ONALASKA — A.J. Degenhardt started his hockey coaching career four years ago with a clear idea of how he wanted to conduct himself.
Degenhardt, 30, played for some old-school, intense coaches during his time in juniors and college, so he figured he would emulate them.
That didn’t last long. Degenhardt saw he had to change, not out of disrespect for his mentors, but because he just wasn’t an authoritarian.
Degenhardt, who was named the Coulee Region Chill’s interim coach for the remainder of the 2012-13 season on Jan. 3 after John Hamre was fired, does not hesitate to call himself a “players’ coach.”
“Kids are a lot different now than when I was playing,” Degenhardt said after Tuesday’s practice at the OmniCenter. “My first year I tried to be more controlling; now you’ve got to be in the locker room and know what’s going on and be able to deal with different personalities. I like to think in my four years, I’ve molded into a better coach, and I know I’ve still got a lot to learn.”
Degenhardt, a Logan High School graduate who played on Wisconsin’s 2006 NCAA Division I championship team, faces a big challenge.
The Chill are loaded with rookie players and have a 9-20-5 record near the midway point of a 70-game season. Coulee Region is 16 points out of a divisional playoff spot.
Coulee Region hosts Minot on Friday (8 p.m.) and Saturday (4:30 p.m.).
Second-year forward Mac Jansen has played under four coaches as the team has gone through two firings (Garrett Strot, Hamre) and one resignation (interim coach Jake Fleming) since the start of the 2011-12 season.
“A lot of guys aren’t used to it, because in high school you have the same coach for three years,” Jansen said. “But that’s part of this business. We talked about it, and whoever the coach is, we listen to him and support him, but what it all comes down to is the players have to step up and play.”
Hamre was fired by lead owner Michelle Bryant after she cited “philosophical differences” with the way the team was being led.
In an email to the Tribune, Hamre wrote that he was focused on player development and believed he had the team headed in the right direction, but ownership “wasn’t quite ready or in the position to wait and enjoy the fruits of that style and our staff’s efforts.”
So in stepped Degenhardt, who was hired a few days after Hamre. He led the team for its Jan. 3 practice before a two-game road trip to Brookings, S.D., and Aberdeen, S.D., which the Chill split.
Degenhardt coached at Junior A, Tier III Twin Cities Northern Lights for two seasons and Team Illinois AAA Midgets for two seasons before joining the Chill.
“It was kind of crazy, it all happened so fast,” Degenhardt said. “I definitely didn’t expect this; I sort of wanted to use this season to see, do I want to coach at a high level? I’ve been a head coach before this, and after being an assistant, I think I was ready to be a head coach again.”
Degenhardt can’t fully explain the team’s struggles in the first half of the season.
“(Hamre) is a great coach and a great guy off the ice, but the guys weren’t responding the way he wanted them to for one reason or another, and at that point a change was necessary.”
In order to underscore the coaching change, Degenhardt gave his players new Xs and Os at his first practice last week. He didn’t expect them to absorb it all, but wanted to “give them a vision of what I’m all about.”
“I changed up the forecheck, changed up the d-zone coverage,” he said. “I don’t want them to dump the puck in every time. I want puck possession and puck movement. If it’s the right way or the wrong way, nobody knows yet, but it was the right time to change.”
Bryant said last week that Degenhardt will finish out the season as interim coach and be given a chance to stay with the team going forward in some role.
“I’ve got a three-month trial,” Degenhardt said. “I’d like to be the head coach (next year), but things can change.”