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Souza Speaks: D-I Coach on Recruiting, Compete, and the Big Picture

By Jamie MacDonald, 05/01/24, 2:15PM EDT


With eight Mass natives on the roster, Wakefield’s Mike Souza leads a resurgent New Hampshire program

Player Development, Recruiting and More with Wakefield's Mike Souza

Needham's Liam Devlin celebrates a goal against Maine in front of a sold-out crowd at Whittemore Center. Credit: UNH Athletics

All of about 70 miles north of downtown Boston sits a 6,501-seat jewel of a rink in Durham, N.H., the Whittemore Center, home to the University of New Hampshire Wildcats. “The Whitt” is also the professional home of Wakefield, Mass., native and UNH head coach Mike Souza, who recently wrapped up a 20-win season that earned him Hockey East Coach of the Year consideration.

Mass Proud

For Souza, the ties to Massachusetts run deep, and his own path from Wakefield to Durham, not to mention pro stops in Norfolk, Bridgeport, Florence, Portland, Reading and Hershey, plus leagues in Switzerland, Germany and Italy, and back to Durham, has been paved by all the previous steps along the way.

And in the paying it forward as a head coach, Souza’s generation of players in Durham will wind up with at least a little bit of that, too. 

“It started on a pond, next-door to my house, a well-known pond in the town of Wakefield called Hoggs Pond,” says Souza. “A lot of guys came through there. Olympian Mark Kumpel, John Lilley. My brother played in Wakefield Youth Hockey, my dad was involved and I played with Wakefield Youth Hockey all the way through midgets. I was a Wakefield Youth Hockey guy all the way through until you couldn’t play anymore.”

Souza also played a bit with the Boston Junior Terriers on a team coached by former Bruins forward Ken Hodge and included future Boston College Eagles Mike Mottau and Bobby Allen.

When it came time to look for a place to play college hockey, recruiting certainly played a part for Souza. As did Massachusetts. At a time before prep hockey and the USHL had moved in the direction of de rigueur in the Northeast, Souza could go from high school hockey in Massachusetts to Hockey East.

“I found myself fortunate enough to be recruited by Hockey East schools … and made the right choice and came to New Hampshire,” he says. “Dick Umile played an instrumental role in me coming to UNH. But there’s more to the story than that if you want to tie it to Mass Hockey.”

Yes, please.

“I worked at Dynamik Sports, Peter Doherty’s sporting goods store, and he was the Reading High School hockey coach — [the store is] a hockey institution on the North Shore and I worked with Peter and his son, Mark, who is now the Reading High coach,” says Souza. “Mark played at UNH, so there was a great history of Middlesex League players who went on to play at UNH. Obviously, Dick [Umile]. And Tim Burke, a longtime assistant general manager for the San Jose Sharks. He’s a Melrose guy. Dan Muse, Paul Powers. Mike Sullivan and Kevin Thompson were Reading guys. Andy Brickley, a Melrose guy. So there were a lot of guys from our neck of the woods, so to speak.”

It doesn’t get a whole lot more small-world, north-of-Boston, hockey connective tissue than that. 

“Working at Dynamik really opened my eyes to seeing a Hockey East outside of Boston University and Boston College,” Souza says. “And, obviously, Umile being a Melrose guy and having that connection, I came on a recruiting visit.”

His timing was pretty good, too.

“Falling in love with the place and having the opportunity to play for Dick was great,” says Souza, whose class remains one of the most successful in program history. “I was telling a kid on a recruiting visit the other day that I came to the Whittemore Center when it was being built.”

Yes, on an unofficial visit, Souza, with his dad, was walking around the still-unfinished rink in a hardhat. So much of recruiting is about the building, and not simply the facility. 

“I tell kids all the time, there are a lot of influences on young players today,” Souza says. “But, at the end of the day, you’re going to be the one who is walking the halls, you’re going to be the one who is playing for a particular staff and at a particular campus. So it has to feel right. And this place always felt right to me. That’s why I just love it so much.”

Wakefield's Mike Souza is guiding UNH back to the upper echelons of college hockey. Credit: Kaylin Moriarty

Souza’s Recruiting Strategy

Now, the building is up in large part to Souza.

“We want to recruit kids, good people, first and foremost, to UNH,” says Souza. “We want to recruit kids who are incredibly competitive and aspire to be excellent in all areas of their lives. Kids who have hockey sense, kids who can skate, and kids who have puck skills.”

For Souza, what is it that turns a head? The elite of the elite, the players on U.S. National Team radars are fairly simple to identify. 

“My mom can pick those guys,” Souza says. 

There is, of course, so much more to it.

“It’s finding that three- and four-star kid that you’re going to turn into a five-star player,” says Souza. “It’s something a player does to maybe catch your eye in a game that makes you watch another shift, then another shift. And then it’s about doing your homework and due diligence. We talk with my staff all the time and say it’s great to have a good ears but it’s more important to have good eyes. I think you have to listen well and talk to as many people as you can, but at the end of the day you have to trust your own eyes when it comes to recruiting.”

There are also very few perfect players. But there are growth mindset players.

“You can be the fastest skater without hockey sense or without a competitive spirit, and you’re going to have a difficult time playing at this level,” Souza says. “If you have an incredibly competitive spirit and great hockey spirit, that may mask some of the deficiencies you have. If you do something exceptionally well, that can mask deficiencies. But competition and competitiveness have to be paramount to what we do. We try to find a kid who aspires to keep getting better. He wants to be coached. I’m sure most coaches say a lot of the same things, but those are some of the things that we look for.”

The Art of Passing

Something close to a non-negotiable at UNH is being able to move the puck.

