‘Culture change’ needed within Royals organization: Fitzgerald

Coach resigns with club tied for third place in five-team league

Dave Kearsey dkearsey@thewesternstar.com
Published on December 12, 2012
Corner Brook Royals new head coach Ben Fitzgerald comtemplates the next player drill at Thursday’s open practice at the Pepsi Centre. — Star photo by Geraldine Brophy

CORNER BROOK  No matter who calls the shots behind the bench, Ben Fitzgerald believes there is a need for a culture change within the Western Royals.

Fitzgerald, in his second season as head coach of the Royals, told Royals president Ross Coates via telephone Tuesday he is resigning and a letter stating such would be delivered to him in due course.

The Royals and Eastlink CeeBee Stars share third place in the standings with 10 points apiece, but the cellar-dwelling expansion Gander Flyers find themselves only two points behind in a tight race.

The Royals have one win in the last six games, a slide that includes four straight losses to the Grand Falls-Windsor Cataracts, who lead the league with an impressive record of 11 wins and one defeat.

Coates spoke with Fitzgerald about his concerns moving forward in a number of conversations over the weekend.

Though Fitzgerald was hesitant to speak on the matter, he wanted people to know he didn’t quit on the team, but wasn’t prepared to stick around if the team wasn’t going to follow some of the policies that he felt separated good teams from championship teams. He said he expected the organization to have more a of professional flavour than what he has seen in the first 12 games.

He would like the Royals to follow the lead of teams like the Cataracts and Caribous, who implement policies that are deemed successful in building a contending team. He said the Cataracts management have a no-drinking policy in effect for their players and that’s the way it should be for this level of hockey. The Caribous practice every Friday night as a group and Fitzgerald is a firm believer his team will struggle to compete if it’s not hitting the ice as a group for regular practice sessions. He has only had one full practice with all of his players in attendance since training camp.

It all added up to a lot of frustration in the end.

“At the end of the day, I think there’s a number of people there who feel it’s possibly easier to change one instead of 20 and if that’s how people feel then I got no problem ... stepping aside for the greater good,” he said. “I think the culture in the organization needs to change and if I can’t be a part of creating that change then I guess the best thing to do is step aside and let other people who have the answers do their best.”

Fitzgerald thought the team was headed in the right direction and it appeared everybody was content, but then the Royals lost two key cogs in the machine — Nathan Saunders gone for the season with a neck injury and Steve North out indefinitely with an upper-body injury. He was disappointed to lose two valuable members of his team at that point but, more importantly, he became frustrated with the fact management didn’t appear poised to address the concern.

He’s not going to worry about it. He believes he did his best with what he could and wishes the team well in the future.

He loves to coach so he will always entertain an offer to get behind the bench again, but spending time with his two children is now even higher on his priority list.

He skipped out on his daughter’s fifth birthday party Saturday to do a pre-game video session with the players before an important two-game set against the Cataracts this past weekend to make sure they were prepared. Even that move, according to Fitzgerald, was met with some negativity from some of the players.

“If I can’t change things then everything stays the same,” he said. “The reality being that if I can’t change it then maybe the priority for me should be my family and, based on Saturday night, I’ve come to realize my priority is my family. I will always love coaching. If something comes up I’ll certainly consider it.

“I always have the support of my family, but at this time if it’s better for the Royals to pursue another direction and better for (me) to step aside to allow them to do that, then I certainly wish them all the best in moving forward.”

Coates accepted Fitzgerald’s resignation, but also applauded his coach for his commitment to the Royals during his tenure behind the bench.

“It’s hard to point fingers at a coach when you just lost two top players off your team ... you’re struggling, but it becomes a mutual point between two of us that we got to make some changes,” Coates said. “Our players aren’t buying into the system and not following what needs to be done. You can’t change 20 players, so today Ben is handing in his resignation.”

Parting ways wasn’t something Coates particularly enjoyed seeing come to fruition, but he knows these things come with the territory.

“You can’t change 20 players at this point in the season, so you got to try something new and see if you can shake the players up and make them all open up their eyes too,” he said.

Coates said he had a great working relationship with his coach and appreciated all the effort he put into guiding the team.

“Ben is very dedicated to what he does. He’s very into what he does and loves the game of hockey, He loves to win,” he said.

Coates has approached associate coach Ed Kearsey to take over the head coaching duties for the balance of the season. He is still waiting on an answer from the former West Coast Senior Hockey League coach of the year who guided the Royals to its last Herder title back in 2002.