Following the Phantoms 3-1 series-clinching win over the Green Bay Gamblers on April 21, the players and coaches celebrated one of, if not the biggest win, in franchise history.
Everyone except coach Anthony Noreen, that is.
The 30-year-old coach was sitting with a light on in his office on that Sunday at 10:30 p.m., analyzing game tape and getting ready for the Untied States Hockey League Eastern Conference finals against the Dubuque Fighting Saints. He made for a lonely figure in the Covelli Centre, long after everyone left the building.
It's stories like these that convince me the Phantoms' deep postseason run this season wasn't a fluke and perhaps the team will build upon it.
In two years with Noreen at the helm, Youngstown made its first two trips in the USHL playoffs. In the franchise's previous two seasons in the Tier 1 Junior A ice hockey league, the Phantoms finished in seventh place both seasons, which was last place (2009-2010) and second-to-last place (2010-2011) in the division.
The improvement in such a short timespan is staggering.
How does Noreen do it? Well, he's got players to buy into his system, which consists of a combination of finesse, skillful and smashmouth, hard-hitting hockey. This season alone, the players said all the right things and focused on the team and not individual accolades.
Noreen also seems to get his players to take strength and conditioning very seriously, as evidenced by both playoff series this season. The Phantoms played four games in five days against Green Bay and Dubuque, and in both times, Youngstown had the stronger legs, taking care of the opposing teams in the third period. Even though it was obvious the Phantoms were better conditioned, the players discussed after each of these games the importance of taking care of their bodies once the games ended. For young players no older than 20 years old, they talked about the topic like grizzled veterans in any professional sport would in order to keep up the younger generation of athletes.
The Chicago native isn't adverse to making high-risk moves that pay off in the end. In late November, the Phantoms traded the team's leading scorer from the previous season, J.T. Stenglein, for Cam Brown, who was playing in his first USHL season at Sioux City. That trade paid off, as Brown played an instrumental part in the Phantoms climbing from the bottom of the standings in November to the playoffs. Sioux City, meanwhile, traded Stenglein to Waterloo after 14 games.
With all this in mind, Noreen's stint at the helm of the Phantoms probably won't last much longer, especially if the team makes the playoffs again or gets its first Clark Cup appearance next. His youth, charisma and hockey knowledge would make him a candidate to jump to the college ranks, and if he continues to have success at that level, it's not inconceivable to see him behind an NHL bench as an assistant or head coach someday.
Until that time, however, Phantoms fans will not have to question Noreen's work ethic and dedication to making his team better. Even days after the end of the 2012-2013 season, Noreen participated in the USHL's Phase 1 and Phase 2 drafts to fill out the roster for the 2013-2014 season, hoping to fill holes left by the departures of Sam Anas, Sean Romeo, Austin Cangelosi and John Padulo, among others.
Although these losses hurt the Phantoms going forward, there's no doubt that Noreen's wanting to reload and not rebuild.