When I received a phone call from Missouri Mavericks coach Scott Hillman Wednesday afternoon, I was hoping for the best, but anticipating the worst.
For weeks, since his Central Hockey League team lost in the opening round of the playoffs after working so hard to gain home-ice advantage throughout the regular season, rumors were swirling about his future with the team.
I kept hoping that the longer it took for the team to make an announcement, the better the chance that Hillman would have the opportunity to coach a sixth season.
And then, he dropped the bombshell.
He was resigning, and joining a new organization.
Over the past five years, I have developed a special relationship with Hillman. It runs so deep that he would call me after every road game so I could write a game story in much the same fashion I would when the team was playing in the Independence Events Center. If I needed a player’s cell number, Hillman would run it down. He’d pass his cell phone around in the locker room or on the bus, and he never missed the opportunity to make me feel like I was a part of the team.
That’s so rare in this day and age of media relations. So oftentimes, beat writers form an antagonistic relationship with a coach or front office, and that never happened with the Mavericks. I have the same feelings for team president Brent Thiessen, who has never backed down from a tough question or failed to return a phone call.
Having Thiessen at the helm will make this transition smoother, and I recently found out that its likely equipment manager Andrew Dvorak and veteran team trainer Bill Murray will stay with the Mavericks and not join their friend on his new venture.
That will bring a great deal of stability to a clubhouse that has known just one leader – Scott Hillman.
The first time I met Hillman was at a news conference announcing the arrival of this new minor league hockey team. They didn’t have a name, team colors or a mascot. But they had a coach whose passion surfaced immediately.
The first thing Hillman did was give me his cell number, and he told me to call him day or night if I needed anything.
To be honest with you, I think I could have called him at 1 a.m. to help me change a flat tire and he would have been there in a heartbeat.
The first year the team made a late run – thanks to the arrival of the one-and-only Charlie Effinger in goal – and made the postseason. That became a regular habit for a team that twice lost in Game 7 of semifinals and never managed to grab the big prize.
I know that bothered the coach, and he told me that his decision to move on was complicated by the fact that the team is on the verge of something special. We all thought this was the year they would raise the Ray Miron President's Cup in victory. Instead, they lost to the best No. 8 seed in the history of the CHL and the questions began flying.
I will defend Hillman as a coach because he brought success to a city that needed it desperately. The Royals have not been in the playoffs since they won the World Series in 1985 and the Chiefs have not won a playoff game since 1993.
There was nothing embarrassing about the Mavericks. Did I agree with all of Hillman’s moves? No. I still think Derek Pallardy should be a part of this team, and I didn’t like the way Carlyle “The Grim Sleeper” Lewis’ career came to an unceremonious end.
But game in, game out, and season in, season out, Hillman’s teams brought an excitement to the Events Center that captured the heart and soul of an entire community.
He did it with class and grace and style.
If we had an appointment for an interview he was always five minutes early.
We spent so much time at Tim’s Pizza early on in his career the Pace brothers call their Hawaiian pizza “The Hillman.”
As much as I respect him as a coach, I respect him even more as a man, a father and a husband.
When I would travel with the team, he would always call home after every game. He would ask sons Corbin and Guhnar about their day, how did they did in school and he wanted all the details of their hockey games.
He did not tell me where he and his family are moving, but he let me know it was to an area that would be a hotbed of hockey, as he and his wife Dalyn’s sons are two of the best players in their age bracket in North America. The Hillmans just returned from Toronto, where Corbin played in a tournament, and they will be in New Jersey this weekend for a tournament with Guhnar.
The toughest thing about my job is saying goodbye to good friends when they are traded, retire or resign to go on to bigger and better opportunities.
Like you, I can’t wait to see what the future holds for the Mavericks and Hillman. I hope it’s bright and successful and I hope we find out soon, because the suspense is killing me.
Good luck Scott, and thanks for the past five years. You turned a hockey novice into a hockey fan. Well, let’s say you turned a hockey novice into a Missouri Mavericks fan. I’m counting the days until the 2014 season begins – I just wish you were going to be part of it.
Bill Althaus is a sports writer and columnist for The Examiner. Reach him at 816-350-6333 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @AlthausEJC