The Cranbrook Bucks have announced Ryan Donald will man the bench as the head coach and general manager of the BCHL’s newest franchise next season.
Donald, who has served as an assistant coach at Yale University for the last five years, has Jr. A experience as a defenceman in the Alberta Junior Hockey League in his playing days, before embarking on a minor pro career.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for me in a lot of different ways, professionally, to get involved with an organization at the ground level that has a great vision with the ownership, the community, and the support that’s already there,” said Donald, in a video press conference streamed online Tuesday morning.
Donald has signed a four-year contract, and will be coming to Cranbrook with his wife and two daughters once he wraps up his duties at Yale this season.
Nathan Lieuwen, the president and majority owner of the Bucks, said he preferred to have the head coach and general manger positions shouldered as one role, and highlighted Donald’s experience in the NCAA system as a player and coach.
“I definitely feel he’s the right person to lead this team, to build the hockey operations side of this franchise and to make us and elite franchise in this league, which I think Ryan can absolutely do,” Lieuwen said. “I’m very excited to work with him closely and see what we can do here.”
Donald said he wore many hats as an assistant coach with Yale over the last five years, which included recruiting players, and will bring that experience — along with the networks and relationships he’s built — to the Bucks.
Donald said he will lean on experience, as both a Jr. A player and an NCAA-level coach, to help entice players to the Bucks organization.
“I’m hoping that’s one of the things that’s going to drive us forward and be able to get us going from Day One,” Donald said. “On all different aspects, coaching, being on the ice with the Division One hockey players for the last five years has given me a pretty good knowledge of what that player looks like and even the maturation from Day One through the end of their career — it changes, but you get to see what abilities and skills are required for that.
“When I move back to the Jr. A level, now you’re starting to see and hopefully working with our players, seeing them day-to-day, knowing what their habits are, their details, everything — lifestyle, nutrition, sleep, what they need to improve on in order to have success at that level and expect success at that level.”
Lieuwen said Donald’s NCAA experience was a big draw for the organization.
“As I got to know him and the relationship grew, it was clear he was the type of person that shared the philosophy,” Lieuwen said. “…Absolutely, the NCAA experience and connections that Ryan brings are going to be pretty invaluable to us, especially early.”
Before coaching at Yale, Donald was recruited to play for institution, suiting up for four years and serving as captain in his last campaign in 2010. Following that, he went pro and played the bulk of his career in the ECHL, with a few stops in the AHL. During the 2011-12 season, he captured the ECHL championship, the Kelly Cup, while serving as the alternate captain with the Florida Everblades.
Donald said he’s looking forward to the responsibility of running the team after growing and developing his coaching skill set through Yale’s program under longtime head coach Keith Allain.
“Now, the buck stops at your desk a little more and you get to make some decisions that you’re going to find out if they work or don’t work and learn as you go along,” Donald said.
“The icing on the cake is the city, the community, the facilities. I’ve had some conversations over the last few days, I think if you fast forward three or four years, if we do this thing right, Cranbrook can easily be one of the top destinations in that league, in terms of facilities, professionalism, top to bottom ownership through coaching staff, hockey operations, everything is there.”
Both Lieuwen and Donald also highlighted the significance developing relationships throughout the KIJHL, with franchises full of players looking to take the next step in their careers.
“Building relationships with coaches, having conversations with coaches, being respectful of their process too, I think is an element of it,” Donald said. “I think they’ve got their games, their development process, things that they’re accountable for in their markets, but also understanding that at the individual level, a lot of players, their goal is to move forward and using that Jr. B level is a great opportunity, a great chance for them to get reps and be in a role that they think is appropriate for themselves.”
The Bucks have announced commitments from three players so far as the organization builds out it’s hockey operations department, from the front office to the roster.
Lieuwen has the dual experience of being a product of the BCHL, playing a season in Kelowna before graduating to major-junior with the Kootenay Ice, and now as an executive with a franchise.
“I think there’s so many angles that I want to take because of the experience I have, all the way from the way the dressing room is set up, the type of people we bring in to create relationships with the players, I think is so important, from billets to what we’re eating on the road, all these little things that maybe people that don’t have as much experience playing wouldn’t necessarily catch,” Lieuwen said.
“I feel very fortunate and Ryan has the same experience — we know what these players would like to see and we know what’s going to help them grow in their abilities and I think that we’re really well suited to deliver that.”