A question and answer with Coach Gazzillo, plus hear from former players, opposing coaches and Stephen Russell's Family on the Mike Gazzillo era.
Coach Gazzillo In His Own Words
1. What would you say is your greatest memory?
A lot of great things have happened to us over the years, but the first thing that came to mind was the overtime win against a powerful University of Maryland team, in the ACC Championship game my first season with State. We were clearly underdogs going into the game having lost twice to Maryland during the season, and the games were not close, (9-3 & 9-1-or something close to that). We were down 4-2 going into the third, and came back to tie it in regulation and won in OT.
2. What do you attribute your success to?
Tough question as there are several things that contribute to the team's success. First, understanding what club hockey is about, and knowing what is a reasonable amount of work the student athletes should contribute off ice vs. what I needed to take on in my role. Second would be getting the locker room mentality where I needed it to be. That took some time and Sam Banasiewicz was a huge help with getting that established. Some of the quality players that chose to come to State certainly helped.
3. What does being a large part of NC State's hockey history mean to you?
That is a question I'd never thought about until you asked. I know the program had success prior to my arrival, and we have seen our share of success over the past years. I'm happy we were able to keep a winning tradition and the guys achieved some "Firsts". Records were made to be broken but First time achievements will stand the test of time.
4. What does the NC State community mean to you?
As far back as I can remember, we always had good size crowds at our games. We didn't travel as well as we do now, but we almost always packed the rink, (RCI, Cary, IcePlex). Now fast forward to the PNC games, and the amount of fans we draw, that is an incredible sight to see thousands watching and cheering for us.To be recognized as part of that is very special. Our hockey community is nothing short of an amazing group. The support for the team is not just friends and parents, (who are in a class by themselves).
5. What are some other memorable moments?
Ten years brings back a lot of great memories. The four things that stand out to me would be, (chronologically); First, finally meeting with Brady and Kelly Buckley, Stephen Russell's parents. When I first arrived at State there was no tournament in Stephens memory. There were two or three guys remaining who played on the team when Stephen was on it, and I pitched a tournament idea to them. I tried for a few years to put something together scheduled in January but every year we had a team back out last minute. Personally, that was an awful feeling. I spoke to Brady and Kelly about moving the tournament to October, then our Commissioner, Mike Walley called me about combining an ACC season kick off tournament with the Stephen Russell tournament, and after several long phone calls we put it together and it has really been a great success since. I can't say enough good things about Brady and Kelly, I can say that Kelly is one of the strongest and most inspirational women I have ever met.
Second, would be the growth of the ACC over the years. Mike’s done an incredible job with the league and I'm sure it will only get better.
Third, the look on Sam's face after we won the ACCHL Tourney last year. We met out on the ice after the guys started celebrating. The look was priceless. He was so excited to win the Admiral’s Cup, and yet so sad that he just played his last ACC league game.
Fourth, when three of the founding members of NC State Hockey came to one of our games this year, and the guys came into the locker room to say hello to our team and exchange some anecdotes from "The Day". It moved me to express to our team going into this year’s ACC Tourney that many years down the road when they get together with each other and their families, that these are the days they will be talking about.
6. We know about the Sam's of the world but who were some of the unsung heroes you remember the most?
I'm bound to miss a few but I'd say Harry Fryckburg, he was captain of the team my first year. A very good leader and captain. Andy Walsh, our goalie my first year who commented to me before we broke for the end of the first semester, that it would be great to come back second semester and win the ACC Championship, Nick Christopolous, Danny Fredenburg, Garrett Sunda, Sean Blye, Tyler Cloutier and Nate Sprankle, a great defensive shut down pairing, and of course Brian MacLaren who scored that game winning OT goal in the Championship vs. Maryland.
7. What does it mean going out on top with back to back ACCHL Titles?
It has gotten so hard to win one with the parity in the league at this time, so to win back to back is an incredible feeling. The guys from both seasons worked so hard to get that result.
8. Who were some the toughest guys to coach against?
I'd say in the league now Dave Pasquale at Wake Forest kept me on my toes the most. He has a high hockey IQ and his guys really buy into what he is saying. One guy that was tough to coach against was Chris Lowes when he was coaching the Liberty men's team several years back. They usually had their way with us and he did not have an off button for them. It was a challenge for me as a coach to keep my guys engaged in the game. Finding little things in our game that I could spin into a positive to make the team feel they were doing the right things. On a few occasions where the game was close, any mistakes got magnified, and I had to keep the guys grounded and make sure they were not getting on each other. Advil was good to have on hand after those games.
9. What are you looking forward to seeing from State hockey as you watch from outside the glass?
Just seeing the guys enjoying the game, being around each other, and building memories will be fun to see.
10. We didn't give out Sam's number this year, should mustaches be retired from NC State Hockey in your honor?
No, that's not necessary. (Editor's note, based on the facial abilities of the 2020-2021 staff, the mustache is retired from the coaching staff for next season)
11. When you took over the program did you foresee where it is today?
No, I did not think about Regionals or Nationals my first few seasons, in fact no one ever talked about that. I'd say about 4-5 years ago I really started thinking that we had a chance at playing post ACC hockey at some point in the near future.
