First Rivier women’s hockey coach ready to get started
NASHUA – Hockey is in his blood.
That’s the best explanation you can give for first-ever Rivier University women’s hockey coach Chris Czarnota’s involvement in the game.
In fact, a family member he never knew can take the credit – Czarnota’s late grandfather, Joseph “Red” Czarnota. Czarnota played both hockey and football at Boston University, and played on the 1952 U.S. Olympic hockey team that won the Silver Medal in Osio, Norway.
Chris Czarnota never met his grandfather, who passed away when Czarnota’s own father was three.
“I just heard these great, great stories,” Czarnota, who grew up in Wakefield, Mass., said. “Everyone you’d meet would say, ‘Oh, you’re Red’s grandson.’
All these hand me down stories about him playing in Wakefield, and at BU. He was a big factor, even though he wasn’t part of my life.”
The silver medal gets passed around between Czarnota’s father and uncle. Red Czarnota played in eight Olympic games, scoring two goals with two assists.
“It’s just a really cool thing to have in the house,” he said of the medal. “I’m super proud to be the head coach at Rivier with the women’s team, and I’m excited to continue that (family) legacy.”
Czarnota got into hockey when he was 5 or 6 years old, beginning with the usual learn to skate program. “I wasn’t every good at it,” he said.
So he quit for a year.
What got him back into it? The family heritage. “We’ve kind of been a hockey family, per se,” he said. “So kind of the nature of being a Czarnota got me back into the game after my year hiatus.”
Czarnota went on to play at Wakefield High School, the team making the Division I North finals his junior year, and then right out of high school went to Norwich University and played there for longtime legendary coach Mike McShane, who is originally from Wakefield as well.
“He knew my grandfather,” Czarnota said. “In fact, my grandfather used to coach Coach McShane.”
McShane would tell Czarnota stories about his grandfather.
“We were down in Wakefield and he hip-checked me so hard I went home limping, and my father asked what happened,” McShane told Czarnota. “I told him ‘Red hip checked me’, and my father said, ‘Well, you better keep your head up if you want to play with the big boys.'”
“He was great to me for four years,” Czarnota said of McShane, who retired in 2018 after 23 years on the job, winning four Division III national titles with 12 Frozen Four appearances and a .741 winning percentage, seventh all-timne in the NCAA.
In 2017, McShane asked Czarnota to return to Norwich and join his staff as an assistant. Czarnota coached the goaltenders on both the men’s and women’s teams.
You see, Czarnota was a forward for much of his young hockey career but eventually before high school switched to being a goalie.
“My father did not want me to play goalie,” Czarnota said. “My first couple of years, I was a forward, really loved it, had a great time doing it. But it was one of those things when our team needed a goalie one day, I volunteered to do it, and I was like, ‘Wow, I really like this.'”
He asked his father Paul if he could play goalie, and he was told if he was still interested when he got older – in three years – he could do it.
“So, I played as a forward for three years, and I still wanted to play goalie, and my father held up his end of the bargain and we went out and got pads, etc.”
And a goalie was born. And Czarnota played the position all through college, his time at Norwich being “an unbelievable experience.”
“We had teams that went to four NCAA tournaments, three Frozen Fours,” he said. “Coming from Wakefield and going to Norwich, I didn’t know what to expect. But I’ve got lifelong experiences and lifelong friends from being up at Norwich. As a player it was awesome.”
In fact, Czarnota got to play outdoors at Fenway Park. Hockey is a religion at the Vermont school.
Czarnota said he knew when he graduated from Norwich in 2014 he wanted to stay in the game. How to do that was the question.
“I just didn’t know to what capacity,” he said, saying he began working some hockey camps and then got a shot in 2015 as an assistant at Tufts University while working a full time financial job. And as time went on, his desire was clear.
“Yeah, I wanted to be a head coach,” Czarnota said, noting another mentor was noted goaltending coach Mike Geragosian, who really got Czarnota into coaching.
When he began coaching, Czarnota said “It was awesome. Working with kids, middle schoolers, high schoolers, giving back, it was a great experience. Especially with the young kids. When you’re 6 to 10 years old, the parents are so grateful, so appreciative. It was very satisying to see these kids develop at such a young age and have such a passion for it.I think that’s what got me to continue to coach, following the development of the players.”
And that stayed with him coaching at the collegiate level. But it was a change.
