MACOMB TOWNSHIP — After previously making a vow that he would never set foot in an ice rink again, Bob Clouston was thrilled to be sitting in the Suburban Ice Macomb locker room.
The Utica High hockey coach is halfway through his first year at the helm of the program, very grateful for a job that has reignited his passion for the sport.
“Simply due to personal reasons, I never had any intention of coaching again, I never wanted to go back into an ice hockey rink, or I at least was going to stay away for a very long time,” Clouston said. “But now I am super excited about working with this program. I could not be more happy; I am definitely interested in staying for a while.”
Prior to taking over the Chieftains, Clouston had coaching stops at West Bloomfield High and the University of Michigan-Dearborn. Following that, he established the National Roller Hockey League in 2014, a four-team professional circuit that became his sole focus.
“The (NRHL) became my passion and still is a passion for me,” Clouston said. “It is on hiatus temporarily right now, which has allowed some freedom to coach. I’m still working on the league, but I’m really glad on how things worked out.”
Clouston recalled how everything fell into place, a whirlwind process that took less than a week.
On Oct. 28, he received a text from a friend asking if he would be interested in the gig. He met with Utica Athletic Director Jim Vigus on Oct. 31 and officially accepted the position. On Nov. 2, Clouston led his new team through its first practice of the season.
“I realized this was a tremendous opportunity for a number of reasons,” Clouston said. “We have a lot of great young men, a great coaching staff, and the school is behind us with great support from the athletic director, teachers, students and the whole Utica community.”
At press time, the Chieftains were 0-12 overall. Despite the mark, Clouston says his club has never stopped competing and keeps a positive spirit every single day.
“We want to win every game obviously, but our goal is to develop a great program full of great human beings, and we know the wins will come,” Clouston said. “We feel right now that we are doing the right things, and we definitely see the team getting better and improving in many areas.”
The Chieftains only have three seniors on the roster, employing a group of young skaters with some who are new to the sport.
“We have a younger team that is willing to battle, and it absolutely gives us hope for the future,” Clouston said. “We’ve had plenty of interest from many at the school that are not currently playing. There are a lot of players coming up that we are very excited about, and we can see that the foundation is starting to be built.”
Utica’s starting goaltender, Mason Waldrip, praised his new coach for bringing a fresh mindset to the club. The junior has been on varsity since his freshman year and admitted that past seasons had been rough mentally and physically.
“Last year there were times that I didn’t want to show up to the rink, because it could really feel like a beatdown,” Waldrip said. “Now, I’m excited to come in and play for coach. We may not have improved our record yet, but we definitely improved our attitude. There’s a bigger student section, our players love each other, and we’ve changed, because he believes in us. There is faith in what we can do, and he challenged us to believe in ourselves and play.”
Between the pipes, Waldrip routinely faces 60-70 shots a game, but Clouston says he has never complained. He called the goalie a true leader for Utica.
“His work ethic is second to none, and when the goalie works hard, the players want to work hard in front of him,” Clouston said. “I’m not naive — the most fun thing to do is to score goals — but Mason is willing to do all of the little things and make our guys battle. We’re very happy to have him because he’s respectful, always on time, and a fantastic leader. If my kids turn out to be like him, I’ve done a good job as a parent.”
With the calendar flipped, the Chieftains are focused on finishing the campaign strong.
“We took the first two months of the season and found exactly what we needed to work on,” Clouston said. “This week, we held team meetings to lay out expectations for the second half of the season. Some of those are private and some are public, like how we want to finish .500 the rest of the way.”
Clouston believes his team will accomplish those goals, saying the team has nowhere to go but up.
“We are actively changing our belief system and challenging the players,” Clouston said. “They work hard every day for us, and it is awesome to be able to coach them every day.”