After 16 years, two Paralympic Games and one gold medal, Jeff Snyder will return to the Elmira Sugar Kings as an assistant coach.The Elmira native spent much of the last decade coaching the Canadian men’s sledge hockey team, an experience that reinvigorated his passion for the game.
“It was awesome,” Snyder said, shortly before the Sugar Kings’ first exhibition game of the 2014-15 campaign. “I really enjoyed my time with the sledge hockey program. … Working with those kinds of players who aren’t playing for money, they’re playing because they want to represent their country. And they have had to overcome adversity in their lives because of disability; that was very refreshing for me. I learned a lot from the players about life.”
Snyder’s last stint with the Kings came as the club’s head coach and general manager during the successful 1996-98 run that included two Cherrey Cups and one Sutherland Cup championship.
He then made the jump up to the Ontario Hockey League as an assistant coach with the Kitchener Rangers, taking over the head coach role during the 1999-2000 season.
Unfortunately, Snyder was let go by the Rangers after the team posted a 26-36-6 record in 2000-01. It was a tough pill to swallow.
“I was a bit down on myself when I was let go by the Rangers,” he recalled. “I was maybe missing that (love for the game), but coaching the sledge hockey team brought it back.”
After two Olympic cycles that included a gold medal win in 2006 at Turin and a fourth-place finish at the Vancouver Paralympics in 2010, Snyder stepped away from the game again.
But the itch to coach quickly returned.
“Hockey is in my blood,” he explained. “I know when I wasn’t doing it I missed it … so I went to Cambridge (Winter Hawks) last year, and then the opportunity came up here.”
A spot on the staff opened up when assistant coach Matt Desmeules left to spend more time with his family and Snyder was a perfect fit, Sugar Kings general manager Paul Jennings said.
“He was the face of the franchise for a long time. He’s a very patient individual and he brings great input. I’ve learned a lot from him already.”
Jennings continued, “His input has been extremely valuable and we can only expect that to amp up and escalate as the games get more important. The building blocks and foundation of our club starts with our staff and it’s an excellent fit with Jeff. Our kids are going to be the benefactors of his input.”
The feeling is mutual, as rejoining the Kings feels like coming home, said Snyder, who played for the club in the late 1970s and early ’80s and spent much of the ’90s behind the bench.
“It feels like this is where I should be,” he said. “I think the organization is one of the best Junior B organizations around. It’s fun to come back to be a part of that in my hometown, having played and coached here before, I am really looking forward to it.”
It helps that the club looks strong, he added.
“I think we are going to have a really competitive team. We’ve got lots of good returnees and (management) has done a great job recruiting some skilled young players. I think we’re going to be fast and we’ve got some good size on defense.
“We also have excellent goaltending. Jonathan Reinhardt had a great season last year and I’m sure he’ll do it again this year.”
Snyder joins a staff led by second year head coach Jeff Flanagan and assistant coaches Trent Brown, Bryan Fitzgerald, Mike Parson, Brad Nickel and conditioning coach Chris Lakoseljac. He says he hopes to bring experience, especially on the defensive end.
“I am looking forward to working with the defencemen. I think we have some really talented defencemen and I have been fortunate to coach some real good defencemen when I was with the Rangers. So I feel like I can help those guys take the next step.”