By Mike Madera
The list of head coaches for the West Haven hockey program is few. Steve Harris can now consider himself one of a handful in the storied program’s history.
With the expected approval from the Board of Education this Monday evening, Harris will join a list which includes Hal Smullen, Edward L. Bennett, Art Crouse, Art Delucia, Gordie Smith and most recently, Joe Morrell, who stepped down after 21 years at the helm.
“It is absolutely amazing,” Harris said. “I have been part of the West Haven Youth Hockey program where I started and to see all those guys and what they have done is amazing. I am right back where I started. It is an absolute honor to be the head coach at West Haven. I have very big shoes to fill with Joe Morrell. He was amazing with the kids and he was one of my coaches along with Mike Violano when I was at Notre Dame. He knew how to get the most out of his players.”
Superintendent of Schools Neil C. Cavallaro was enthusiastic about the choice.
“Steve is really committed to hockey. He has worked extremely hard to get to this point. He has a strong passion for hockey and he has worked many years to develop his coaching skills,” he said. “I watched him turn Hamden Hall around. He is going to take the time and work hard to make the program better. We feel like we got the right guy. He coached my son (Connor) and I watched him in action. He is committed. He is good to the kids. He has prepared himself for this point. He has coached two or three teams in a season. His goal was to become a better hockey coach.”
Harris has an impressive youth hockey and prep school coaching resume, most notably coaching at Hamden Hall for eight years, with seven of those years as head coach. Harris made an immediate impact on the program of the Hornets as he was winless in his first year at the helm, but followed with a semifinal appearance one year later.
His experience was a big factor in making the choice.
“Steve brings a great deal of experience coaching at all levels to our program,” West Haven Athletic Director Jon Capone said. “He has a tremendous amount of respect for the history of our program. My job is to assist him in the transition, and I’m excited to begin working with him.”
Harris has also been impressive at the youth hockey levels where he took the Yale U14/U15 Tier 3 squad to the New England quarterfinal game last season and took the CT Oilers to the EJEPL finals and Atlantic Youth Hockey League quarterfinals.
“He is the consummate professional,” Yale Youth Hockey President Charlie Andriole said. “He is a very diligent teacher of the game of hockey. He always handles himself with the calmest of demeanor. That is not to say he doesn’t expect good things from his players He does it in a very calm way, which I find rare. He will be a great fit for West Haven. He is a great teacher with expansive knowledge. He coached all three of my kids so I know his methodologies and his philosophies.”
Said Harris, “Coaching the different age groups has really helped. You get to see how the kids develop, and then to watch them go from youth hockey to high school, you see the older kids help mold the younger kids. It is a big part of the way everyone transforms. You get to see the mindset of the specific age groups.”
Harris expanded his coaching last year, serving as the advance scout and skills instructor at Notre Dame — West Haven under then first year coach Larry Vieira.
Vieira joined in endorsing the choice of Harris for the West Haven post.
“In my opinion, he is one of the most outstanding young coaches in the area,” Vieira said of Harris. “He has a presence about him. The kids respond when he walks in the room. His hockey knowledge is off the charts. He has a little bit of an edge to him. He has that “it” factor. That is an excellent hire. We will miss him here.”
Harris is no stranger to high school hockey in the area as he starred at cross-town Notre Dame from 1996-1999, where he was known for his sharp shot and nose to come up with the big goals.
Harris needed just three years to join the 100-point club for the Green Knights and took home a state championship as a sophomore.
“I grew up in West Haven and was a West Haven kid,” Harris said. “I went to Notre Dame for four years, then college, but came right back to volunteer in the West Haven Youth Hockey. I was never that far removed from West Haven.”
The new West Haven coach went on to play prep school at the Gunnery, before attending Johnson and Wales University.
With the Westies having qualified for the postseason 20 of the past 21 years, Harris has one goal in mind and that is to bring a state title back to West Haven for the first time since 1994.
“My message is an easy one and that is let’s win a state championship,” Harris said. “I really think with seeing them play last year and what they did, and with the returning players and group coming in, if we follow the system and work hard, it is an attainable goal. We first want to get to the SCC tournament and win that, but the ultimate goal for everyone is to win a state championship. We need to bring a banner back to the Bennett Rink.
He said his methods of coaching is one of earned respect.
“I am not a yeller or screamer. I like to give the kids the benefit of the doubt. I like to give them opportunities, but if I tell them once, I don’t want to see it done again. Respect is earned, not given. That has worked out for me. “
Harris will name his assistants shortly, with long-time assistant coach Jim Lafo expected to be retained.
“I am not going to change tradition here,” Harris said. “There is plenty of tradition at West Haven. I am looking to keep the alumni involved. I’m excited to be here.”
Harris, who has an 18-month old daughter with his wife Michelle, works for the City of Milford.