t used to such large numbers of media.”

Both Lang and Dussault talked about Wright’s building of what AIC Hockey is and what the culture of it is. Lang said it best as he discussed what defines AIC Hockey, traits that Wrifhr has ensured are to be at the center of all the players and staff that are fortunate enough to be a part of the family that AIC is , family that Wright helped grow “Integrity,honor, honesty and accountability. If every NCAA hockey coach conducted himself like Coach Wright did their would be no need for an NCAA rule book. Coach never worked in the grey area. He cared about developing people and was never in the excuse business. The word culture has become a buzz word the last 5 years. Gary was hard-lined on bringing in great people. He measured twice and cut once in that area.”

From Lang, apart from Wright being a strong competitor, he took the time to discuss how detail oriented everything Wright did was, and how ahead of his time he was in teaching aspects of the game. As Lang describes “Their are so many. The one thing as a player is nothing superseded sportsmanship and playing the right way. He was no nonsense in this area. His teams were always the most disciplined in the country. I have always said this; Coach Wright was so far ahead of his time in terms of skill development, creativity, allowing your players to make plays. Til this day nobody ran a better practice. Never a puck out of place or any disorganization. Puck possession, going backwards with puck, puck support, getting your defenseman involved in the offense. Coach was doing this in the mid 80’s. It’s one of our pillars as a program today. The right way. It’s my Gary Wright pillar.”

As to stories, Dussault had three he wanted to highlight involving Wright.

They are as follows “ We were at Bentley University back in the days of the old JAR, before their new rink. A pass comes across from the left point to the right, ramps up off a stick, and hits Coach square across the face, pretty sure it was along his right cheekbone. He’s bleeding pretty badly. And all he does is grab a towel from our athletic trainer, stuff it up against his face, and finish coaching the game. Nothing mattered more to him than his team.

( second) When Coach was closing in on his 300th win, the league reached out to me asking to do a story about it, which necessitated a quote from him. We were on the road to a game at the time, and so I walked to the front of the bus to ask him for one. He wasn’t thrilled about it – not that I was asking, so much as he just didn’t want the story to be about him, because that meant taking away from the guys. Ultimately, of course, he relented.
(Finally) This last one, grab some Kleenex before you start reading. You’ll need it.

Back in 2012, we had a young student named Emily come to our campus. Emily loved hockey more than anything in the world. And her decision to come to AIC was based solely on seeing us play Sacred Heart near her home in southern Connecticut. She wanted to be involved. And like he did with me, Coach found a way. He had her helping out in the office, helping with gear, anything that he could think of to get her around the team.
Emily had epilepsy. It had a significant impact on her life, and in 2013 she had a surgery to attempt to correct the issue leading to it. I’ll never forget getting the phone call after she woke up. She wanted to talk to me a bit, and wanted to talk to Coach Wright. We were at Bentley, and it was maybe 90 minutes before game time. I brought Coach the phone, which of course normally you’d never want to bother him as he’s getting ready for a game, but as soon as I said it was her, he dropped everything and went to talk to her.
Emily unfortunately passed away in 2014. I still don’t know what happened, beyond that she went to sleep and didn’t wake up. It was devastating. And I remember being the one to tell Coach. Might be the only time I’ve come close to hearing him cry. Suffice it to say, our entire team went to the memorial service they had for her in her hometown in Connecticut. Coach Wright’s compassion made such an impact on Emily and on her family. Her dad reached out to me today actually when he saw he won the award from the AHCA to express his continued gratitude.”

To wrap this up, both of these men who are now pillars in the AIC community would not be where they are without the help of Wright. Lang summed it up best in saying something we think Seth would agree with, and many of those who have gone on from AIC to do great things with the game of hockey or in another field would agree with “It’s hard for me to quantify the impact he has had on my life. One thing is for certain. I’m not here answering these questions without him.”

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