Come the start of this AHL hockey season, the fans of the Houston Aeros will see lots of familiar faces on the ice as, even though last season was rather disappointing, many of the players will be returning. But where the fans will not be seeing familiar faces is behind the bench as the Aeros will have a new coaching staff.
And in a rather strange, but good, oddity for a supposedly non-hockey town in the deep South of the United States, the coaching staff is one that actually has lots of ties to not only Texas, but to Houston.
Replacing Kevin Constantine as head coach is first time head coach Mike Yeo. Yeo's spent the last five years as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the top teams in the NHL, and before that, he spent six seasons as an assistant with the Penguins farm team the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins.
But before joining the coaching ranks, Yeo was a key player on the Houston Aeros, having served as the captain of the 1998-99 squad that won the IHL Turner Cup.
One of Yeo's teammates on that Turner Cup squad was Brian Wiseman, who led the team with 109 points. Wiseman, who also spent time with other various AHL and IHL squads, stayed in Houston after his career ended, though he did some assistant coaching work with Princeton University and the Dallas Stars. And Wiseman has been tapped by his former teammate to be one of his assistant coaches.
"Brian Wiseman, I had the opportunity to play with him, and go to war with him, every day," Yeo said before assembled press and season ticket holders last week. "The thing that stuck out the most to me, about Brian, was that you could count on him. Night in, night out, he was a performer. You don't get a 109 points by taking a few nights off. You show up every night, you're professional, you prepare, and that's what he's going to bring to the table as well, and that's going to be contagious to our players."
To handle his defense, Yeo turned to one of his former players, the recently retired Darryl Sydor who was played defense for two NHL Stanley Cup winning teams while reaching the finals one other time. One of Sydor's teams, and a team for which he won the Stanley Cup, was the Dallas Stars, thus giving all of the Aeros coaches a tie to Texas.
And Yeo's prime goal is to return to the Aeros to the heights at which they stood when he helped to hoist the Turner Cup.
"I can't tell you how excited I am. 1994 is a long time ago, and that was my first experience with Houston," he said. "That's when I came here fresh out of junior hockey, coming from rural Ontario, Canada. I came here on tryout, not knowing what to expect. I made the team. Five years later, I made a ton of great relationships, great friends, great people, played on great teams. Both of my kids...were born here. To top it all off, 1999, I can picture it like it was yesterday. A sold-out building, fans going crazy, and "We Are Champions" playing. It's pretty easy to see, it's probably easy for you to understand, how I can have so many great memories, and why I would want to come back. I can assure you there's more to it than that."
Yeo, Sydor, and Wiseman are telling the Houston hockey fans that they're going to enjoy this season's Aeros team. They're promising a quick, aggressive, attacking style of play that should offer the fans lots of excitement and scoring.
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"When you come to watch us play we're going to be fast," Yeo says. "We're going to be physical. We're going to be aggressive. We're going to play in your face hockey, and we're going to be extremely tough to play against. It's going to be exciting."
Aeros GM Jim Mill said he couldn't believe how lucky the Aeros were to get Yeo. He's known Yeo for years, as has Wild GM Chuck Fletcher and Wild coach Todd Richards, and he believes that Yeo is bringing to the Aeros exactly what the team needs in a coach.
"Chuck Fletcher and myself have been part of the Wild organization just for a little over a year," Mill said last week. "So some of the things that we emphasized -- and we did so when we hired Todd Richards -- are characteristics. Character, passion, work ethic, pride, communication skills, and a winning environment. And an ability to have our coaching staff provide a winning environment. And that's why it's such an exciting day and time for the Wild and the Aeros organization."
The Aeros season is still a little over month away, so the fans still have to wait a bit to see if the excitement of Yeo and his staff is justified.