“Much different,” he said. “Coaching at the college level is a lot different from coaching young kids. But at the end of the day, I’d just be myself. I learned if you tried to be someone else, or do something in a different way that ‘s not you, whether it’s an eight year old or a 20 year old, the kids can see through it.”
So that’s Czarnota’s coaching philosophy, and he’ll be that way as the Raiders new coach. Of course, he’ll have to make the transition from being an assistant to a head coach.
“I’m super excited,” he said. “I know it’s going to be a challenge starting a brand new program, and we’re starting it from the ground up. We are recruiting, talking to equipment manufacturers, talking to Conway Arena about locker rooms . … I’m embracing the challenge.
“This is my first time being a head coach. I’ve had great support from Rivier’s staff so far. I’m a firm believer in learning from both success and failure. Our first two or three years, we’ll have some success but also some failure. By no means have I got this all figured out.”
No, but Czarnota will learn from his experiences. He recruited while at Norwich but only periodically went on the road. At Norwich, recruits went there to visit, more than the other way around.
“Recruiting to me is building relationships,” Czarnota said. “I’ve been doing that with potential recruits at Norwich for the last three-and-a-half years.”
At Norich, he was a full time men’s assistant, worked on the offense on the bench while working with the goalies in practice. On the women’s side, he was a goalie consultant, working with the goalies two times a week and periodically at a practice. So Czarnota has experience working with female athletes.
“The women at Norwich were awesome, both on and off the ice, and I’m looking to find similar girls in my recruiting,” he said. “Girls that excel both in the classroom and outside the classroom in hockey and what else we do in and around hockey. It’s definitely different (coaching women), but it’s just being yourself.”
Besides McShane, Czarnota cites McShane’s successor at Norwich, Cam Ellsworth, as teaching him a great deal as his team in 2018-19 made it to the Divison III national title game and was ranked No. 1 in the country last year before COVID halted the season.
“Cam gave me insight in every facet of his coaching philosophy and it was a huge benefit to me,” he said.
Also influential has been former NHL assistant coach (Boston, Tampa, L.A.) UNH goalie and former Clarkson head coach Cap Raeder, who was the goalie coach at Norwich when Czarnota played there. “He has great insight and has been a great friend and supporter of me.”
Thus, great mentors all around. Now the question is, what kind of head coach does Czarnota think he’ll make?
“We’ll find out,” he said with a chuckle.
“My whole philosophy of coaching is relationship based. Creating relationship with these players, open for communication.:
Of course, working the benches during games “were the best part of the job,” he said. “You work all week to be on the bench those Friday, Saturday nights. It’s quite a treat. I’m a competitive person, so being on the bench, watching your team play, you hope it all plays out the way you’d like it to. Especially in hockey, you never know. But Friday and Saturday nights, those are the best times, for sure.”
Czarnota will enjoy two things about the River job: molding a completely new program in his vision, and also being part of history.
“Being able to be the inaugural coach for the Rivier women’s program is such an honor and a privilege,” he said. “I think it’s really good for southern New Hampshire, especially on the women’s side. There’s not too much college hockey on the women’s side, especially in the southern part (of the state). For us to be part of that is super cool. The recruits I’ve been talking to seem excited, some of the local people I’ve been talking to seem excited. And I’m definitely excited.”
Czarnota has worked closely with inaugural Rivier men’s coach Eric Sorenson since the two were hired a couple of weeks apart. They’re both around the same age, both first time head coaches, “and we’re bouncing ideas off each other constantly. Even though we’re building seperate teams, we are building a Rivier hockey program together.
“It’s great because we get to make this our own. We don’t have to come in to something that was already built and we just keep it going. We get to put our own stamp on it.
“But more so than us putting our own stamp on it, our recruits and future players, they’re the ones that get to start this ball rolling. That’s more exciting than anything. They’re starting a hockey program. We’re excited for our players.”
Of course, with technology, Czarnota can watch games virtually from anywhere, which helps work around the pandemic. In fact, at times it’s more productive, saving time “from being on the road and traveling from rink to rink.”
Czarnota says he wants a strong New Hampshire base on his roster if possible, but as he says, “I’m open to anywhere. I’m talking to coaches and players in Canada. I’m talking to coaches in Florida. I’m talking to coachs in Arizona. I am trying to broaden the students that will be coming to Rivier for the hockey program. I’m reaching out to anyone and everyone.”
And what’s the reaction/response from recruits?