Updated Fri, Mar 7, 2014 2:05 pm
His facial hair during No-Shave November fooled no one. It’s clear Jon Sheridan is young.
In fact, he’s 26.
Seven years ago, Sheridan was playing hockey in his hometown of Midland, Mich. Next, he was playing junior hockey in Flint before making the jump to Junior A hockey five years ago playing for Traverse City in the North American Hockey League. Sheridan finished up his collegiate hockey career at Lawrence University where he tallied six goals and 16 assists before what he calls a “cup of coffee in the minors” with the Knoxville Icebears of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
“I got sent home pretty quickly,” Sheridan said. “ I was like ‘I guess I’ve got to grow up, no?’”
Sheridan’s playing career was over. He returned home to Midland, taking a job as a Certified Nursing Assistant at an assisted living facility before moving on to a medical center where he screened plasma to ensure it was safe for donations. His next step would have been applying to graduate school with the hopes of becoming a physician’s assistant.
That was two years ago. Instead, one year ago, Jon Sheridan became an assistant coach for Ohio University’s Club Ice Hockey team. One year later, Sheridan was replacing Dan Morris, the winningest coach in program history.
“You try to make your five-year plan, and it definitely wasn’t in that at all,” Sheridan said. “ It was really humbling actually. It wasn’t in the scope of what I dreamed.”
Jon Sheridan’s life path ricocheted in and out of hockey. The agent doing the redirecting was Steve Witt, Sheridan’s travel hockey coach and mentor.
“We were out one evening and Jon just talked about wanting to go back to grad school,” Witt said. “I said, ‘Well, here’s a big what-if.’”
Witt says the two went out for dinner. Sheridan said they grabbed a beer. Whatever happened during that conversation in Central Michigan led Jon Sheridan back into the world of hockey.
“It’s kind of one of those things,” Sheridan said. “We’re sitting at a table and an hour later, I have my life figured out. That’s when the spark happened. I’ve always loved to coach and I guess I never knew how to get there. Then the light was shown on the path and it really opened my eyes to it.”
Dan Morris spent 20 seasons with the Ohio Hockey program. As a player he was the club’s all-time leading points scorer until Tyler Pilmore broke the record a season ago. His 344 wins are the most in Bobcat history. He’s won a national title and last season helped the Green and White bring home a Central States Collegiate Hockey League conference title. On July 23, after 12 years behind the bench, Morris stepped down.
“My kids are too young,” Morris said. “You send them off to college and you hope you’ve given them all the skills they need to survive.”
Morris, whose sons are 5 and 3, only stepped down from his role as head coach retaining his position as Director of Bird Arena, Ohio’s home ice rink. His next job would be to find his own replacement, someone who understood the culture and winning ways of Ohio Hockey.
Sheridan got the nod. The 26 year-old who spent one season in Athens with no head coaching experience was the program’s answer.
“Pretty quickly we knew Jon had a good way about him,” Morris said. “Jon’s not trying to be someone and that’s the most important thing. Especially when you follow someone like myself and my predecessor. Jon understands that he’s not trying to be me or Craig McCarthy. He’s just trying to be Jon Sheridan.”
“Dan didn’t go in and try to replicate Craig McCarthy,” Witt, who played collegiately with Morris at Ohio, said. “It’ll be a different look for the program, but zero doubts that program won’t continue to be very successful.”
Sheridan may have not been in Athens long enough to experience the Green and White’s hockey culture first-hand. Instead, he grew up learning it. Witt coached Sheridan’s youth team in Midland.
“I think Jon describes Steve as his life coach,” Morris said. “He grew up playing hockey for Steve and had be been around Steve in social settings and saw how Steve functioned.”
“The way we played back then isn’t too far off of how we play now,” Sheridan said. “It’s hard working hockey. You can’t win games without hard work. I think that’s what we do here.”
While with the North Stars in Traverse City, Sheridan was coached by Chad Fournier, another Bobcat and former teammate of Morris and Witt.
“[He] was the same way,” Sheridan said. “I’d definitely say we weren’t the most skilled team and I wasn’t the most skilled player, but we had a group of guys that would go out there everyday and work for the guy next to him. That’s how I was brought up. That’s what I believe in.”
Years of playing the Bobcat way without being a Bobcat as well as two strong pushes from former teammates solidified Morris naming Sheridan the next Ohio Hockey coach.
“Those guys know what we want, they know what our philosophy is and know what we’re trying to do,” Morris said. “We got the references about Jon from those two, and they were positive, and that’s something you can hang over Jon. It’s not only me, it’s Steve and Chad now you’re representing.”
