SIOUX CITY, IA—It has been a summer of turnover behind the bench for the Musketeers, but Head Coach Luke Strand solidified his staff Saturday morning with the hiring of another former Musketeer coach.
The team announced Saturday that Mark Abalan will join the club as Associate Head Coach for the 2018-19 season. Abalan previously spent five seasons with the Musketeers (2011-2016) as an assistant coach.
After finishing the 2015-16 season in Sioux City, Abalan accepted a head coaching position with the Shattuck-St. Mary’s U16 team, a name that should be very familiar to those who closely follow hockey. Some of the game’s premier talents like Sidney Crosby, Zach Parise, Jonathan Toews, and the Lamoureux sisters have played there.
At the time it was a difficult decision to leave Sioux City, but Abalan knew it was a necessary step to push himself to the next level, “I think taking on a new role as a head coach was something I needed to do. It’s why I left here. It was hard to leave here when I left two years ago, but I felt the opportunity to coach a high-level program and to grow as a coach was a great opportunity. Now I’m better for it, the people and players I’ve had the chance to work with have made me better.”
Abalan went on to have an excellent season with Shattuck-St. Mary’s, he led the team to a 40-10-4 record and a National Championship appearance. That success quickly led to a new position as an Associate Head Coach with the defending Clark Cup Champions, the Chicago Steel. At the time, Dan Muse was still in place as Head Coach of the Steel, but just over a month after Abalan’s hiring Muse accepted a job with the Nashville Predators giving Abalan his first shot as a head coach in the USHL.
Things started out well for Abalan and the Steel. After the first month of the season, the Steel had an impressive 6-1 record including a 5-3 win over the Musketeers in Sioux City. November and December were up and down for the Steel, but they remained firmly in playoff position.
Heading into the holiday break Chicago was fourth in the Eastern Conference standings, just one point out of second place, and possessed the Eastern Conference’s highest winning percentage. Things looked good for Abalan and the Steel heading into 2018, but on January 2nd the Steel announced that they had parted ways with Abalan and hired Ryan Cruthers as Interim Head Coach. After Abalan’s departure, Chicago tumbled in the standings and barely managed to beat out the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders for the final Clark Cup playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Despite his early departure from Chicago, Abalan says both jobs gave him a new perspective on what it exactly means to be a head coach, but neither job changed the way he approaches the game or how he coaches “I was so ready for it. It helped reinforce a lot of what I believe, and it gave me confidence that the way I view the game works. We had great success at Shattuck, and we had great success in Chicago for the 25 games I was there. As a head coach, I was able to put my spin on it. There are just things that come up as a head coach that haven’t before, and you have to be able to react and deal with them. So, I think it just gave me more confidence as a coach.”
After his departure from the Steel, Abalan spent the rest of the 2017-18 season spending time with his young family and planning the next step in his career, a step he hoped would lead him back to Sioux City.
Abalan has always had a soft spot Sioux City, his wife is a native of Siouxland and Mark had enjoyed his time in the city during his previous stint with the team, “It’s great to be back, it’s a homecoming of sorts for my wife and I. We spent five great years here; I’ve always connected well with the people of Sioux City. I played here briefly in the mid-90's so in a lot of ways I guess my destiny has always been Sioux City. I am a Musketeer at heart, and I felt that way even during the two years I’ve been gone. I always felt like I would be back here when the situation was right, and right now the situation is right.”
Musketeers CEO Lloyd Ney felt Abalan’s connection to Sioux City and his new experiences made it the perfect time to bring him back, “We’re happy to have Mark back in a key role with the team. He’s a talented coach with a bright future, and his experience at all levels will help the Musketeers improve on the ice and in the community. The Musketeers are a family, and it’s a moment of great pride for us to be able to welcome “Abby” back to Siouxland.”
A big reason for Abalan’s decision to join the team was the opportunity to join a very experienced staff that now includes Head Coach Luke Strand and Assistant Coach Ryan Durocher, “Our staff is really strong, and we have vastly different experiences. Luke has coached at almost every level there is. I worked with Luke when I was here before, and the way we view the game is very similar. At the same time, we have very different experiences and different ways of doing a lot of things, and I think that’s great. We are not just looking at the game completely through the same lens. You have to have a strong staff at this level, so I am really excited to work with our staff here” said Abalan.
Strand echoed these sentiments and above all believes Abalan’s experience will be a major plus for the organization, “Mark is a great addition to our staff as an Associate Head Coach. His experiences as a head coach, familiarity with the USHL, and the development path needed by our players, will help shape our team going forward. We are excited to have Mark and his family back in Sioux City!”
One of Abalan’s main roles will be coaching and developing the Musketeers’ defensive corps, “Working with defensemen is something I’ve always done, I enjoy working with defensemen, I worked with defensemen last time I was in Sioux City. We have a young, very talented D corps that doesn’t have a ton of USHL experience and that will be a challenge, but it’s a good challenge, and I think we are really talented back there. What I want to do is use my experience to make up for their lack of experience.”
On top of getting his defensemen ready to play at this level, Abalan also wants to make sure that all of his blueliners are ready to step up and be impact players on their next team “when they leave here are they ready to contribute at the next level? To me, that’s what I want my defensemen to be ready to be able to do. I want them to win games and help us win games this year, but my goal is to help them build a foundation where they are ready to be an impact guy at the college level and from there move on to play professional hockey. That’s what I am trying to do every day as a coach, and that’s my mindset as a coach.”
Abalan will also have a major role in coaching the Musketeers’ special teams, specifically the powerplay, which should be a big boost to a unit that struggled to find much momentum last season. “I have been working on the powerplay for a lot of years since I’ve been a coach. The powerplay is definitely a specialty of mine. I’ve worked on the penalty kill too, in Chicago I led both of those. I’ve always had a lot of success on special teams in this league, and I certainly don’t take that for granted. I know it’s going to be really hard because it’s just a hard area to be successful. Special teams such a big part of the game and everybody comes so prepared that at the end of the day it’s a matter of execution. My goal is to have our special teams as some of the top units in the league and I’m confident we can get there.”
Abalan says having a highly successful special teams unit and making a deep run in the playoffs are major goals for the team this year, but they are not the only goal. “Making the playoffs I think is an important benchmark. More importantly are we building a winning culture here in Sioux City. That is really important to me. I think this organization has a great history and great culture and I want to build on that. In the five years I was here before I think we did a great job of building that culture. Luke came in last year and added to the culture, and this year we all have to come in, players and staff, and write our own story, our own chapter. We have to put our stamp on it as a team.”
Musketeer fans will get their first chance to see the 2018-19 Musketeers writing their story on October 20th when Sioux City takes on their oldest rival the Waterloo Black Hawks in the 2018-19 home opener. Tickets go on sale October 1st. Visit Musketeershockey.com, Tysoncenter.com, or call (712)252-2116 for more information.