12. What do you think are the keys to the program's success?
I think a combination of having successful seasons, along with getting the word out that the local universities have hockey teams, has helped our program grow. Players in or from the area who play some Juniors, then want to move on to college to get their degree, see NC State as an avenue to get a great education and still play a few more years of competitive hockey. Also, the guys who have been making the team are good, character guys. We have the right leadership in place, (Sam, Ryan Kinney, Eric Todd, Cam Mazakowski etc.), that will bring the new players in and set the expectations the right way. We get the mindset right from day one, and as they grow into upperclassmen they will pass the same expectations along and that continuity will keep the program going strong.
13. What are you most proud of?
I'm most proud of the work the guys on the team put in on and off the ice. I see the GPA's each quarter and I've always been so impressed at the grades the guys achieve in some very demanding course loads. They raise money for Breast Cancer, and Military Appreciation. They show up on a Sunday off to help with the Special Needs Hockey program, or at a youth clinic or practice. We have had two ACCHL Scholar Athlete Award winners in Garrett Sunda and Tyler Alfonzetti. We have had Sam and Ian O'Rourke make All Southeast Region teams, numerous Player of the Week honors, league honors for Forward of the year, Defenseman of the year, league MVP and the past three Rookies of the Year, Cam Mazikowski, Riley Johnson, Chris Solomon. I'm just proud to be a small part of their college life.
The Hockey Community on Coach Gazzillo
Atlantic Coast Collegiate Hockey League Commissioner Mike Walley on Coach Gazzillo’s Success;
Prior to Mike Gazzillo taking the helm as Head Coach for the NC State hockey program, the Icepack had won 3 ACC regular season titles and 1 league championship in the 15 year history of the ACC Hockey League. In Mike’s 10 years as Head Coach, the Icepack won 6 season titles and 3 championships. His leadership not only elevated his own players, but by setting the standard, elevated the professionalism and quality of play for the entire league. Most importantly, Mike’s focus was always on his players. The League, the coaches, and his players will all miss his presence on and off the ice.
Former Captain Sam Banasiewicz on pushing the right buttons;
Of course you want a leader in the locker room when things are not looking good or our team can certainly play better. There’s only so much a captain can say to make sure our team is on track but it really comes down to the coaches to say the right things pre-game, during intermissions, post game, during meetings and even practices...I think Mike did a spectacular job at that.
Past Year’s Captain Ryan Kinney on Winning Championships;
Part of it had to do with talent that we brought to it, but a large part was Mike’s leadership putting together the pieces of the puzzle together to form a championship team.
Wake Forest University Head Coach Dave Pasquale on Coach Gazzillo helping building up the ACCHL:
Off the ice, Mike was always a straight-forward communicator, and helped build the current 16 team league and move it into the Regional/National discussion.
George Washington University Head Coach Jonthan Moynihan on the Stephen Russell Memorial Tournament;
MIke's overall leadership around the Stephen Russell Tournament. That tournament is what the ACCHL is all about. GWU is so proud to participate. Mike doesn't get enough credit for all the work he has done with the Russell family to make the event what it is today. Each year we travel down to the event, Mike and the Russell's welcome us with open arms and make the event an A+ experience.
Incoming Head Coach Tim Healy on the transition;
In December when Mike first mentioned stepping down this year or next year it caught me by surprise. One of his reasons floored me and tells you how selfless he is. He said this team’s championship window is open for a few more years and didn’t want to turn it over once it closed. That it would be unfair to me or whoever came next. It floored me because he has put the program together that created this championship window and yet he was willing to step away from it almost as if his moral compass was guiding him to do this. Not many coaches would proceed that way. These selfless acts that those close to him see all the time set a great example for the direction the program must continue.
Current UNC Coach Jeff Volkman on growing the game in the Triangle;
While Mike was a nemesis on the ice, what people don't realize off ice is how in line we were in growing the game in the area, he should be proud of what we've accomplished. People don't realize how hard you work behind the scenes on the club game and he did a lot of hard work behind the scenes.
On the PNC Game;
It’s pretty special on how we’ve been able to build on the rivalry, and while the credit goes 100 percent to the fans to show up, it is pretty special to have an event built off of that, and that is something he should be proud of.
Current Team President Ian O’Rourke on Mike’s leadership;
Mike has been a great leader and a great coach for our team for the past ten years. If you look back through program history from where the team was when he first took over to where the team is now, there’s been incredible growth and development that is in large part due to his ability to cultivate a winning culture and set a higher standard. The team’s success is a direct correlation to his leadership both on and off the ice for our players.
Brady and Kelly Buckley on Mike and The Stephen Russell Memorial Tournament;
I remember the first time Brady and I met Mike. He and Mike Walley had many conversations in the background about the tournament, and then contacted us to firm up the plan. We met in Raleigh to discuss the vision of the tournament. The thing that struck me about Mike is how he truly listened as I talked about Stephen and who he was as a goalie and a man. He wanted to understand who this event was honoring. When you lose a child, many people hesitate to even talk to you about it because it is so painful. But as Stephen’s mother, I wanted to make sure that he and Mike Walley knew him, knew what he stood for, and knew how passionate he was about NC State hockey and what it could become.
Every day since that first meeting, I feel Mike has carried Stephen’s memory with us, and that makes him family. He has ensured that the new players on the team understand who Stephen was, and that touches me more with each passing year. He has been instrumental in the tournament, but has also played a part in my family's healing.
Finally, and I say this after watching him coach and lead for all these years….his leadership, along with some of the greatest young men who have played on the team have created the hockey program that Stephen dreamed of. I am sure Stephen is smiling because of your character, commitment and love for the sport. Thank you, thank you, thank you.