Sheridan credits his former mentors for forming his ideologies as a coach. Witt and former NHL Center Bob Scurfield set the base for Sheridan’s growth. From them, Ohio’s first-year coach says he’s pulled their more reserved style of coaching. Sheridan says their lack of yelling was “very crucial because it doesn’t scare you away from the game and it helps you build a passion.”
While in Flint, Sheridan’s coach was Kevin Carlile, a former soccer player on Canada’s national team.
“He knows how to get there,” Sheridan said chalking up Carlile’s understanding of success.”
After juniors, Sheridan was molded by Mike Szkodzinski at Lawrence University.
“His passion is where he really shines,” Sheridan said. “He’s very vocal and he’s not afraid to tell you when you’re messing up.”
Sheridan had seen it all. From the guidance at the youth level to the extremes as he climbed the hockey ranks as a player, he gathered what he needed to make the jump to coaching.
“That’s what a good coach does,” Morris said. “Good coaches are thieves. You steal from other coaches, but go a head. You kind of make your own way.”
“To have that broad spectrum really helped me pick and choose my own way because I had everything throughout my whole career,” Sheridan said. “So now that I’m in this spot, I can relate to the players a little bit. The guys I had in front of me were really good and I owe them a lot.”
But having ideas of coaching and the ability to coach are two different things. In order to start the actual coaching process, Sheridan was accepted into Ohio University’s Master in Coaching Education program at the start of the 2012 school year and was brought onto Morris’ staff as a graduate assistant that season. One year behind the wisdom of Morris was all Sheridan needed to be deemed capable for the job.
“The way Moe handles himself and the way he’s always willing to help and teach and break it down for you and the way he describes it for you is really cool,” Sheridan said. “I’d like to think I took some of that from him and there’s a lot. I’m trying to do the best that I can, probably not as good as he would have done it, but I’m working on it and I’ll get there one day.”
One moment the team is Morris’, the next it’s in the hands of a 26 year-old. A team of already-successful club of hockey players would be coached by a man two-or-three years older than them.
“That transition from assistant to head coach, I was nervous for,” Sheridan admits. “I didn’t know how they were going to respond. I am young. I’m not really an authoritative figure, But, I think it takes a lot of trust. If you don’t trust your coach, you aren’t going to want to play for them.”
“Everyone respects him,” Witt said of his mentee. “I think he’s demanding, but players respect that. He was always head and shoulders above everyone from a responsibility standpoint. It’s a testament to Jon as a person.”
Ohio prepared for their 2013 season under the tutelage of Sheridan with their first game in late September: A match up with the John Carroll Blue Streaks. A game the ‘Cats would lose 5-4.
“I got a couple of emails from alumni saying ‘How could you lose to a team like John Carroll with our rich history and all the things we have?” Sheridan said. “I was stressing out. Nobody wants to lose their first game ever as a coach, especially when you walk into a program like Ohio.”
“Early in the year, we knew that it was going to be a learning curve,” Morris said. “We learned that Jon learns quickly and doesn’t make the same mistake twice.”
“Moe sent me a text later on saying the last time Ohio lost a home opener was 2006 and [he] was the head coach,” Sheridan said. “It kept it in perspective for me.”
Behind Sheridan, the ‘Cats quickly climbed the rankings both in conference and nationally. Ohio finished the regular season 26-7-2. Ohio advanced all the way to the Central States Collegiate Hockey League conference finals before losing to Robert Morris in overtime. After all he had achieved in just one season, Sheridan was named CSCHL Coach of the Year.
“The team we have is very tight-knit,” Sheridan said. “I think that’s why we’re so successful because the guys have bought into each other.”
He shies from the credit, but Ohio is flourishing under their 26 year-old coach. His rapid rise from youth hockey, to travel, to juniors, to college, to the minors has been impressive and will certainly catch the eyes of programs at higher levels if Sheridan chooses to continue his climb in coaching. But right now, his sights are set in the rafters of Bird Arena.
“I’m here, so why not win?” he said. “You start a season to win a national championship and I think if you ask any guy in the room they’re going to say the same thing. I want to add another banner while I’m here.”
Ohio’s first run at a national title starts Saturday in Newark, Del. when they take on Iowa State in the American Collegiate Hockey Association tournament. After that, who knows how far hockey will take Jon Sheridan.
“Jon will go as far as he wants to in the coaching ranks,” Witt said. “Yeah, he has the hockey knowledge and the relationships, but it starts with the person. It’s hard not to like him.”
“I’d like to coach more and see where it can take me,” Sheridan said. “Hockey has brought me this far in my life. Sometimes, I do think ‘maybe I should go back to school and get a safer job.’ But at the same time, this is a pretty sweet gig.”