Thunderbirds fortify coaching lineup with Combs, Blatchford
Colorado hockey has long held an appeal to Nick Combs and Brett Blatchford.
Combs grew up playing hockey in Colorado Springs, while Blatchford enjoyed one of the highlights of his career here. Though they traveled different paths before joining the Colorado Thunderbirds AAA coaching staff this season, both bring similar attributes to the program – a zeal for helping others and winning resumes.
Blatchford (pictured, right) will assist Nick Hantge and his 18U staff, while Combs (pictured, left) will coach the Thunderbirds 13U team.
For Combs, he shifted his focus to coaching shortly after his playing career was cut short because of wrist injuries when he was 17.
“I enjoy coaching even more than playing,” Combs said. “I had coaches who cared about me as a human being as well as a player. Now I’m on the flipside, and I’m able to give back to this generation.”
After spending a year in Seattle, Combs returned to Colorado in 2011 and accepted a position as an assistant coach with the Thunderbirds. Balancing the time commitment to AAA coaching with trying to finish business degree and being newly married was a grind. After that season, he joined the Littleton Hockey Association, coaching its Bantam AA team to consecutive CAHA state titles and appearances at the USA Hockey Youth Nationals.
“This is a top-notch organization and I love this age group,” Combs said. “With Bantams, you’re not only teaching hockey skills, but instructing them off-ice and preparing them for Midgets and juniors.”
Blatchford’s first hockey experience in Denver was one he’ll never forget, playing for the University of Notre Dame in the Frozen Four at Pepsi Center in 2008. The defenseman played an integral role in the Irish’s hockey resurgence, helping them make three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances from 2007-09.
Winning was old hat to Blatchford by then. He was a part of three consecutive Robertson Cup championships with the Texas Tornado of the North American Hockey League from 2003-06.
After a season in pro hockey, Blatchford returned to the Dallas area and began coaching youth hockey at every level but Midgets for HC Dallas, a member of the North American Prospects Hockey League. When his wife’s job brought the couple to Denver last year, he served as a volunteer assistant with the University of Denver.
“That was a great experience,” said Blatchford said. “Everyone, from coach Jim Montgomery to assistants David Carle and Joe Clark, was great to work with.”
Realizing that climbing the ladder in college hockey would require several relocations, Blatchford, who works in commercial real estate, decided to pursue coaching opportunities in the state.
“As much as I enjoyed the year at DU, I decided that wasn’t the path for me,” he said. “My wife and I fell in love with Denver. I knew I wanted to get into the highest level of youth hockey, and I saw the Thunderbirds as that.”
Blatchford found a fit on Hantge’s staff and his blue line expertise and durability (73 points in 153 NCAA games) was a welcome addition. He’ll run the defense, help with the penalty kill and power play and cover all the defensive aspects.
Blatchford, who grew up playing AAA hockey in Michigan, said the Thunderbirds compare very favorably to the top programs in the East.
“I see things run very similarly here,” he said. “It’s a credit to (Thunderbirds director of hockey operations) Angelo Ricci and his staff that they’ve been able to build this program to the point it’s at.”
— Chris Bayee