On this week’s episode of New England Hockey Journal’s RinkWise podcast, Kirk Luedeke and Jeff Cox are joined by Milton Academy boys’ varsity hockey head coach Paul Cannata.
Cannata, a native of West Roxbury, Mass., began coaching at Milton Academy in 2005. Before that, he served as an assistant coach for six years at Northeastern. In his time as a player, Cannata went through the same prep school ranks he coaches today, playing at Roxbury Latin before a four-year career of Division 3 hockey at Hamilton College.
With more than three decades of coaching and playing experience in the NCAA and prep hockey realms, Cannata spoke with Luedeke and Cox about a wide range of hockey-related topics.
The trio goes over Cannata’s introduction to coaching, the challenges of the past season at local prep schools, the overall state of hockey in Massachusetts and more.
The episode began with a conversation about Jake Thibeault, one of Cannata’s Milton Mustangs who recently suffered a spinal cord injury resulting from a hockey-related accident.
A fundraising effort by the local hockey community continues to aid the recovery process of the Fitchburg, Mass., native, who, according to Cannata, has long been nicknamed ‘the world’s greatest kid’ by those close to him.
“Jake has some challenges, there’s no question. As we sit here right now, he’s got a battle in front of him and what we can all do is help. This is a family that needs help. (Jake’s) a great kid; truly is one of the most energetic, positive young people that I’ve ever dealt with. His mom has been a nurse for 30 years, she’s helped thousands of people in her profession, and right now this is a family that needs help.”
According to Cannata, who gave an update on Thibeault’s progress, “He got hurt Saturday at about 5 p.m., went into about six hours of surgery that went into the wee hours of Sunday. Monday morning he woke up and had some dumbells in his bed and started his comeback. That’s Jake.”
“Anybody who has ever worked with him knows he’s a super positive young man. And we’re all going to do the best we can to help him have the best possible outcome. We don’t know what that outcome will be, we know he’s got a tremendous challenge, but we know if anybody can get up and do 20 jumping jacks after this it’s Jake Thibeault.”
As the episode moved on, Luedeke asked Cannata about the challenges of the past season and how the pandemic has affected all levels of hockey in New England over the past 16-18 months. One key topic that stemmed from that conversation was how kids should pick which school is right for them, whether it be public, private, etc.
“With all of these challenges that we’ve talked about in terms of player development and whatnot, I think for the kids that are 12-16 (years old), find the school that works for you and play,” Cannata said. “If it’s hockey, play hockey. If it’s two sports, play two sports. But do other things, too, and see what happens. It’s that simple.
“Work hard, have fun, do all that stuff, and see what happens. For me, of all the players in this area that I’m aware of over the last 30 years, the guys who have done that, their outcome is pretty good. If you’re meant to be a first-round draft pick, you will be. If you’re meant to play at a Beanpot school, you’ll get there. If you’re meant to play at a Bowdon, Colby, Middlebury, or Babson, it will happen.”
Take the second overall pick in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, Matty Beniers (Hingham, Mass.), for example. The Michigan star and Seattle Kraken draft pick played under Cannata at Milton during the 2017-18 season where the bench boss bore witness to not only the special physical qualities that made him such a highly regarded prospect but the special personal qualities, as well.
“The work ethic, the energy, the enthusiasm, the positivity, the teammate piece, that rounds him out,” Cannata said. “Was he the fastest player? No. Was he the biggest player? No. Was he the toughest player? No. Does he have the best hands? No. Is he the best scorer? No.
“That’s (five no’s), and he’s the first forward taken in the world. Why? Because he’s reliable, or at least potentially reliable at that level. He’s sort of the whole package that way, where you know what you’re getting and you know there’s quality there. That’s the beauty of Matty.”
All this to say, Cannata continued, is that everyone has a different path and it takes time for things to work themselves out. But, one way or another, they will. Be a ‘what’ guy, not a ‘why’ guy.
“If you show up on time, work hard, bring energy, take coaching and counsel from your parents and teachers and coaches and you accept it and you do that every day, whatever you’re meant to be you’ll get there. And maybe you’ll get a little bit further. I think that’s true in anything that all of us do.”
For more from Milton Academy boys varsity hockey head coach Paul Cannata on Jake Thibeault’s road to recovery, prep schools, the rapidly evolving state of hockey in Massachusetts and more, listen to the full podcast today.
The episode, and past episodes, can be accessed on all major podcast platforms, including Apple Podcasts and Spotify, and online at hockeyjournal.com/podcast. Podcasts are typically dropped every Friday morning.
RinkWise is sponsored by the 2021 IceBreaker Tournament, as well as Bruce Haas’ “Great Game!: D1 College Hockey: People, Places, Perspectives.”