Coach Scott Hillman was sifting through a box of items in his garage over the weekend when he came upon a dog-eared, yellowing copy of The Examiner.
“It was the story you wrote when we came to town five years ago,” said Hillman, who stunned many of his players and Missouri Maverick fans by announcing his resignation Wednesday morning. “I'm holding Guhnar, and he's 3. He's holding a teddy bear – and now, gosh, he's 8. He and Corbin (12) have grown up here in Eastern Jackson County.
“This is our home. But there comes a time when you have to make a decision that you think is best for you, and your family, and that's what I did.”
Hillman said he is pursuing other hockey opportunities and wants to move to a community where he and wife Dalyn's sons can compete at the highest level. The longtime coach added that an announcement on his future role would be made by the organization he will soon join.
He has been the Mavericks' head coach and director of player operations since the Central Hockey League team came to the Independence Events Center in 2009.
He led the Mavericks to postseason play each season, reaching Game 7 of the semifinals in 2012 and 2013. The team posted the best record in the league this past season (a team-best 44 wins) but was upset by the Arizona Sundogs in the first round of the playoffs.
“That had no impact on my decision,” Hillman said Wednesday afternoon. “In fact, it made it harder because we are so close to bringing the cup home to the best fans in the CHL. This was a very tough decision for both me and my family. We have so many fond memories of the last five seasons with the Mavericks.”
Five years that simply flew by – for the coach and his players.
“It's all so weird,” said Mavericks captain Sebastien Thinel, a longtime friend and former teammate of Hillman’s who has played the last three seasons with the Mavericks. “When I heard Scott had resigned, I wondered why. Then I found out that he might have another coaching opportunity, and you have to take advantage of those opportunities, even if it means leaving a great organization like the Mavericks.”
Hillman and Thinel were teammates on the Odessa Jackalopes. When that team folded, the coach talked Thinel into playing for the Mavericks.
“I would not be here if it weren't for Scott,” Thinel said. “When I joined the Jackalopes, Scott was already there and he was the guy I watched to see how you handle yourself as a professional athlete. He is the class of the class, and the players, the organization and our fans are going to miss him in Independence.”
Because he came to the Mavericks at Hillman's request, many are wondering if Thinel might follow the coach to his new team.
“No, I'm coming back to the Mavericks – if they want me back,” Thinel said. “That's my home. The Mavericks are an extended family. I'd never play anywhere else.”
Nothing about this decision came easy for Hillman, but a weekend phone call about his youngest son made his decision to resign a bit easier.
“I just got a call from Canada from a team that wants Guhnar to play in a tournament in New Jersey, and Corbie is on traveling team that plays all over the country,” Hillman said. “In fact, we were in Toronto a couple of weeks ago and Corbin asked if we could move to Canada because hockey is so strong there. We're going to get them in a hockey environment. I grew up loving the sport and grew up with the sport, and it looks like they are, too.”
Mavericks veterans Dave Pszenyczny and Andrew Courtney were surprised by Hillman's decision.
“Shocked, totally shocked,” said Courtney, who set a single-season goal mark this past season with 34. “I guess it means we all start over from square one with a new coach. It's exciting to think about what's going to happen, but I'm going to miss Scott. He was a great coach and he's such a good person.”
Added Pszenyczny: “Scott brought me here three years ago. In that time we've played in two semifinal series, I got married, had my son and made some of the best friends of my life. I'll always owe Scott for making me a part of the best organization in the CHL.”
Hillman was quick to praise team president Brent Thiessen and the Mavericks’ ownership group.
“I want to thank Brent Thiessen and the ownership group for the opportunity to be part of the best franchise in the CHL,” he said. “I can't thank the staff and the fans enough for the support and passion they have displayed over the last five years.”
Thiessen said the Mavericks are already conducting a national search for a new head coach.
“Scott was a huge part of the Mavericks from day one,” Thiessen said. “His dedication to making this team a standout in the league was evident every season, and the sacrifices he made every day to push our players to be at their best will not be forgotten.
“We as an organization wish Scott and his family nothing but the best as they pursue their future endeavors.”
When asked if he was surprised by Hillman's decision, Thiessen said, “Surprised? There really aren't any surprises in sports, just a lot of changes. And we have not had a change at the coaching position for five years. That's because Scott was such a strong and successful coach and such an important part of this community.
“It is time now for the Mavericks to look forward to the next five seasons, and fill the position with someone who shares this community's passion for our team, and is ready to carry on the legacy and standard of excellence which the Mavs have built thus far.”