Mike Vellucci, OHL coach of the year, relishes how Plymouth Whalers banded together for another award

Neate Sager

A season with a long playoff run is a blur, yet Mike Vellucci can easily pinpoint the most validating moment he experienced during a coach-of-the-year campaign.

Guiding the Plymouth Whalers, whose plethora of 11 NHL draft picks beget the frequent description that they were an AHL team, still presented its own set of challenges. In a season interrupted by a world junior championship held 11 time zones away and a lockout-delayed NHL campaign, Vellucci's bench strength was often in flux. Egos had to managed and no doubt massaged. There was potential for the Whalers to be more formidable on paper than on the ice, but they won the West Division title with a 42-17-5-4 record, including a post-Christmas mark of 28-6-0-1. That finish was a big part of why Vellucci on Wednesday was named the Matt Leyden Trophy recipient for the second time in his 12-year head coaching tenure in Plymouth.

The way the Whalers meshed was confirmed by how they worked together to get centre Vince Trocheck, a trade-deadline add from rival Saginaw, the scoring title.

"They were so much fun to coach," Vellucci said of his Whalers, whose playoff dream was dashed with a five-game Western Conference final loss to the London Knights. "If anybody was at that last game when we were playing Windsor and Vince Trocheck was going for the scoring title and we had already sewn up where we were going to be for the playoffs, every single guy on that ice was trying to get Vince the puck to get the three points he needed [to edge Sarnia's Charlie Sarault 109-108]. It was great to see all guys, no jealousy whatsoever, trying to help Vince get that award. It was so great as a coach to see them realize it's a team game, not an individual. To be honest, that was my favourite moment of the year.

"Coaching is not so much X-and-Os as how you manage people," Vellucci added. "If you give young people structure and expectations, they usually delivers. Those are two things I strive on."

Vellucci is the 10th coach to receive the honour twice. Other active multiple recipients include the coaches of two of the Whalers' rivals, the London Knights' Dale Hunter (three times) and Windsor Spitfires' Bob Boughner. The Belleville Bulls' George Burnett also won twice in the 1990s with the Niagara Falls Thunder.

Vellucci received 45 of a possible 95 voting points. Burnett, whose Bulls also reached the league semifinal, was runner-up with 39. Oshawa Generals rookie coach D.J. Smith received 33.

Winning for the second time is significant to Vellucci. The 47-year-old Farmington, Mich., native, who's been behind the Whaler bench since 2001-02 after previously being club president, also won in '06-07. The Whalers won the OHL title that season.

"That's huge to be honest with you," Vellucci said of being honoured for the second time. "To be up there with [Hockey Hall of Famer] Brian Kilrea, [former Belleville and Kingston coach] Larry Mavety [who was Vellucci's OHL coach] and George Burnett, who's one of my best friends. It was surprising to get the call today. George's team had a fantastic year.

"The first I had so much on my plate, I wasn't able to enjoy with my family," he added. "They had just got back from Vancouver [where Plymouth competed in the 2007 Memorial Cup]. It definitely makes it more special right now. My kids are 10 and 15 and they understand what it is, you can share it with them."

Between Trocheck, a Florida Panthers prospect, and their trio of NHL first-rounders in Stefan Noesen (Ottawa Senators), Rickard Rakell (Anaheim Ducks) and Tom Wilson (Washington Capitals), the Whalers had no paucity of high-end prospects. But Vellucci noted he takes special pride in the development of Whalers players who were not identified as potential NHLers until later in their junior days.

"Well really, I'm happy with all of them, If you want names, Garrett Meurs, our first-round pick four years ago, developed nicely, a fifth-round pick to Colorado, signed a contract this year and was our second-leading scorer. Stefan Noesen, played for the [Detroit] Compuware [minor hockey] organization and played for us four years. They're all special in their own way. Mitchell Heard, a free-agent signing with us and then becomes a draft pick of the Avalanche."

Under owner Peter Karmanos, who also owns the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes, the Whalers have been an exemplar of a model OHL franchise. Former players keep a tight bond to an organization which has made the playoffs for a league record 22 consecutive seasons.

"I still get calls from [NHLers] James Neal, Jared Boll, David Legwand, but it's great when I go to another city and Randy Fitzgerald [a late-1990s Whaler who played on the 2000 OHL finalist] who's now a police officer comes and talks to me," Vellucci said. "Or someone who's now a dentist or a doctor stays in touch. Those are the rewarding days, when they can come back and you can still talk."

The ad hoc alumni association is about to swell considerably. Along with the overages Heard and defenceman Austin Levi and Colin MacDonald, Plymouth also had ten 19-year-olds this season. Vellucci is banking that the Whalers can continue their playoff appearance in 2013-14. Their season will also include playing in the OHL's first outdoor games at Detroit's Comerica Park.

"We've made the playoffs 22 years in a row and we look to continue that record," Vellucci said. "We did lose up a lot up front, but [17-year-old goalie] Alex Nedeljkovic will be back and most of our D will be back. We will still have Wilson, [Matt] Mistele, [Cody] Payne, Danny Vanderwiel, a good core of forwards."

Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet. Please address any questions, comments or concerns to btnblog@yahoo.ca.