“I don’t have any bad ones,” the new coach of Clarkson University’s men’s hockey team says, only half jokingly. “For the most part, I am upbeat. I love my job; I don’t have any bad days. But the other side of me is I’m very competitive.”
It is that combination of zeal for life and hockey — and a burning desire to excel at both — that has Golden Knights fans so excited about the man tasked with returning one of collegiate hockey’s most storied programs to its historic perch.
“We wanted someone who was enthusiastic, energetic and believed in Clarkson hockey,” says Athletic Director Steve Yianoukos, who handed Jones his first head coaching job in May. “The thing that really stood out was his energy. He sold us that he was the man that was going to take this program forward.”
As the Men’s Head Hockey Coach at Clarkson, Jones holds an additional honor as the Leonard S. Ceglarski Chair, made possible by a gift from alumnus John T. McLennan ’68, ’70. The chair honors Ceglarski ’97 (Hon. Degree), legendary former coach at Clarkson and Boston College.
Throughout a two-decade coaching career that included a prior stop at Clarkson as an assistant coach in the 1990s, Jones, 43, has established a reputation as a relentlessly positive teacher who both supports his players and demands much from them.
“It’s hard to be down when you talk to him,” says assistant coach Phil Roy ’00, who finds Jones’ overtures hard to resist. Jones originally recruited him to Potsdam to play for the Knights in the late ’90s, and this summer again convinced him that Clarkson was the right place for him to continue his coaching career.
“You can have the worst day of your life, haven’t slept all night, and you’ll talk to him and be ready to go,” Roy says. “Just like when he recruited me, I’m buying into who he is and who he’s going to be as a head coach.”
It seems much of the college hockey world is too.
“Everything I’m reading and hearing is that it’s an exciting time to be a part of Clarkson hockey,” says Clay Matvick, a play-by-play announcer for ESPN who frequently works college hockey games. “These last few years have been an aberration, and everything’s set to get back on track, no pun intended, with Casey Jones as your engineer.”
Legend has it that the first Clarkson team skated against the Hogansburg Indians on the Raquette River in 1916. The team officially was founded in 1921 and 17 years later moved to the Clarkson Arena, later renamed Walker Arena in honor of Murray Walker, a local businessman considered essential to the growth and development of the Clarkson hockey program.
Clarkson amassed a superb winning percentage in the 20th century, becoming the fastest Division I college hockey team to compile 1,000 victories. Its all-time winning percentage remains over 60.
Defenseman Fred Dion was the school’s first All-America, in 1928, and 36 have followed in his footsteps. The Knights have participated in 20 NCAA Tournaments, including three championship games; won 10 ECAC (Clarkson’s conference) titles; and five ECAC Tournament championships.
The Conroy family figured heavily in many of those wins through the years. Craig Conroy, who retired this year after 17 seasons in the National Hockey League, grew up in Potsdam worshipping the green and gold.
“When I was little, my grandpa and I would go to every game,” says Conroy, who was an All-America selection at Clarkson in 1994. “He had season tickets. We were in Walker at the time.
Right where the players walked in we were the first two seats on the left. I had two uncles (Terry ’78, Tom Taylor ’82) play there, my dad (Mike ’73) played there. That was my dream growing up, to play for the Clarkson Golden Knights. To be able to come out of that locker room and jump on that ice in Walker was special.”
As the action moved from Walker to the gleaming new Cheel Arena in 1991, the team’s winning ways went with it. Clarkson qualified for seven NCAA Tournaments in its first nine years in the new rink, which immediately became one of the top venues in the country.
“It was beyond standing room only when we were there,” says Clarkson Board of Trustees member Jason Currie ’94, who played goalie for the Knights. “The crowd, when they’re into it, is about as electric as it gets in college hockey. For fan-based knowledge, it’s right-up there with Cornell, BU and Michigan, where they’re known for their fans.”
