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Sunday, October 2, 2022
The play’s the thing: Award-winning NOTL hockey coach gets ready for soccer season

Sports have been a constant in the life of Mike Cwiertniewski.

As an accomplished former junior player with the Thorold Blackhawks, he played the hockey at a highly competitive level.

Now as a dad, he just spent his first season on the bench coaching the Ontario Minor Hockey Association team his daughter Ella played on.

And with soccer season beckoning and lacrosse hitting the floor, he's immersed in those two sports as well.

“I'm taking (my five-year-old son) Auston to the rink at 5:30. He's doing lacrosse fundamentals today,” Cwiertniewski said in a recent interview.

“All his buddies are doing it and he's really excited about it. It should be a ton of fun.”

He said he will be offering to help out with the lacrosse team as needed but won't be coaching. He will, however, be a soccer coach this summer.

“There's usually about three or four of us who share the coaching duties. But it's a little bit different this year because we haven't played in two years,” he said.

“So now Ella will be two years older so it will be more practices and games than it was.”

“Auston will still be Timbits style, you know, move the ball around in herds,” he said with a laugh.

Indeed, the bench rookie is a bit of a jack-of-all sports. But not many rooks can say they were named an OMHA coach of the month.

That's what happened to Cwiertniewski, courtesy of some of the parents of the kids on the U11 Niagara-on-the-Lake team he and Dan Plomish coached this past winter.

The parents secretly nominated Cwiertniewski and in February he was selected for the honour by the OMHA.

“I just love hockey. I love playing the game, I love being involved with it,” he said in an interview.

The 40-year-old had never coached a season of hockey before but has been playing it his whole life, including four seasons with Thorold in  late 1990s and early 2000s.

He’s been volunteering in the leagues Auston and Ella play in for several years just to help out, he said.

With Ella now 11, Cwiertniewski decided to try his hand at coaching for the first time this past season.

“It’s different once your kids get involved. It really kind of switches you to a different mode,” he said.

Cwiertniewski said he hadn’t considered coaching when he was younger.

“But once you have kids and you know the association is looking for volunteers it’s a pretty easy ‘yes’ to help out and to help out wherever you can,” he said.

The OMHA coaching award came out of the blue. 

“It was pretty cool and it was surprising. We’ve got a fantastic group of parents on our team and I think a couple of them nominated me for it. Very cool, very unexpected,” Cwiertniewski said.

The anonymous nomination submitted to the OMHA read in part: “Coach Mike is an excellent role model and leader for this team. We are very grateful for the time, effort and dedication he has put into coaching our NOTL Wolves U11 Team 1.”

He recalled the positive impact good coaches had on him when he was young.

“I grew up with some pretty great coaches — Chris Paul, Billy Hope, George Lepp — and those were guys who kind of stayed consistently with the teams every year and it was great,” he said.

This year Cwiertniewski said the focus for his team was always on skill development and having fun – not on winning. The team’s lack of wins actually paved the way for his favourite memory of the season.

“We weren’t the most competitive team, being in a smaller town,” Cwiertniewski said.

“But our first win came in Fort Erie. I think it was in November. It was just before the lockdown.”

“By the end of the game it was 8-6. It was just an offensive explosion for us. We usually got two goals a game or three goals a game.”

“We were short on the bench, we only had three subs. I think it was eight skaters and a goalie and we were just trying to run everyone through as much as we could.”

Cwiertniewski said that one win made everyone feel like champions.

“It was an awesome experience to be involved in, especially with these kids. They had a tough year, not a lot of wins on the board,” he said.

“To finally get that win after getting knocked around by a couple of the bigger teams, pretty hard— that was the best. That was the highlight of the year for sure.”

“Seeing how excited the kids got. It gave them a little boost of energy, a little boost of life to keep it up.”

And that moment spoke to Cwiertniewski’s philosophy as a coach.

“As long as we’re keeping smiles on these kids' faces and making them enjoy the game, it really doesn’t matter what happens,” he said.

He also always tried to give all the kids equal ice time.

“It didn’t matter your skill level. I made sure that everybody got on the ice, especially in the last few minutes (of the win against Fort Erie) so they could experience it, feel the intensity and what it’s like to be out there in those minutes,” he said.

“Because sometimes you want to shorten the bench but we didn’t believe in that. If you’re on the team everybody’s going to play and everybody’s going to play equally.”

Cwiertniewski is now getting ready to help out with the NOTL soccer season which starts May 28.