FHL Coaching Spotlight

Posted: February 14, 2012 at 1:49 pm

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February 14, 2012 - Federal Hockey League (FHL) Chris Firriolo likes to talk about the sport he loves but sometimes you can also get him to discuss the other things he's done in his life.

Invariably, the subject will always revert to hockey.

No matter where Firriolo has been and what he has done in the past, all roads lead back to hockey for the 45-year-old head coach and team President of the Federal League's first-place New Jersey Outlaws.

All roads. And there have been many.

Firriolo's resume includes playing minor league baseball in the Montreal Expos' organization with Jamestown (New York) of the New York-Penn League and with West Palm Beach of the Florida State League in the mid 80s as well as playing Junior A hockey in North York, Ontario at a time when few Americans played at that level in Canada.

"When I graduated from high school I had an opportunity to go to college, a Division One college hockey scholarship or baseball scholarship and it was interesting because I was at the crossroads of my life and I chose baseball," said Firriolo who played third base and did some pitching with a low-90s fastball.

"I lasted thirty days in school cause I missed hockey so much so I left to go play junior hockey in Canada and when I got back that summer-I was eighteen-I was offered a free agent contract with the Montreal Expos in their minor league system," added Firriolo.

"And in the next couple years after that I was going back and playing junior hockey and playing baseball back and forth. My true passion was hockey. I was probably a better hockey player."

Firriolo, a 6-2, 195 pound defenseman who said his best attribute as a hockey player was that he had a good head for the game, was invited to Western Professional Hockey League and East Coast League training camps but stayed with baseball after he finished his junior hockey career because of the money.

"I was...do I pursue what I really loved or do I continue to make money playing baseball? It was a really hard decision and I ended up choosing to earn a living," he said.

"For me like it was a situation where it was all about money and longevity and then when I stopped playing ball one of my old coaches called me and I got right into coaching hockey and I've been coaching now forever."

The road took yet another turn for Firriolo who went back to college and graduated from Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey with a fine arts degree in the early 90s.

"I left the sports world for a while and I worked in the film and theater industry as a writer and director for about six years," said Firriolo.

His work as the artistic director of a professional regional theater company in New Jersey was quite extensive. "I've probably directed over sixty professional stage productions, 19 Shakespearean productions," said Firriolo.

While he has never personally visited the city of Cannes on the French Riviera, the movie Firriolo wrote, produced and directed, "Color of Love" made it there to the famous Cannes Film Festival where it premiered in 1999.

"Color of Love" is the story of two friends, one white and one black, whose lives take divergent paths, something the author certainly has enough experience with to write about.

Though he may one day return to the theater, directing the fortunes of hockey teams was ultimately where the Manhattan-born father of two teenage sons belonged.

"I was in New Jersey for a while early on in my coaching career," he said. "I took this U18 [under 18] Select team to travel all over North America playing an 80-game schedule against the top players in the world. That was fun because you really had a chance to have a direct impact on young guys' lives as hockey players and young men."

In addition to Select teams, Firriolo coached Oswego of the Junior A Ontario Provincial Hockey League, Syracuse of the Eastern Junior League and Team Ontario in the pre-draft showcase in Boston.

"Every year before the NHL draft they take the top players in the Province of Ontario, the Province of Quebec, Minnesota, Michigan, they come down to Boston to the pre-draft showcase. They play in front of all the NHL scouts. I worked with the guys in Boston so I used to coach the Ontario team. All those guys every year, like eighteen out of twenty guys were first or second round draft picks. It was impressive.

"Over the years I've probably coached over about two or three hundred NHL draft picks. And then I've coached five or six hundred NCAA divisional players. It's a labor of love."

Firriolo became a professional coach with the Brooklyn Aces of the Eastern Professional Hockey League in 2008-09 when he was contacted by Curt Russell who offered him a job coaching the New Jersey Rockhoppers. He also mentioned Brooklyn as another possibility. Firriolo chose Brooklyn which eventually lost the EPHL championship playoff series to New Jersey in three games after finishing first in the regular season.

