Greatness doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time, dedication and hard work for something or someone to be truly considered great.
It’s a difficult task to put into words what will happen in Cedar Rapids, IA at the Stable on Friday night. One of the league’s best coaches, Mark Carlson, will reach a milestone that only one other individual has accomplished in the USHL’s 36-year junior hockey history. But what makes this game, or any of the other 999 great?
Do numbers define greatness? More than 40 of Carlson’s former players are currently playing in the NCAA and 17 are signed to NHL contracts. Over his coaching career Carlson has seen over 200 players receive college commitments and 21 players selected in the NHL Draft.
Do wins define greatness? Carlson has 559 of those. He has helped the RoughRiders become an established winning franchise in the USHL with playoff appearances in 14 of 16 total seasons. In fact, Cedar Rapids has only had two losing seasons in team history thanks to Carlson’s coaching staff. Carlson also has won a Clark Cup Championship, in addition to his two Anderson Cup Championships.
What defines greatness for the coach himself? It’s the whole reason why Carlson wanted to become head coach of the RoughRiders.
“The most rewarding thing about coaching in the USHL is the opportunity to make a positive impact on the young men that we coach, on and off the ice,” said Carlson. “To hopefully lend a hand in them having success in life and in hockey after they leave Cedar Rapids.”
If you wanted to try and begin to understand the greatness of Friday’s game you wouldn’t want to ask the coach himself. Carlson, a selfless leader, shutters at the thought of making something about him. It’s not heroic for him to think that the game, also the 1,000th game in RoughRiders history, is more about the team than the coach who has patrolled the bench for 16 seasons.
However, it doesn’t take long to find others who are willing to define Carlson’s greatness. Positioned on the away bench Friday night will be Waterloo Black Hawks head coach P.K. O’Handley, the only other coach in USHL history to reach 1,000 games. O’Handley, a great coach in his own respect, considers coaching in the game an honor.
“I think it’s pretty special to be part of it,” O’Handley said. “Mark is a great guy, great coach. I have always respected what he does and the program he has in Cedar Rapids. We’ve coached against each other a lot. We’ve become real good friends. Coaching a thousand games is a testament to him, his commitment to the league and all of the people he’s worked with from ownership to staff and most importantly the players he has worked with. It’s special.”
Carlson agrees that the coaching matchup for his 1,000th USHL game couldn’t be more perfect.
“It is special because of the respect I have for him and the fact that I think we both are involved in coaching for the same reasons, we feel fortunate to coach in the USHL and have similar beliefs on team, discipline, etc.,” said Carlson. “Because we have so much pride in the United States Hockey League and its well-being, its history, the people in it today, the people that built this league before us and because we both believe that USHL develops players and people better than any junior hockey league in the world.”
Because of great coaches like Carlson, the USHL has been able to become one of the best junior leagues in the world for developing players and staff. It doesn’t just happen overnight. The betterment of a league happens with a collective effort from the players, coaches, front offices and ownership.
“Mark is truly committed to the USHL and I think that is a special trait,” added O’Handley. “It takes about two seconds to see his belief in the United States Hockey League. Mark is a genuine guy. He cares. When I look at special things, what makes a guy special, it’s Mark’s commitment and genuineness. To last this long, in this league when you look at it, it says a lot about Mark and his commitment. He makes players better as people and hockey players.
“He’s the face of the franchise and embraces what that means. I’m extremely happy for Mark.”
Should Carlson’s players define his greatness? After all, they are the product of Carlson’s developmental philosophy and can speak first hand to what the coach did for their individual development.
“He’s a great coach. He really holds his players accountable and makes them earn their ice time and play hard each and every shift,” said Justin Abdelkader, former Cedar Rapids RoughRiders forward. “He was great for my development and I know he’s been great for a lot of other guys who have moved on from Cedar Rapids.”
What defines greatness? Is it possible to allow stats and accolades to define greatness? Who even determines if someone is truly great?
For Mark Carlson it’s his commitment to the team and to the league. Carlson himself doesn’t need to speak to his greatness, nor should he have to. His coaching peers, his former players, his staff and his own dedication to keep finding new ways to succeed have defined his greatness.
Greatness will be Friday night at the Stable. Greatness will be two head coaches with over 2,000 games combined experience watching over their respective benches. Greatness will be the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders going head-to-head with the Waterloo Black Hawks, with thousands of fans and cowbells ringing in the stands, setting the tone for Mark Carlson’s 1000th game.
Headquartered in Chicago, Illinois, the USHL celebrates its 14th season as the nation's only Tier I junior hockey league in 2015-16. A record 37 players were chosen in the 2015 NHL Draft and more than 375 players on team rosters last season committed to NCAA Division I schools, further establishing the USHL as the world’s foremost producer of junior hockey talent.