Mike Vellucci downplayed a lot of accolades this season.
When the Checkers clinched a playoff berth, it was business as usual. When he helped guide the team to the league’s best regular season record, the focus was already on the postseason. When the team punched their ticket for the first-ever Finals appearance in team history, it was already on to Chicago.
But when the final seconds ticked off the clock in Game 5 and the Checkers became champions on the American Hockey League, it was finally time for Vellucci to enjoy it.
“I never really let go with my excitement until we won the championship because you’re always thinking of the next move,” said Vellucci. “I won a few championships in the OHL and never really let go so I told myself I was going to enjoy this. To watch them celebrate and join in was really cool.”
The five-game victory over Chicago to claim the Calder Cup capped off a two-year run for Vellucci that saw him take over as the team’s fifth head coach in five seasons and help foster a title-worthy culture in Charlotte.
“Every year we’ve gotten a little bit better,” said Trevor Carrick. “This year, from the coaching staff to the training staff to the management to the players, everything just clicked and we got it done and it feels really good.”
After some time away from the bench following a long OHL career in Plymouth, Vellucci made it clear at his introductory press conference two years ago how excited he was to return to a coaching role. The impact that attitude has had on this championship team is evident from the glowing praise his players have for their coach.
“He’s the ultimate player’s coach,” said Andrew Poturalski. “He knows and respects what we want to do, he was always asking the leaders when the guys needed time off or rest. He’s so relatable to the guys and gets it and that goes a long way. Guys weren’t tense in the room, nobody was nervous around him. He supported us and understood that we had a lot of young guys and gave us some leeway when we needed it. He deserves so much credit for how far we got.”
A big part of being an AHL coach is managing young talent as they navigate the ups and downs of pro hockey, especially the initial disappointment of not being in the NHL. On a team loaded with highly-touted, well-regarded young prospects, Vellucci and his staff excelled in that area.
“I talked a lot to [Canes Director of Forward Development] Sergei Samsonov and then I was on video with Mike and talked to him a lot too,” said Martin Necas. “They are great coaches, you can talk to them about anything, not just about hockey.”
“He’s a really great coach,” said Morgan Geekie. “He’s definitely hard on you but in a good way. He cares about you and he wants you to do your best. He takes you and watches video with you and stuff but he lets you play, he isn’t going to turn you into something you’re not.”
While he’ll surely deflect the credit onto his team, Vellucci’s fingerprints are all over this championship, and the group that he joined on the ice to celebrate a Calder Cup with is one that fully adopted his ways and became winners.
“It’s a mindset,” said Vellucci. “There’s skill and things like that, but more importantly there’s a mindset to being a winner in hockey.”