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Courtesy photo

Ed Viola watches a Daniel Webster College hockey game earlier this season. Viola, the former coach for the Souhegan High School boys hockey team, finished up his first season as an assistant for DWC.
Friday, March 30, 2012

Viola settled in as DWC hockey assistant coach

NASHUA – Ed Viola remembers a conversation he had when former Souhegan High School athletic director Chris Lavoie hired him a few years ago to be the hockey head coach.

“He said to me, ‘We just want to be sure you’re not going to use this as a stepping stone to something else’,” Viola said. “I told him, ‘Well, that’s not my intention,’ but I really had no idea what would happen a few years down the road.”

What happened was this: After guiding the Sabers to the Class I finals and two tourney appearances in three years, Viola stepped down last fall to accept an offer to be an assistant coach at Daniel Webster College.

“I had planned to be (at Souhegan) for the long haul,” Viola said. “I really felt bad leaving the kids. The group of seniors were freshmen when I came in, we grew in the program together. So I said to myself, ‘I want to see these seniors out the door.’ But the thing was – there’s always going to be a group of seniors I’d like to see out the door.”

The Eagles first approached Viola about the possibility last summer when longtime head coach Jean-Guy Letarte stepped down and six-year assistant John McAnespie replaced him. Nothing came of it then, but in the fall McAnespie approached Viola again.

“I was wondering, ‘Am I going to be able to do this?’” Viola said. “I felt it was something I’d be good at. I had an idea, and I really enjoyed it. It’s different in the way you’re dealing with the kids. You’re dealing with adults now. In high school, you’re helping to mold personalities and players. In college, you’re dealing with personalities instead of molding them.”

The Eagles are a non-varsity program, but club hockey in New England has grown to NCAA-type proportions in the New England Collegiate Hockey Association (NECHA).

It’s certainly different than what Viola was used to in Division III high school hockey.

“Just the speed,” he said. “It’s up a notch. My first game behind the bench, I was like ‘Whoa, these kids can play.’ You’re basically tweaking their skills and teaching aspects of the game. That’s what I most enjoyed.”

The other difference for Viola was he was moving from being a head coach, making all the major decisions, to being an assistant. There was a non-varsity head job open at nearby UMass-Lowell, but he felt if he was going to move to the college level, the best way to do that would be as an assistant.

“That was a big adjustment,” he said. “It’s the first time I’d been an assistant since I was 20 years old. But I sat with John for about three hours, I’ve known him for about 15 years, and it worked out. It was different not calling the shots but he was open to suggestions. He gave me a lot of responsibility and I wasn’t sure he was going to. I felt not in complete control, but I had a good amount of it.’’

The experiences were fun. The Eagles finished 12-9 overall, 10-5 in the NECHA and lost in the tourney semis at Conway Arena to Roger Williams.

Viola has also enjoyed recruiting, something different for him, as he familiarized himself with the DWC academic curriculum in order to look at players who would be a fit. “I like it,” he said. “I get to watch more hockey. We’re trying to build this program and make it more than it is now.”

One thing Viola struggled with was something he thought might be the most fun – coaching against his son, Mario, a junior goalie for Lyndon State. The Eagles won both matchups, but Viola felt uncomfortable.

“I asked him before I took the job if he’d mind, and he said, ‘No I wouldn’t care, I’d look forward to it’” Viola said. “I thought it would be fun, but it wasn’t. He got a little too over-excited. It was the hardest thing I ever had to do.”

What he did enjoy was seeing his former Souhegan players, as they played some of their games either before or after DWC practices at Conway. Sometimes Viola would stay and watch. He knew Saber freshman Steve Upton was a player, as he had him at a few Souhegan practices as an eighth grader.

He remembered telling Souhegan junior defenseman Ben Ehrlich when he was a freshman that the Sabers would be very good by his junior year.

But now Viola looks ahead, he’s a college coach now. “It wasn’t a split second decision,” he said.

Yet, it’s one he is glad he made.