McQuaid hockey coach Al Vyverberg prepares to skate into sunset

By Leo Roth   Democrat and Chronicle   Feb. 13, 2017

Forty-five years have passed but Don Cherry can remember Al Vyverberg’s shot from the point for the Pittsford High School hockey team like it was yesterday.

Low, hard and accurate.

Mind you, Cherry went on to coach the Boston Bruins and a guy named Bobby Orr.

Needless to say, Al “V’’ and his teammates left a lasting impression on the Hockey Night in Canada icon. In 1972, Pittsford won the Monroe County High School Hockey League championship, the precursor to the Section V Tournament, going undefeated under Cherry.

It remains one of the highlights of his colorful life.

“Al was on the point with John Hoff and they called their shots ‘screamers,’ ’’ said Cherry, 83, the Rochester Americans legend who got his start in coaching in the early 1970s with Pittsford, working the Panthers to death and making them laugh. “We had Eddie Scott, Jay Hill and Jeff Knisley out there with them and boy what a power play. If the other team got a penalty, it was an automatic goal. Boy we had a dynamite club, a great bunch of guys, and you could see Al had leadership qualities then.’’

It makes Cherry proud to know that Vyverberg went on to a 40-year career in the hockey business as a coach and rink facilities manager and is retiring as one of the most beloved figures in the Rochester hockey community.

After 30 seasons as coach of McQuaid Jesuit High split over two stints, the 62-year-old Vyverberg is hanging up his skates and putting away his whistle for good as Section V’s career leader in victories with more than 400.

Eighth-seeded McQuaid (9-10-1) meets No. 9 Rush-Henrietta (7-13-0) in a Section V Class A pre-quarterfinal game at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday at Rochester Ice Center (formerly Thomas Creek Ice Arena) in Perinton.

The Knights are 409-243-45 under Vyverberg, playing in 11 Section V finals, winning six championships and two state titles (2005, 2015) along the way.

A captain at Rochester Institute of Technology during that storied program’s formative years, Vyverberg is a member of RIT’s Hall of Fame, the Frontier Field Walk of Fame and induction into New York ‘s High School Hockey Hall of Fame at some point is a mere formality.

He will continue to work part-time managing Village Sports in Perinton and is exploring some scouting opportunities. But blessed is the hockey coach who skates away on his own terms.

“I’m still young enough to work and I’m not much of a sitter,’’ said Vyverberg during a break between coaching and operating the Zamboni. “I don’t want to work full time at rinks anymore, I don’t want to coach full time anymore. I haven’t completely lost the fire but I’ve felt a difference. When it’s time, it’s time.’’

After this many years and this much success, Al V finds it impossible to pick out one favorite memory when asked. His memories can fill 30 five-gallon puck buckets to the brim.

“Some of the years have faded but I have a lot of fantastic memories, I really do, and not just from the championship teams,’’ he said. “We’ve had so many good kids and talented players come through here.’’

Players who went on to the junior, NCAA and professional ranks with some like Rory Fitzpatrick and Marty Reasoner making it all the way to the NHL.

Like all high school coaches, though, most of Al V’s players simply enjoyed their high school hockey experience and took the life lessons they learned — discipline, hard work, commitment to something larger than themselves — into careers in business, medicine, law, education, the trades and social work.

These are the student athletes who most benefit from a coach who truly cares about each individual. Who’s approachable, knowledgeable, fair-minded and one of the all-around good guys.

“We try and be good citizens, like when we go to a rink we clean up the locker room when we’re done because it leaves a good impression,’’ junior captain Peter Campbell said. “It’s those little lessons he’s taught us.’’

Little lessons that can have big results.

"When you think of McQuaid hockey you think of Al Vyberberg first and foremost,'' said Brandon Nunn, 28, a member of McQuaid's 2005 state champs. "He's a guy everyone wants to play for.''

McQuaid officials and hockey parents have dreaded the day Vyverberg would call it quits, as he did from 1998-2001 while helping raise his daughters Lia and Brett through a divorce.