"It was a good, fun year. We had a very good team that year," said the coach.

The EPHL folded after one season and Firriolo moved on to Danbury where he led the Whalers to a near upset of the first-place New York (now Brooklyn) Aviators in the first round of the FHL playoffs last year, losing the decisive fifth game in overtime on the road.

"We should have won that game," said Firriolo. "We were playing short [due to injuries]. We were winning 3-2 with eight minutes left. We had one natural defenseman. We had to move three guys back. I think Nicky Grove scored to tie it up. When it went into overtime I said Matt Puntureri is going to beat us in overtime."

Firriolo was absolutely right which is probably why he made Puntureri the first player acquired by the Outlaws in a cash deal last May.

After working with team owners Alan Friedman and Herm Sorcher in both Brooklyn and Danbury, Firriolo felt it was time to move on.

"I left there for a number of reasons," he said, "but my answer on the record is going to be just it was time. For me, like, I enjoyed building the program with those guys but from a career standpoint and what was best for my family being closer to home-it's just five minutes from where I live [Montville, NJ]-and I get to see my boys every day and it's just better for my family.

"It has nothing to do with those guys and I wish them the best of luck. I'm proud of what they're doing there and we obviously play them, the enemy, but I always wish those two guys all the success in the world. They're two good guys."

Firriolo is now very happy working for team owner Kristin Ann Rooney, an attorney from Arizona.

"We have an owner who's allowed me to do what I need to do to be successful in the sense of being supportive and making the decisions," he said. "Sometimes owners want their hand in the pot making some of the hockey decisions and she's kind of said, hey, you've got more experience than most, you've been successful and I'm going to give you the reins."

Reins firmly in hand, Firriolo has put together a team that is statistically dominating the FHL with a .814 win percentage through 43 games (37-6, 105 points) to lead its nearest rival by 19 points and leads the league in power play percentage (28.04). New Jersey is second to 1000 Islands in penalty killing (84.44-83.93).

Goaltender Adam Dekker is 16-4 with a 2.60 goals against average and leads the league with four shutouts and a .924 save percentage while Dan McWhinney is 20-3, leads the FHL with a 2.56 goals against average and has a .921 save percentage.

Four of the top eight scorers in the Federal League belong to the Outlaws though Jeff Winchester, acquired from 1000 Islands, has played only three games for his new team so far. He is a whopping +67 with 67 points on 15 goals and 52 assists. Travis Kauffeldt has 36 goals, 47 assists, 83 points and is +42 while Kevin Cooper has 80 points (36 goals, 44 assists, +51). Puntureri is +27 with 16 goals and 43 assists for 59 points.

Firriolo rightfully takes enormous pride in his sons Anthony (13) and Chris (15) and says, "I feel very blessed."

He adds, "Anthony is a very, very good hockey player. He's probably right now at his age probably five times better than I was at that age and Chris is a phenomenal soccer player and a pretty good basketball player."

Firriolo feels pride in his hockey team too.

"We've got a great group of guys. This is the best core guys I've had in the locker room. They've got a lot of experience at the pro level. Our record speaks for itself," he said.

"If we achieve our goal at the end of the year and win a championship it's going to be because these guys worked their tails off."

The coach has also worked his tail off, not only putting the team together but helping put the league together in the beginning, another surprise on his resume.

Federal League Commissioner Don Kirnan, a big Yankee fan, remembers attending a game in the Bronx when the league was in the planning stage and driving home to Syracuse in a terrible storm, arriving very early in the morning.

Firriolo was there waiting to meet Kirnan when he got home so they could hit the road to check out new cities and arenas for the league.

"I told Chris I needed two hours sleep," said Kirnan. "He said he'd drive the first two hours."

There's that road again. The road that brings Chris Firriolo back to hockey every time.

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FHL Coaching Spotlight

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February 14th, 2012 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Life Coaching