Lincoln Stars: How important was it to get off to a solid start right out of the gate? You didn’t have a lot of returning players, but you relied on several USHL veterans to bring you to a 6-2-2 start through ten games.
Cody Chupp: I think the biggest part was that we knew we had guys that were capable of playing and succeeding in the USHL. When you basically compile the roster we did, it’s about finding what makes us click and what’s going to give us success as a group. On top of that, the biggest thing is creating a culture of accountability where guys are demanding it of themselves and demanding it of the guys around them. I’ve said for a long time, the sooner the room takes over, the better opportunity we give ourselves for success down the road.
LS: How did your team evolve through the ensuing months of the season, especially in times of adversity, whether it be from suspensions, injuries and even guys heading back to play for their high school teams?
CC: I think it’s one of the great parts about our league and one of the hard parts about our league. We’re limited based on the size of the rosters as to how many guys we have in town. When you have a suspension or an injury or a guy like [Jake] Boltmann who decides to go back and finish high school, it’s difficult. You have to find ways to fill those gaps and more often than not, it’s guys that you have in town. It’s young guys learning the league, learning what it takes to be successful and then being given that opportunity to show what they’ve learned and take on a more expanded role. Some of those things we filled through guys who were in town who stepped up and gained more responsibility. Some of it we got through trade where guys maybe were outside of our league. If you look at our defensive group, it was that. It was guys who were coming from outside the league that were given an opportunity to come in and play minutes and get their feet wet.
LS: The offense was something that was consistent all year long. Lincoln scored 172 goals and led the Western Conference. In 2018-19, you scored 151 times in 62 games. Did you expect this type of firepower up front when you started assembling the team in August and September?
CC: No, we didn’t. We hoped for it, but I’d be lying if I said I thought we were going to lead our conference in goals scored. Again, it points to what our league is really about. So many times you hear people say it’s a two-year league and it’s those guys who are in their second year who have already been through it. We had that this year, no question. Whether it was guys that were here last year and went through a long, trying season or it was guys that we acquired through trade who were stepping into a different role than what they had been in years past. It was young guys who put the work in and the credit goes to them. They had great summers, they bought in to what was being asked of them and they went above and beyond based on their skill set or makes them successful. It’s great, it’s fantastic for our league. It’s what we preach and I think we have a lot of guys who were prime examples of that this year.
LS: What do you think was the biggest obstacle for your team this year?
CC: I think the biggest obstacle was ‘how do we do it all the time’ and creating that consistency. What I mean by that is ‘How do we do it every day? How do we demand certain things of ourselves and the people around us every single day?’ The beauty of our league is you get to watch young kids grow their game, have success, make huge strides over the course of one or two years. The frustration in our league is that this is the only time that all these guys are going to be together. We don’t get to keep them. There are things that come next and sometimes those things that come next are a distraction to what we’re trying to accomplish right now. One of the biggest frustrations is that I really liked us going down the stretch. I think we had the right group to really make a big splash as we headed towards the playoffs and into the playoffs because these guys were getting better at those things every single day. And at the end of the day, they really liked each other. They liked being around each other, they liked coming to the rink. Half the battle in this time of the year is making sure the guys are still having fun, that they enjoy what they’re doing and they enjoy the people they’re doing it with. That’s probably, from a staff standpoint, the biggest frustration and I know we’re not alone in that. There’s a lot of other teams saying the same thing but I think this group was an extremely special group. They were getting closer to what we were talking about: taking over as a group and creating those expectations and demands on a daily basis.
LS: What is the next step for your staff now that we’ve officially entered the off-season?
CC: The first step for us as a hockey staff is taking the time to evaluate ourselves and each other. To spend time reaching out to every one of the guys individually. When we sent guys home, it was under the impression that we were suspended and there was a chance we would get back together and finish the season in some aspect, whether it was jumping right into playoffs or continuing on in the regular season. So, taking the time to say thank you to the guys who aren’t coming back and then to spend some time with those guys who are returning and lay out the expectations for their summer, the expectations for when we see them at our main camp and when they get back here in the fall. That’s the first step. Within that, we’re obviously continuing to prepare for the draft. We do that by making sure we have a firm grasp on what we want to bring in, what our needs are and then finding the guys who fit that within the cultural identity that we’ve set in place.