Colorado Rubber

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Colorado College ACHA coach, local scout Mikolajczyk helping grow game at all levels in state

 

Chris Mikolajczyk is originally from New Jersey, but moved to Colorado four years ago and has been serving in a number of hockey roles since then.

Mikolajczyk is in his second season as head coach for Colorado College’s ACHA team after previously coaching two seasons at Doherty High School. He also scouts in Colorado for the NAHL’s New Jersey Titans, EHL’s New Jersey Bears, and ACHA’s U.S. Naval Academy.

Needless to say, Mikolajczyk is a very busy man.

“We have a good bunch of players but a very small roster,” said Mikolajczyk of his CC team. “The program had been dormant for five seasons prior to the players bringing me in. There had been some coaching and financial issues in the past where the program had been suspended and then was reinstated just as COVID hit and then was shut down again. The players have done a great job of getting the program up and running again. Being a club, it’s all on their shoulders and they are literally starting the program from the bottom up all over again. We’ve been over .500 in both of my seasons to date and that’s all on the players and their efforts.

“CC is a very small, selective admission school. Not the easiest to recruit for.”

In New Jersey, Mikolajczyk coached high school hockey from 1997 until heading out to Colorado in 2020.

“I was fortunate enough to be 1-1 in the state championship game, serving under two excellent head coaches,” said Mikolajczyk. “I was also the director of hockey operations for the College of New Jersey’s ACHA Division II program for four seasons, where we won two league titles in that timeframe. After TCNJ, I moved on to assisting the Naval Academy with their ACHA D-I program, where I remain today. We moved to Colorado after our son Brendan graduated high school as we had an empty house at that point. Coincidentally, our son Brendan chose Colorado State for his education, where he graduated in 2022.”

With Colorado College’s NCAA D-I team having marked success this season, Mikolajczyk is hoping that has a trickle-down effect on the ACHA program.

“To be honest, it’s not a huge effect on us,” said Mikolajczyk. “We obviously get to play and practice in a first-class NCAA D-I facility (Ed Robson Arena), but for the most part, we don’t cross paths with the big team much other than in the arena hallways here and there. Recently, the D-I team purchased new game jerseys which allowed them to give us their older set of jerseys, so that was a huge help. Our ACHA team’s total budget is less than what I was paid as a director of hockey ops at TCNJ, so every little bit helps us.

“On a side note, it’s great to see the success that Gleb Veremeyev is having. I coached against Gleb in New Jersey high school hockey. In fact, his team upset my team one season in the state playoffs. Each time I see him, I remind him I’m still unhappy about that.”

Mikolajczyk said his three scouting roles are three different sets of circumstances as the three programs “are very different in terms of athletics and academics.”

“The New Jersey Titans of the NAHL are players with goals of playing NCAA D-I hockey,” explained Mikolajczyk. “Those players stand out fairly quickly in Colorado and are usually into the league a bit earlier than most. They typically come from the Tier I AAA programs and may not be playing high school hockey due to Tier I rules or time constraints. They may even finish high school online. Here in Colorado, I focus on the 16U AAA and 18U AAA programs of the Thunderbirds, Rampage, Roughriders, and Tigers for those players. NAHL players play, practice, train, and travel as close to NCAA D-I programs as you can get. The Titans also have several other junior clubs where they can also place players for further development. These players come from all over the country and Europe as well.

