Brett Riley knows a thing or two about starting a college hockey program from scratch.
Two years ago, he was the head coach for the inaugural season of the Wilkes University men’s hockey team, an NCAA Division III squad in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Riley guided the Colonels to a 16-8-2 record and was named the United Collegiate Hockey Conference Coach of the Year.
Now, the former Albany Academy prep hockey head coach gets a second opportunity to start a college hockey program.
Riley, who coached the Cadets for three years and spent this past season as an assistant coach at Colgate, was named the head coach for the Long Island University men’s hockey team on May 27. His hiring came about a month after LIU announced that it was starting a Division I men’s hockey program. It began a women’s program in 2018-19.
“[It feels] awesome,” the 29-year-old Riley said during a Zoom interview on Friday. “I couldn’t be more excited right now to take on this mission and represent LIU and put a hockey team on the ice. It’s certainly a shorter period of time here.”
When Riley was hired by Wilkes in 2017, he had some time to recruit players because the Colonels weren’t going to start play until the 2018-19 season.
“We had 10 months to get ready and start that program,” Riley said. “In the Division III world of recruiting, some great things happen late. So, when we started, it wasn’t instant success. It was stay at it, stay at it, stay at it, in terms of the recruiting pace. . . . But in that year on the road, I learned a lot of valuable lessons that I can apply this time around.”
This time, the timetable is much shorter.
LIU stunned the college hockey world on April 30 when it announced it was starting a Division I men’s hockey team. While there has been speculation that schools like Illinois and Navy could be joining the college hockey ranks, there was never any indication that LIU was interested in starting men’s college hockey.
And LIU doesn’t want to waste any time in getting the program going. It wants to start playing in 2020-21. That means recruiting players quickly and getting a schedule together in a short amount of time.
That challenge was an easy skate down the slot for Riley.
“It’s something I’ve done before at Wilkes University. I had a little bit more time,” Riley said. “Like I said, it’s a challenge, and I couldn’t be more excited to do it this year.”
There is the added challenge of the COVID-19 pandemic. No one is sure if the season will start on time in October. But that could be an advantage for Riley.
“In the weirdest way, it does [help],” Riley said. “There’s so many things up in the air with team scheduling, games opening up, regional travel, so it certainly helps on the scheduling front.
“On the recruiting front, it’s kind of halted things, which we’re going to use it to our advantage. While things may be slowing down for some [teams], they’re speeding up for us and we’ll use it to our advantage.”
Colgate head coach Don Vaughan is happy for Riley. Vaughan hopes the rest of college hockey helps LIU.
“I know people are saying this is different and a huge challenge, which it is, but I would not sell Brett Riley short on this,” Vaughan wrote in an email. “Considering where we are right now with everything going on, it might take a little time, or maybe it won’t. There are a lot of good players in the transfer portal, and there are a lot of good players who get overlooked. I know this for sure, if there is a player out there that fits the model of what Brett is looking to build at LIU, he will find them. Then he will build that team, but he can’t do it without a schedule and that’s where the rest of D-I college hockey will need to step up. I think this year might benefit LIU with COVID-19 and teams having new openings in their schedules. But moving forward, that might not be the case.”
While at Wilkes, former Union player and Guilderland native Tyler Hynes was an assistant coach for Riley. When Riley left for Colgate, Hynes took over as head coach.
“Brett is a proven program builder,” Hynes said. “He is a master culture creator and his programs win on the ice, in the classroom and in the community. Genuinely cares about his players and staff. I have no doubt he will be successful at LIU.”
Shortly after graduating Hobart in 2014, Riley was named head coach of the Albany Academy prep hockey team. In three seasons, the Cadets went 59-32-7. They were the New England Prep School Athletic Association runners-up in 2017.
“[It was] awesome,” Riley said. “It was a great experience right out of school. I learned a lot quickly. I was really fortunate to be around a lot of good people and good players.”
Coaching is in Riley’s blood. His father Rob was the head coach of Army West Point for 19 years and is currently a scout for the Buffalo Sabres. His grandfather Jack was the head coach at Army West Point for 35 years and was also the head coach of the United States men’s hockey team that won the gold medal at the 1960 Winter Olympics. Riley’s uncle Brian is the current Army West Point head coach.
“I followed my dad Rob to the rink every day as a young kid,” Riley said. “I guess I didn’t really know what I was getting into or signing up for. From there, I caught the bug.”
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