Gazzillo’s ten years at the helm will be noted for a decade of unprecedented success for Icepack hockey, including the last two seasons where he led the Icepack to a 53-6 overall record, back to back ACCHL titles and their first back to back regionals appearances and an American Collegiate Hockey Association Nationals appearance.
The wins on the ice do not begin to tell the story of his tenure behind the bench. He will be remembered for creating a culture that not only fostered winning, but heart, family and caring. As Assistant Coach Alex Rossetto said; “I learned to have a heart for the team, I really learned the sense of what it’s like to put up a tough front as he does, but really have an enormous heart for everyone.”
For incoming Head Coach Tim Healy, an assistant to Gazzillo the last three years, what made Gazzillo special was his humility and how much he would fight for his players; “Mike never takes credit for anything, he gives it to everyone in the organization. There is so much to be learned from him that way. There have been countless acts of kindness that he has done over the past ten years that no one knows about. On the ice though when you see him get mad or yell at a ref, think about what he was yelling about, it was about his team and sticking up for his players, it is never about him.”
His former captains sing the same praises, that he built a winning culture on the ice but his off ice approach is what truly made the program move during his time. This past season’s Captain Ryan Kinney noted, “He is a great leader and always held us accountable. Holding us to a higher standard really brought the club to the level that it’s at today.”
Sam Banasiewicz, the Icepack’s most decorated captain added, “Mike always has been an ‘NC State First’ kinda guy…he sets expectations high for us and made sure everyone knew that winning was the only acceptable outcome.” However, when it came to off the ice, Banasiewicz noted that’s where Gazzillo shined even more, “A lot of coaches in the ACHA take a backseat on the administrative side, but Gazzillo always made sure everything was in order and made sure we are active in the community with volunteering at events, [Carolina Hurricanes] promotions, the First Goal program, being involved in youth hockey and other community outreach all in the name of NC State hockey. Gazzillo has done so much on paper but it’s what’s off the paper that counts.”
All of the off-ice work speaks to Gazzillo’s passion for the Icepack, and opposing coaches saw that passion show up on the ice against their teams. Wake Forest Head Coach Dave Pasquale had many encounters with the ferocity Gazzillo’s teams played with. “We knew when we stepped on the ice to play NC State that they were going to play with passion and be prepared to play hard for 60 minutes.”
Coach Gazzillo would even add a little bit of gamesmanship to stoke the competitive fires. George Washington University Head Coach Jonathan Moynihan got to experience this for ten seasons, “I’ll forever remember him always approaching me before every game we played against each other and tell me, without cracking a smile or asking how I was doing, ‘we’re wearing black.’”
Moynihan also told the story of an encounter at the Stephen Russell Tournament where GWU was listed at the home team in a game played at State’s home rink, “throughout warmups, both Mike and I stood shoulder to shoulder on the home bench while our teams warmed up; in silence. It took a conversation with the officials to decide which team would stay on the home bench, GWU was awarded the home bench but NC State won the game in a shootout.”
Moynihan also reflected on what Mike has meant to the ACCHL, “I believe it was the offseason in 2016. The ACCHL was at 12 teams and at a crossroads. Commissioner Mike Walley wanted growth for the league. Some coaches wanted to stay at 12 or go back to 8 teams. Other coaches wanted to grow but formally split into 2 leagues: North and South. That Summer, Gazzillo flew up to VA and me, him and Commissioner Mike Walley spent an afternoon and evening together discussing the future of the ACCHL. We put all the cards on the table and discussed what was best for our respective student athletes. It was that afternoon that the current 2020 version of the ACCHL came to light.”
Moynihan’s recap of that experience helped him to see who Gazzillo really is and the level of care he brought to his time with the Icepack and the league. Moynihan went on to say, “Through that experience, I personally gained a tremendous amount of respect for Gazzillo. I saw a side of him that many in the league do not get to see: a strategic, student-athlete-first leader who cared about the general well being and overall growth of college ice hockey.” It is the student athlete first, leader on and off the ice mentality that made Gazzillo’s time behind the Icepack bench legendary. Well, that and his trademark mustache.