“For me, I’ll make the argument that [passing] may be the most important skill there is,” says Souza. “If a fast player can’t catch and receive a puck, then what good is it if he’s fast? If a player is maybe not as fast but is incredibly efficient in how he handles and moves the puck, and when he moves it, he all of a sudden becomes a faster player. The ability to catch and receive and move pucks with efficiency is of the upmost importance in the way we want to play.”

The better teams and players are, the less chasing of pucks is going to take place. For Souza, he’d like to see that start earlier. 

“One of the things I think is really important in watching a lot of youth hockey practices is there’s too much coach passing,” he says. “I think there’s a time and a place for a coach to be involved – and maybe it’s at a younger age to keep a drill moving – but think about all the opportunities to get a young athlete in there and pass to improve that skill. Sometimes it’s just a matter of the coaches just getting out of the way and having one of the kids do it.”

The UNH trust in passing is so strong, it crosses over into so many practice areas, too, to create an enhanced environment for that skill development.

“Valuing passing the puck is something I feel has been neglected,” says Souza. “We try to put passing into the practice maybe where others may not think to put it in. One, we work on it all the time. Two, if we’re doing what some may recall a routine shooting drill, at the back of the line there’s always a puck that’s being moved with a guy coming back to the line. If it’s a drill with four lines, there should be four pucks in the back in line. And maybe it’s one or two more touches, but that’s one or two more touches than you would normally be getting. There are drills that maybe six or seven years ago we would’ve had a coach make a pass where now it’s a player making a pass. That’s one of the ways we do it.”

How UNH does it goes beyond practice, the rink, the scheduled games and the roster.

“Recruiting is constant,” Souza says. “It’s every day and it’s all year. I’m very fortunate to have two great guys alongside of me in Glenn Stewart and Jeff Giuliano, who are tireless in that endeavor, both in developing our players and finding the next crop of UNH players. Recruiting is not a one-man operation. Recruiting is institutional. You need to attract elite players. You need elite facilities. You need elite amenities that kids at our level come to expect. You need buy-in from your administration. Right on down to the personnel who interact with your players on a daily basis. Everybody has to be on the same page and everybody has a role to play in attracting top players to come to a program. I want everyone to feel invested in the program.”

Love of the Game

Not a lot of players played more than 500 games in the minors, but Souza has. (Of note, so have both Stewart and Giuliano.) Why keep going?

“It’s an interesting question,” says Souza. “I guess the simplest answer is that I love hockey. That’s one of the things I ask the kids when they come here on visits: Do you love hockey? Do you want to be a pro hockey player? Because I think in order to excel you have to be aspirational in the game. And maybe that means playing minor pro in Europe. Maybe that means signing an NHL deal. Where it goes, it’s a nobody knows type of thing, but you have to want to be a hockey player and I think one of the reasons UNH has so many guys in hockey is that we attract a lot of guys who love the game.”

And if you stick with it, it may just turn out to be a career and life you never saw coming.

“I was fortunate to sign the NHL contracts and had a gut check to try to stay around, went to the East Coast league to try to make my way back to the American league, and you always question yourself, like, ‘What, should I have just gone to Europe then?’” Souza says. “But then you have an incredible experience, whether it’s in Portland or Hershey. If I hadn’t made that choice, I never would’ve played in Hershey. And that was one of my favorite years, playing in Hershey. Then my brother-in-law, Chris Bourque, ends up going there the next year, and his number is now retired there. Had I not done that, I wouldn’t have ended up in Europe when I did. And I wouldn’t have ended up coaching if I didn’t end up in Europe.”

Souza played for a Rick Cornacchia, who coached the Oshawa Generals in the Eric Lindros years, as a member of the Italian National Team, which led to the next step. 

“He encouraged me to play to stay in the game,” says Souza. “I really enjoyed working with our younger players on the Italian National Team, and, had I not had that experience, I probably would not have stayed in the game. All these people who influence you over the years, weather Dick Umile or Greg Cronin, you draw something from all these people. Hopefully, some of their qualities come out in you as a coach.”

As a coach, hopefully those qualities appeal to players who can be recruited to support and enhance what you’re trying to develop.

For UNH this past season, freshman forward Ryan Conmy, who was born in Alexandria, Va., certainly fit the bill. Conmy, listed at 5-foot-10, led the Wildcats with 11 goals and 23 assists.

“He’s a perfect example,” Souza says. “He’s a player we think is quickly evolving into a five-star player. He committed to us out of midget hockey and our staff did a great job in identifying him. He was a kid we fell in love with as a player and as a person, and I think he’s really enjoying his experience here. To lead a Hockey East team, a 20-win team, in scoring is very impressive.”

For UNH, Conmy more than fits in.

“He plays with pace and he is competitive,” says Souza. “And when I mean competitive, I don’t mean running people through a wall. I mean, if you lose the puck, how hard are you trying to get it back? How tenacious are you to get it? And he certainly fits that mold, and he has an opportunity to be one of the great ones at UNH if he continues to develop.”

Futures are a fickle thing. Souza knows this as well as anyone, and his approach supports it.

“If you try to plan it out, it’s not going to work out, and if you over-plan it, it’s not going to go the way you want,” he says. “I think we’re in a society now in terms of our little hockey fiefdom where I think expectations are far beyond reality. I come from a time when maybe getting to UNH was going to be the best thing you’re going to do in the game. And that’s pretty darn good. Maybe playing at Wakefield High School or Reading High School is the best thing you’ll do in the game, or that was going to help you get into a good school or be a good coworker. And that’s sort of lost in all this. I don’t know if we get it back. But I certainly hope we do. I certainly try to instill values in our players that are going to be more important to them and for them years after they leave here."