“Faith is to believe what you do not yet see; the reward for this faith is to see what you believe.” —Saint Augustine
Charlotte lost game one of the Eastern Conference Finals. The post game mood was bleak. It was a close game but Toronto had the edge and suddenly, home ice advantage was out the window. In the subsequent game, Charlotte found themselves down by two goals headed into the second intermission. The building and the dressing room were awash in silence. Perhaps, everyone sensed the inevitable. The Marlies, defending Cup champions, were too much to handle. They barely make mistakes and they still hadn't lost a single game in the entire playoffs. The belief that Charlotte was the team of destiny began to slip away.
This is when head coach Mike Vellucci went to work.
He stepped into the middle of the room and said, "Think about how good it's going to feel when we win this game." There was no screaming and shouting. He didn't throw furniture around the room and let sheer panic take over. He understood that the first step towards a comeback is the belief by his players that it was possible. From the spark of belief, the team took to the ice knowing their coach had faith and from that faith, they were rewarded.
First it was Nic Roy, then Jesper Sellgren tied the game. Ten minutes later Andrew Poturalski would score the game winner and Patrick Brown added an empty net goal. It was total pandemonium in the Coliseum. The series was tied. Toronto finally lost a game. The team believed and so did their coach.
Nineteen days later, they were all Calder Cup Champions.
Coaching is less Hollywood drama than many people think. Every intermission speech isn't a scene from Miracle. It's more of a time to make adjustments and to reevaluate and the right coach knows what to say and how to say it. The fragility of his young team was never lost on Vellucci. If you push them too hard, the whole edifice can collapse. If you give them too much leeway, you can lose them to their own youthful hubris.
After decades of coaching, Mike Vellucci's experience steered the team from November to June as the best team in the AHL. This season, he lost his number one center to the Hurricanes, his all-star winger to a season ending injury and during the playoffs, his captain helped Carolina to the Eastern Conference Finals. Vellucci was emphatic that the next man up will do the job for us and he never stopped his positivity.
He genuinely believed it was possible and so did those around him. Without the belief, you are adrift at sea with no compass. A great coach can inspire athletes to perform at a high level when it's most vital. Vellucci inspired them by genuinely caring about the men on his team. They responded with their best performances night in and night out.
Saturday, December 8th in Springfield will go down as the night when the Checkers started making the impossible come true. Charlotte net was empty, the team down by two goals and with just about two minutes left, the game was all but over. The fans in Springfield stood and cheered their team to a certain victory in a very hard fought game. But, Mike Vellucci didn't fold the tent. His team wasn't finished. With less than a minute to go, Jake Bean brought Charlotte within a goal and 24 seconds later Poturalski tied the game. Everyone was stunned. Mike Vellucci prosecuted the overtime game plan until Trevor Carrick rendered the final judgement winning the game for Charlotte. If things like that happen once, it's special. But, Charlotte had a way of normalizing special moments-- but I guess that's what championship teams do.
Vellucci would be the first guy to deflect the praise away from himself and onto the players. When he won the Coach of the Year award he was quick to attribute it to his staff of Ryan Warsofsky and Myles Fee. He's won more games than any head coach in a two year span in Checkers history and his team never lost a single game when leading after two periods. With Mike, there is no pretentiousness. He greets every fan with enthusiasm because he understands they are the reason we have a team in the first place. He's a coach of the people and be brought the people of Charlotte to the top. He believed his job was to find solutions to resolve problems. He believed his team was capable of doing great things. He believed with hard work, they could win the whole thing. On Saturday, June 8th, the team celebrated their first ever championship. Congratulations, Coach, the Calder Trophy is your just reward.