His players have always been kids.
Now his players have kids.
After 11 seasons as the men’s hockey head coach at RPI and four years coaching teenagers in USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, Seth Appert will soon embark on his first regular season in the American Hockey League as head coach of the Rochester Americans.
Appert was hired in August as the 33rd coach in Amerks history, and although there is still a development component to coaching an AHL team, he is relishing the opportunity to branch into a different platform that doesn’t require him to spend sleepless hours puzzling out the non-hockey aspects of the job.
He has already experienced that with Team USA, and now Appert will be applying the all-hockey, all-the-time approach at the pro level for the first time in his career.
“It was a massive mindset shift when I went to Team USA, and now the same at pro. When you go home at night, all you’re thinking about is, ‘What do we need to do tomorrow to make our team and our players better,’” Appert said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “So your whole focus is on coaching, and you get to invest time in that.
“I’ve grown as a coach in leaps and bounds over the last four years because my whole focus has been on coaching and not 50% on other things on campus that need to be done.”
While the AHL schedule isn’t out yet, Feb. 5 is marked for opening day.
Appert had been in Buffalo earlier this month for the parent Sabres’ training camp and is now conducting his own as the Amerks prepare for their 65th season in the AHL.
With a few teams opting out of playing this year’s AHL season, some teams have a dual NHL affiliation. The Amerks roster, though, is exclusively made up of Sabres prospects.
That could put them at a disadvantage from a depth standpoint, especially against division rivals Syracuse and Utica, but Appert said he appreciates and respects Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula’s commitment to maintaining the Amerks as strictly a part of the Sabres’ organization.
“This would’ve been a good year, with the NHL not making as much money and certainly us making less money, with no fans, to choose not to play, as some teams did,” Appert said. “It’s a massive commitment by the Pegulas to have a quality development environment.
“Those [dual affiliation] teams have a chance to be relatively stacked, because they’re going to have two teams feeding them. Again, this is a real credit to the Pegulas, because when you take other teams’ prospects, they potentially also steal ice time away from your prospects. So it’s a good thing for our prospects, because they’re going to get ice time.”
One new challenge that will take a few weeks to iron out is the fact that the NHL has a taxi-squad system this year so that teams can quickly fill roster holes if a COVID-19 issue comes up, which would make some players who could help the AHL club unavailable.
Appert said he needs to approach the development side of his job differently, too, now that he’s coaching older players.
The objective is to make them better to a point where the Sabres would consider a call-up.
In college and the NTDP, the players are much more a raw product.
“You need to understand who you’re coaching,” Appert said. “I was coaching, 16-, 17-, 18-year-olds for the last four years. Now you have some men. Dustin Tokarski’s one of our goaltenders, and he’s a man. He’s got a wife, he’s got kids on the way, he’s won two Calder Cups, a Memorial Cup and a World Juniors.
“At the U.S. program, it’s more, ‘Hey, this is what we’re doing.’ With older pros, you have conversations about things. Certain things are non-negotiable, and certain things are negotiable. You go to the older guys and say, ‘Hey, what do you think about this?’
“For example, ‘Tokarski, do you want to go out early and do goalie work today, or do you need a little time if you’ve had enough pucks this week?’ Little things like that. You lean on the players a little bit more for feedback and guidance.”
Appert was especially gratified to watch Team USA win the gold medal by beating Canada 2-0 in the final of the U18 IIHF World Junior Championship on Jan. 6.
A former goalie himself, Appert worked with over a dozen of those kids over the last four years, including winning goalie Spencer Knight, who made 34 saves in the final and notched three shutouts in the tournament.
“I was glued to it,” Appert said. “We didn’t win gold at the World Juniors last year, and a lot of those guys were on my U18 team that took silver as underages. So for Knight and [Cam] York and [Alex] Turcotte and [Trevor] Zegras and [Cole] Caufield and some of those guys, it was their fourth crack at it. And being close every time and having heartbreak, right?
“Then for the ’02s that I coached last year, they got the Worlds taken away from them because of COVID. So that group went through a lot of adversity, and we were on a path toward being a real strong contender for gold. In March, that dream was pulled out from underneath them.
“I was really happy to see them play the way they did, not just to win, but to win in the manner they did. And I thought that former Union coach Nate Leaman did a fantastic job of blending the skill of the ’01s with the grit of the ’02s into an identity for their team.”
Appert said the thing he misses about college coaching is the relationships you create with the players and their families.
What he doesn’t miss are the ancillary necessities, like recruiting, fundraising and campus appointments, which he enjoyed individually but felt a time constraint from collectively, at the expense of the hockey side of the job.
With a group of seniors originally recruited by Appert, the Engineers enjoyed a breakout season in 2019-2020 under Appert’s replacement Dave Smith, only to have the season end due to the pandemic just as RPI was set to play in the ECAC Hockey quarterfinals.
Appert was fired in 2017 following an 8-28-1 season.
“They [seniors] went through adversity,” Appert said. “They came in, we had a tough year that first year, the coach that they came to play for got fired. That’s a lot to go through, and to see them come out the other side and have a good senior year, I was really happy for those guys.”
One of the congratulatory text messages Appert got in August when the Amerks hired him was from Union head coach Rick Bennett.
A footnote to the Dutchmen’s 2014 national championship season was the fact that one of the few losses by Union came at the hands of RPI in the annual Mayor’s Cup, which ended with a bench-clearing brawl in which Bennett had to be restrained on the ice from going after Appert.
“We’ve texted each other; he texted me when I got the job in Rochester. We don’t fight anymore. We leave that alone,” Appert said with a laugh.
“We had a nice seven-year run where both programs were humming pretty good. The games happened to be bitterly contested. Every game seemed to be overtime, or controversial, or one-goal games, and you play each three or four times a year.
“We were really good [in 2013-14] , they happened to be great at the time, right across town from each other — it just bled out a little bit. But it was a heck of a fun rivalry to be a part of. That became a great event, the Mayor’s Cup, and I was proud to have helped start that. I really believed when we first got there that there should be a showcase event with those two programs and how historically important those two programs are to the communities.”