Scott Hillman knows a thing or two about starting a professional hockey franchise.
Five years ago, he was named the first – and only (so far) – head coach in Missouri Mavericks history, and the team went on to make the playoffs five years in a row and finished last season as the regular-season Bud Poile Governors’ Cup winners, claiming more wins (44) than any other team in the Central Hockey League.
However, the season ended with a crushing first-round playoff loss to the Arizona Sundogs.
Hillman said that loss made it very difficult to accept his new coaching assignment, that of another first-year team, the Indianapolis Fuel of the East Coast Hockey League.
“I felt like we had some unfinished business in Independence,” said Hillman, who announced his resignation last week, and was introduced as the Fuel's new head coach Tuesday morning. “We had great success during the regular season and in 2012 and 2013 reached Game 7 of the semifinals, but just never quite reached our goal – the championship round.
“It was very difficult leaving the Mavericks, but this is a great opportunity for me and my family, one we couldn't pass up.”
Sean Hallett, president of the Fuel, said the first-year team inked Hillman to a multiyear contract.
“Coach Hillman is a rising star in professional hockey,” Hallett said on the Fuel's website. “His experience coaching a new franchise to immediate success and his commitment to building a winning culture make him the perfect fit as the Fuel's head coach.”
Before joining the Mavericks, Hillman served as head coach of the Knoxville Ice Bears of the Southern Professional Hockey League, where he was named SPHL Coach of the Year in 2009. He led the Ice Bears to two consecutive championships.
“We're going to be back in town on Thursday and we're going to tie up some loose ends before moving the Indianapolis,” Hillman said by phone Tuesday. “You know, the news conference they held here in Indianapolis reminded me of the news conference in Independence five years ago.
“This organization is doing everything the right way, just like we did with the Mavericks. I love the building (State Fairgrounds Coliseum) we're going to play in. I believe it is the oldest building to house a professional hockey team in North America, and they basically gutted it and left the four outside walls. Everything else is new. I believe the renovation cost around $65 million. It's as exciting to see it as it was to see the construction of the Events Center.”
Hillman never had a losing season with the Mavericks and leaves the team with an impressive .607 winning percentage and a 186-116-26 record. He has a career head coaching record of 253-148-39.
“We have some great memories from our time with the Mavericks,” Hillman said. “By moving to Indianapolis, the boys (12-year-old Corbin and 8-year-old Guhnar) will be in a more active hockey community and we're hoping it will cut down on our travel.”
Hillman is the first hockey hire for the team, and he said the search for players will begin soon.
“It's all exciting, and I get a bit of a feeling of déjà vu,” he said. “Please thank everyone in Eastern Jackson County for all they did for me, (wife) Dalyn and the boys over the past five years. Eastern Jackson County will always feel like home to us.”
Mavericks team president Brent Thiessen said the team is in its initial stages of seeking a new head coach and it will “be a bit” before a new coach is named.