FOLLOWING the close-season departure of popular player-coach Sylvain Cloutier from Hull Stingrays, Omar Pacha appreciates he has big shoes to fill.
Under Cloutier, the East Yorkshire club enjoyed a positive campaign last time around, breaking several club records and reaching the play-offs after pushing Dundee Stars close in the Gardiner Conference before settling for the runners-up spot.
But Cloutier has gone, owner Bobby McEwan opting to go in a different direction and instead placing his faith in a much younger player-coach, Pacha obviously impressing as a high-scoring defenceman during his first taste of UK top-flight hockey last season.
Assisted by team-mate Carl Lauzon, Pacha certainly has a lot on his plate, but believes he has put together a young, fast-skating team – the average age is just over 24 – capable of causing other Elite League teams problems.
Preparations for tonight’s league opener at Cardiff Devils – never an easy rink to visit – have been hampered by Hull not being able to enjoy as much on-ice practice as they would have hoped for, the team not being able to set foot on the Hull Arena pad until Wednesday, shortly before beating English Premier League outfit Peterborough Phantoms 4-0 in a pre-season friendly.
It has certainly been a baptism of fire for 27-year-old Pacha. While McEwan was fighting off a challenge to his ownership from a local consortium, Pacha busied himself putting together a roster for the first time in his career and, just four days before the season opener, had to cope with the sudden departure of one of his most experienced players in defenceman Kurtis Dulle, who returned home to Canada citing personal reasons.
“The summer has been a lot of hard work to be honest and now I understand how other coaches feel,” said Pacha. “A lot of the time was spent watching video and recruiting guys, but I made a lot of studies on the guys that I have brought in and I’m confident we have the right mix for this season.
“We want to go into Cardiff and steal some points. I think we’re going to be a speedy team, good on the transition as well as being solid in our own end.
“We just have to make sure we stick together as a team and be tight.”
Listen to Omar Pacha in our special HockeyTalk 2014-15 preview podcast HERE
While Pacha acknowledged the job Cloutier had done during his five years in charge under three different ownerships at Hull, he insisted he was determined to do things his own way and make his own mark on the East Yorkshire club.
“Clouts was a good coach here and every player loved playing for him – he’s a good person too and I respect him a lot,” said Pacha. “I think by the end of last season we were very close friends.
“But I can’t just copy off what Sylvain Cloutier did here, I have to create my own identity and I think I’m going to be pretty different from him. I’m going to use all the experiences I’ve had from other coaches I’ve played for too.
“I haven’t recruiited the traditional UK way, I’ve done it the way I think – that’s why I’ve gone out and brought in younger players, full of more energy who will do well here.
“We are trying to get players young and in their prime. It’s a risk but it’s a calculated risk.”
Pacha goes into the 2014-15 campaign as the youngest coach of all the league’s 10 teams, although on Saturday he finds himself up against another player-coach in a similar situation in the shape of Cardiff’s Andrew Lord, the 29-year-old who has returned after a successful first season as a player in South Wales. More is expected of a stronger-looking and more experienced Devils team – particularly now the club is operating under new ownership.
Pacha does not feel his age is an issue.
“To be honest, there’s a bit of pressure here, a bit of pressure there - but, at the same time, I’m young and I’m basically all in this year,” he added.
“I’m working hard every day, in the office all hours and everybody is working hard here because we are a small club, everybody has to chip in everywhere. It is a lot of pressure, but you have to try and have fun with it and I am so far.
“I don’t see my age being an issue. That was another thing when I recruited the guys, I asked them if they had a problem (with my age) and everybody said ‘no’. So, as far as I’m concerned, there’s no problem with my age or that of the team.”