Athletic director Matt Thomas said wishfully that Vyverberg is “welcome to change his mind,’’ but knows his decision is firm.

“He’s had an incredible run,’’ Thomas said. “I know there’s no higher compliment than having a former player come back — and I’ve seen this happen with Al a number of times — just to thank him for all the things they learned from him. And it’s usually not about how to put the puck in the net, it’s about learning things from hockey you can apply to your everyday life.’’

Attorney Tom Prato and his son Alex, a senior goaltender, can say they have bookend experiences with McQuaid hockey. Tom played for Bob Pedersen, who founded McQuaid’s team in 1968, in Pedersen’s final season of 1983-84 and now Alex is playing in Vyverberg’s final year.

“He’s a fantastic coach,’’ Tom Prato said of Vyverberg.  “I just think the way he carries himself with the boys, the way he leads by example and the expectations he sets off the ice from community service on, it’s all so positive. He’s a stickler for what this school represents and how his players are going to conduct themselves. Not every kid’s a choir boy, but at the same time if Al feels there’s a problem he’s addressing it and the parents appreciate that.’’

A hockey calling

Vyverberg grew up playing hockey on the frozen barge canal that ran behind his parents’ home in Pittsford.

“I don’t know what else I would’ve done,’’ he said. “As a 15-year-old I remember wanting to be heavily involved with hockey, so I guess it was a great career choice for me personally.’’

At RIT, where he scored 139 points with five career hat tricks, Vyverberg caught the coaching bug from Daryl Sullivan, who gave him the junior varsity team in 1976 and later made him an assistant.

“Daryl Sullivan couldn’t skate but he studied Russian systems and it really got me interested,’’ Vyverberg said.

When Cherry was about to take over the Bruins in 1974-75, Vyverberg remembers trying to pick Cherry’s brain about coaching, asking him what was the first thing he was planning to do when he got to Boston.

“I thought he’d have all these elaborate plans but he goes, ‘Are you kidding me? The first thing I’m doing is getting Phil Esposito and Bobby Orr’s autograph,’ ‘’ Vyverberg said. “We laughed and laughed and never talked about coaching.’’

Maybe it was because Cherry sensed Vyverberg was already a serious student of the game and that he had good instincts. As a high school player, Vyverberg wasn’t afraid to talk to his coach, something he has encouraged his players to do with him.

“If there was anything wrong on the team, he’d have the nerve and come to me and say, ‘Don, I think we should do this, I think we should do that,’ ‘’ Cherry said. “I remember he always had a lot of energy, he was ready to go all the time. Al had a lot of life and you could see he was going to succeed, that’s for sure.’’

Vyverberg, who had coached St. John Fisher’s club team and the Junior Amerks, was actually out of coaching and operating camps at the Skating Institute of Rochester (where he worked 33 years) when Pedersen recommended him to be his replacement at McQuaid.

Pedersen went 160-31-12 with three sectional titles. When one of the builders of Rochester hockey gives you an endorsement, it rings pretty loud. The rest, as they say, is history.

“It’s been a great fit,’’ Vyverberg said. “They do a coaching and parent education program at McQuaid and when it started they asked me to speak to all the other winter and spring coaches about the way I approached things. I was very honored by that. It made me feel good that I was coaching the way they wanted.’’

Asked to provide one word to describe Vyverberg’s coaching style, AD Thomas said “devotion.’’

“He’s a real role model and we’ve been blessed to have him,’’ Thomas said. “The testament to Al is that he has worked hard for every kid he’s had, be it the all-star player or a guy who is on the fourth line. He gives every kid their fair shake.’’

Reasoner, 39, who played two seasons for McQuaid in the early 1990s and went on to play 798 NHL games for six teams after a stellar career at Boston College, said Vyverberg created such positive environments nobody wanted to see the season end regardless of what the record was.

“You look back on your whole life playing hockey and there are certain people that really had major influences on which way you went in a positive way and Al would be at the forefront of that,’’ said Reasoner, who works in commercial real estate as well as in player development for the New York Islanders. “He was a guy who really enjoyed coming to the rink and that was infectious. He wasn’t just a great coach but a great friend and I owe a lot of the success I was able to have to him.’’