“For the New Jersey Bears program, we have both a big club in the EHL and a development club in the EHL Premier league. The EHL is the main feeder league to NCAA D-III schools, especially in the northeast. There are even the odd players that make a D-I program, the ‘late bloomers,’ if you will. The EHL is a very good league, and works off the model of having the parent EHL teams usually in the 18-20 year-old range and the EHLP teams in the 16-18 year-old range. There are exceptions each way, of course, but the organizations that focus on development of their players will typically have this setup. These players are also focused on either NCAA D-III or top-level ACHA hockey. There are ACHA D-I programs with NAHL players on their roster, so it shows the level of commitment needed even for a top club team. The EHL allows players to strike a bit more of a balanced daily workload, as many of the players are either still in high school or will take a college class or two and work a small part-time job as they prepare to move on to NCAA D-III or ACHA D-I. The Bears have a really nice setup where the rink also has an independent top cross-fit training complex under the same roof of the facility. EHL players also come from all over the country and Europe as well. If you check the rosters of all the EHL teams this season, most have 1-2 players from Colorado on their roster. By far, the majority of AAA and top AA players that come to this league can go on to play in college, especially ACHA hockey if they are committed and perform.”

Mikolajczyk noted that the U.S. Naval Academy “is a whole different animal.”

“Of the three programs I work with, it’s the only organization that focuses on academics first, then athletics, for obvious reasons,” Mikolajczyk said. “The academy has several ACHA teams, and players are placed where they fit. The ACHA D-I team won their league the last few seasons and had a nice showing at nationals. The program starts with the success of the student-athlete first. If players don’t have the qualifications to enter the academy, then scouting them for hockey is almost a waste of time. Of the three programs, it’s the only one where they exclusively send me the specific players to go watch based on their initial applications and qualifications. Much like the Air Force Academy and the U.S. Military Academy, the Naval Academy wants leaders first and hockey players second. That being said, the USNA is a top-notch ACHA D-I program. In fact, they are a signature away from being an NCAA D-I program, and that transition would be seamless as all the facilities and infrastructure is in place already, including a league. These student-athletes are a very unique combination and the work ethic is top notch.
“When players graduate and go on to become fighter pilots and Navy SEALs, it’s not hard to see why.”

In his short time in Colorado, Mikolajczyk has coached a handful of players that have moved on to higher levels of the game.

“The two Colorado players that come to the top of my head right now are Garrett Bogan and Chase Chapman, both of whom played for me at Doherty,” said Mikolajczyk. “They are both great kids, excellent students, and exceptional leaders. I tried to get both of them for the EHL Bears program I represent, but they carved their own junior hockey paths, and good for them. They’ve both been successful in their pursuit, Garrett with the Helena Bighorns of the NA3HL and Chase with the Wausau Cyclones of the NA3HL.

“I know both will be highly successful should they choose to play for a top college club program.”

And while he hasn’t been around the Colorado youth hockey landscape as long as others, Mikolajczyk has seen it grow in his four years being involved.

“The Palmer Lake Outdoor Classic has really had an effect in this tri-lakes area,” said Mikolajczyk. “I always see the young kids playing hockey on the frozen Palmer Lake every time I drive by. That’s a huge benefit to the local Tier I and Tier II organizations, for sure, as more kids look to play organized hockey.”

Going forward, Mikolajczyk has immediate and long-term goals in the coaching and scouting realm.

“In both, my goals are the same – I’d like to help players get as far as they can in this beautiful sport,” Mikolajczyk said. “I’m currently assisting another former Doherty player, Andrew DeRubis, as he chases a dream of playing professional hockey in the Netherlands. My son Brendan has been a big help as well, having played hockey with his USA Hockey District team in Gavle, Sweden, and later living in Stockholm for six months while studying abroad. The hierarchy of professional hockey in Europe is extensive and there are more opportunities that you may realize in the smaller countries. My own son’s career ended due to injuries and after getting a degree in kinesiology, he now focuses on helping athletes with strength and conditioning goals as he awaits grad school decisions for next fall. Brendan was fortunate enough to work with both NCAA and NHL players this summer at the University of Denver. We’re a nice 1-2 punch right now, but I know it’s only temporary.

“I’m not an advisor, I don’t charge anybody anything, I simply try to connect the players to the programs through the long-time personal relationships I have back east.”

Photo/Michelle Mikolajczyk

— Matt Mackinder

(January 18, 2024)

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