Head Coach Jeff DeGree has always had a passion for hockey, which explains why he is at the helm of the Colorado State University Rams. However, the road to his coaching assignment wasn’t your typical climb through the ranks. Instead, it includes a 25-year stint as a criminal defence lawyer. Needless to say, he’s not your typical coach!
Coach DeGree, who was recently named Western Collegiate Hockey League Coach of the Year, is now leading the Rams on a new path, using many of the skills he learned as an attorney and learning some new ones along the way. In this instalment of FROM BEHIND THE BENCH, Coach DeGree talks about how he went from defending murder cases to coaching college kids, and what skills transfer from a court of law onto the ice.
From Court of Law to Behind the Bench
“I’ve always played hockey, although I didn’t have a very distinguished career. I played high school hockey, and went on to play at Marquette University in Wisconsin. Then I went to law school and became an attorney for 25 years. But I’ve always had a big passion for the game.
When my oldest son was born and could stand up on skates, I started coaching youth hockey and was active in the association. As my boys got older, I started to realize that I really wanted to coach. Fortunately, my wife is really supportive, and she’s been successful with her work, so we came to a spot where financially I would be able to do it.
Troy Ward has a father-son hockey camp I’ve been going to for 10 years, and I’d developed a relationship with him. About four or five years ago, I came to him and said, ‘I’d really like to coach.’ He’s been an awesome mentor to me; he allowed me to go out to Abbotsford and spend some time with him while he was coaching the Abbotsford Heat — the Calgary Flames affiliate organization. That gave me a good framework to start with. Then last year, I was assistant coach at St. Olaf College with Coach Sean Goldsworthy, a NCAA Division III school, and I had a really good experience there and learned a lot.
About a year ago, my son was graduating from high school and looking at colleges. He decided Colorado State was the school he wanted to go to. Then last April, I was down at the College Coaches Convention in Naples, Florida, and I saw a guy wearing a Colorado State University Hockey sweatshirt, he said he was down there to find his replacement. He is actually a 50 year old criminal defence lawyer who plays bass in a rock band, which are all things that describe me as well!
The two of us hit it off and I ended up coming out and interviewing for the job, and it seemed like a great fit.
So, with my wife’s and my 13 year old’s support, and my 19 year old’s grudging support, I followed him out here to Fort Collins. I couldn’t foresee doing this in a location where my older boy wasn’t — it’s such a nice thing to be able to be in the same town as him. My wife and my younger boy love coming out here, so it’s a great situation for me. And I’ve been able to run my program here with a bunch of kids that are really working hard at it. It’s been great experience and I really feel fortunate to be able to do it.”
“I was a trial lawyer so I was always trying to persuade somebody, and I definitely developed the skill to be in front of people. What I tell my guys before a game feels like an opening argument to me.
And then there’s a lot of thinking on your feet and making decisions quickly; your team is always looking at the way you handle yourself and how you respond to situations, which is also something I learned as a trial lawyer.
There is always something to learn. There’s that saying, ‘you don’t coach one team, you coach 25 individuals,’ so that’s something that I’ve had to learn. I really enjoy dealing with college age young men, but it’s also something new.
I was a public defender for about 10 years and then had my own practice. When you’re a public defender and defence lawyer, you lose a lot of your cases. When you’re young, you kind of take it personally, you think it’s your fault and there are things you could’ve done. I had that exact feeling recently when we got beat by a better team and I was kicking myself that I should have been able to figure it out.
That’s a lesson I learned the hard way being an attorney — you have to focus on effort, not outcome. As long as you’re prepared and give your best, the outcome is not that important. I’ve had to re-learn that lesson a little bit.
Luke Strand [former Assistant Coach with the Abbotsford Heat] has been another big influence on helping me with structure and the x’s and o’s. I am definitely analytical about the game. I enjoy teaching the game — doing things as a teacher as opposed to a yeller. I try to be as positive as I can, and I try to reinforce things through teaching.
For 25 years, I defended everything from drunk driving to murder cases, and lots of major federal cases. I saw a lot of people go to prison and get long sentences. It’s having that perspective that makes knowing that winning or losing a hockey game is really not that important.”
Getting to Where You Want To Go
“Being a defence lawyer, I believe in second chances and treating people fairly. I got pretty tired of dealing with prosecutors and judges that didn’t quite share those views so it really became a grind.
A lot of my clients did end up turning their lives around and doing well and becoming successful. But I’m in an environment now where I’ve got 25 young men who are going to go out in the world and be successful, so it’s really fun to see them grow. At the end of the day, it’s not really about the hockey; it’s about the young men and their life experiences.
I’m really thankful for all the people like Troy, Luke and Sean who have taken time to mentor me. It reminds me of when I was a young lawyer and there were lawyers that really believed in the profession and how important it was, and were helpful to me. I tried to repay that as I was getting older as an attorney and now as a coach. I’m just really fortunate to have guys in our program at CSU that have committed to a big culture change and are committed to improving and making the program better.”