“The kids learn to skate much sooner than they can dribble basketballs,” says Lynn Henry, who moved to Potsdam in 1970 and has been going to Clarkson hockey games for 30 years. “Hockey is the focal point up here. Because of the severity of the winters and the success the hockey program has had, it is the thing to do throughout the winter.”
The buzz inside Cheel grows most intense when the Knights’ archrival St. Lawrence comes calling.
“There’s a special anticipation throughout the whole week,” Henry says. “When you get in there and the band’s playing and the kids are taking the ice, it’s packed 45 minutes before the game, it’s a special feeling. It’s almost a rivalry among communities. We have some great rivalries with Cornell and RPI, but with St. Lawrence, it’s not only Clarkson versus St. Lawrence but it’s Potsdam versus Canton. There isn’t a much better feeling then when you walk out of Cheel after having defeated St. Lawrence.”
“Growing up, when you wake up in the morning you start thinking about [hockey] right away, and you’re still thinking about hockey when you go to bed at night,” he says.
A talented center, Jones played his college hockey at Cornell. Despite being drafted by the NHL’s Boston Bruins in the 10th round of the 1987 draft, a professional career never materialized. As a fallback, Jones joined his alma mater’s coaching staff for two years.
“It wasn’t necessarily something I planned on doing [long-term],” he says. “But I realized, it’s the education business. Both my parents are teachers, and my sister is a teacher. I grew up under that model. You still get the juices flowing from the competitive perspective, and it still gives you the relationships and the locker room atmosphere that are so appealing to players who played the game.”
Jones was an assistant coach behind the Clarkson bench for the ’93-’94 and ’94-’95 seasons, helping the Knights to a 43-19-9 record, an ECAC Hockey championship and a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
“He was very positive,” says Conroy, who played for Jones during his senior season. “He was always teaching. I remember I had a bad practice, I was going through the motions, and he said you have to work hard in practice and show everyone else. I was having a good year and thinking I’m playing well, but maybe I was taking the practices a little too lightly. I remember him saying you have to work in the practice just as hard as you work in the games. It stuck with me.”
Climbing the coaching ladder, Jones left Potsdam for the decidedly less hockey-crazed town of Columbus, Ohio, where for 13 years he served as associate head coach at Ohio State.
“He was committed to teaching kids,” says John Markell, Ohio State’s head coach during Jones’ tenure there. “He’s very, very good at the Xs and Os. He’s emotional, but I think he’ll want a commitment from the players to do what he wants them to do. If not, you might get a second chance but you’re not going to get a third and fourth. But he’ll laugh and kid with kids and treat them like human beings, and I think that’s important.”
Jones returned to Cornell for three seasons before being named the 11th head coach in Clarkson history. He and his wife, Kimberlee, are excited to return to Potsdam to raise their nine-year-old daughter, Gabrielle, and seven-year-old son, Bryan.
In order to resurrect the Clarkson program, Jones will have to do what he does best: recruit. He already has an established network of contacts, and in adding Roy, who’s bilingual, and Minnesota native Andy Jones to his coaching staff, he’s hoping to expand Clarkson’s reach.
Once recruits arrive in Potsdam, the greenest Knights can expect to play a puck possession, speed style of game.
“We want players that want to be pros and understand the value of academics, and competitive guys that want to work hard,” Jones says. “But you don’t get perfect players. You can’t forget that you’re in a development stage in these young guys’ careers. The nice thing about college is every year you get new players coming through the door, so you learn to adjust to your team’s strengths.”
Jones’ vision meshes perfectly with how Yianoukos imagines his ideal program.
“We want our student-athletes to be good citizens in the community,” he says. “Our expectations are they meet the academic requirements, meet the social requirements, and are nationally competitive. I would like us to be categorized as a disciplined, hard-working team that makes few mental mistakes and gives 150 percent every night. Casey’s personality reflects this type of play.”
As a new day dawns in the life of Clarkson hockey, Casey Jones just knows it’s going to be a great one.