Nunn, who enjoyed a nice career at Holy Cross and played professionally in Germany, said Vyverberg’s legacy is that he nurtured everyone’s talent and love of hockey with the enthusiasm of a kid but with the discipline of an adult.

Indeed, each generation of McQuaid player has enjoyed trying to keep up with the energetic Vyverberg, who skates in men’s leagues three times a week, during practice scrimmages. On the bench, he’s a teacher not a screamer.

“He’s one of the most genuine and caring coaches I’ve ever played for,’’ said Nunn, who works in IT staffing in Boston. “He cares about each and every individual on the team and he coaches each player differently; he finds the right buttons to push. At the same time, he comes up with good team concepts and discipline that everyone has to follow. And he doesn’t take any B.S., which is great.’’

From age 5 on, Nunn, whose father Mark played at McQuaid for coach George Dobbins in the early 1970s, attended Vyverberg’s camps. He marveled at how he carried the patience a youth coach must have for working with young adults.

“It’s a different level with high school, but I think that’s always been in the back of his mind where he incorporates the fun into it like he did at those camps when I was a kid,’’ Nunn said.

Building on success

McQuaid has elected to play an independent schedule for the 15 seasons of the Vyverberg II Era, facing many of the top teams in the state as well as in Section V. That kind of preparation for the post-season has proven to be effective with the Knights winning five of their sectional and both of their state titles since 2002-03.

“We don’t play any weak sisters,’’ Al V said. “You can tell from that year on how strong we were, but some years we’re not as strong, too.’’

Like any competitor, he can recall big losses more than big wins, like going 0-4 in sectional finals before finally winning his first in 1997. Vyverberg joked that he was “the Marv Levy of Section V hockey.’’

And while he was blessed to win two state championships, his 2003-04 club that was 20-2-2 with Billy Sauer (University of Michigan) in net and his 2013 team that made the state Frozen Four came up short.

But titles were never Al V’s driving force.

“You don’t come back for 30 years to win championships because it doesn’t happen very often, you come back because of good kids,’’ he said. “If you can coach good kids with talent, wow. Marty Reasoner, it was an honor to coach him. It’s not just his talent, he was such a good kid and so many of them I can sit here and talk hours about on how good of people they were.’’

Vyverberg’s farewell tour saw him schedule many teams for personal reasons.

Like visiting Massena’s old barn one more time where the folks there gave him a plaque for being “a worthy opponent.’’ His alma mater, Pittsford, also quickly accepted Vyverberg’s invitation to play and in a classy move made its biggest game, the annual “Pink the Rink’’ game for breast cancer, the date.

In pregame ceremonies, Pittsford officials good-naturedly made note that when Vyverberg was a junior he scored the game-winning goal to knock McQuaid out of the playoffs and in his senior year he scored twice against McQuaid for the school’s first title.

“When you play against him his teams are always aggressive and he always plays deep on his bench, whether three or even four lines, when he had the kids to do it,’’  said Panthers coach Steve Thering, 36, who has known Vyverberg his whole life. “He’s just a very knowledgeable hockey coach and very respected. And when the game is over, it’s over. There’s that respect there for him away from the game.’’

At one time Vyverberg thought he’d become a college coach but he knew the demands of travel and recruiting would be too much on him and his family. A man has to know himself.

“In our little world, this worked out beautifully for me,’’ he said.

And it’s not quite over yet. As the Section V Tournament begins, the battle-tested Knights, a sleeper pick again, have made it a point not to talk about their coach's retirement.

“It’s really been fun to play for him,’’ said Campbell, whose brother Mike was a captain on the 2015 state title team and whose dad, Clint, a fine junior and college player, is a close family friend. “We go into every game trying to win and if we don’t, we always come back and work hard to get better.’’

When it does officially end, Al Vyverberg has plans to load up a borrowed motor home for a much-deserved trip south to the Florida Keys with a couple buddies.

Talk about a perfect picture as he drives off into the sunset.

Al V in an RV.