March 13, 2003

Defense at Heart of Red's Success

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Not much recognition is given to assistant coaches — typically the players and sometimes the head coaches garner all the accolades and awards. That’s too bad for men’s hockey assistant coach Jamie Russell, who would be picking up a trophy if senior Mark McRae handed out the prizes.

“He’s probably the most qualified assistant coach in the league,” said the defenseman.

McRae should be very familiar with Russell’s coaching manner. The fourth-year assistant joined the Cornell coaching staff in McRae’s freshman year, and is responsible for running the defensive pairs during games and improving the blue liners’ skill in practices.

“He’s very up front, very honest, expects nothing but hard work. He’s very relaxed, he doesn’t need to point out the little things to our defense all the time, and when he does speak, the guys listen to him,” said head coach Mike Schafer ’86.

A native of Kamloops, B.C., Russell attended Cariboo College in his hometown for two years before playing two years at Michigan Tech. While at Michigan Tech, Russell was an assistant captain in both seasons. He proved himself as a strong leader, winning the team’s Outstanding Leadership Award in his senior year. The success Russell had in the assistant captain’s role planted the idea of coaching in his head.

“I think I got the bug when I was a player,” said Russell. “I had a leadership role on some of the teams I played; I had some good coaches that I learned a lot from.”

Russell’s playing days didn’t end after he left Michigan Tech. He went on to play with the Winston-Salem Thunderbirds of the ECHL, as well as the AHL’s Binghamton Whalers, the top minor league team of the Hartford Whalers. He also spent time playing professionally in Sweden.

The experience in both American and European pro leagues has been very useful to Russell in his coaching career, as many players on the Red are hoping to turn pro after their college days are done.

“Going to the next level, playing overseas in Sweden, and then in the East Coast League, and then the American League, I think you get a taste of what the next level’s like and you can see some of the areas the guys have to improve on and what it takes to get to the next level,” said Russell. “I try and pass on some of that to the guys.”

Russell got into coaching when a former teammate, Ron Rolston, recommended him to Bob Daniels, the head coach at Ferris State. Russell landed the assistant coaching job with Ferris State in 1994. Coincidentally, Rolston eventually ended up coaching in the ECAC as well, spending three years as an assistant at Harvard.

Russell’s first season at Ferris State was also Schafer’s last season as an assistant with Western Michigan, and the two became familiar with each other through coaches’ conventions and CCHA competition. When there was a vacancy behind the Cornell bench, Schafer brought Russell into the program.

Aside from working with the defensemen, one of Russell’s main duties is recruiting, something he has had considerable success with, given the accomplishments of the junior, sophomore, and freshman classes. Ferris State’s current senior class has also been outstanding, as senior Chris Kunitz is second in the nation in scoring and the Bulldogs are fourth in the poll.

“If you look at both him and [assistant coach] Brent [Brekke`], they’ve brought in a lot of great hockey players over the course of time here, and obviously he’s done a great job at Ferris State before he left there,” said Schafer. “That senior class is leading them to a lot of success. He’s obviously proven himself over the course of time with bringing quality people and hockey players in.”

The success should lead to head coaching opportunities down the road for Russell, a prospect he is definitely interested in. His current boss and players will be waiting with recommendations when the time arrives.

“He’s paid his dues as far as assistant coach is concerned, and I’m sure when the right opportunity comes he’ll take advantage of it,” said Schafer.

“I think there’s going to be people looking to pick him up in the future,” agreed McRae.

Archived article by Alex Fineman