CEDAR RAPIDS — He wouldn’t bite. Somehow you knew he wouldn’t.
The subject of picking up his 600th career United States Hockey League win was broached Thursday afternoon to Mark Carlson. The only head coach the Cedar Rapids RoughRiders have had needs one more to hit a pretty unbelievable number.
The Riders play Friday night at Des Moines and Saturday night at Waterloo. Ironically, only the Black Hawks’ P.K. O’Handley has more USHL victories (669).
“I mean, I haven’t gotten it,” Carlson said with a wry smile, when asked about 600. “So ...”
A brief pause is followed by him clapping his hands and laughing aloud. It’s sometimes as difficult getting good answers out of him as it is playing for him.
That’s not a criticism, by the way. Not one bit.
Carlson asks a lot of his guys, and they know that about him going in. They also know there’s a reason for it.
“It’s difficult. He definitely pushes you to the limits, but in a good way,” said second-year RoughRiders forward Jason Polin. “He’s always trying to make you a better player and trying to push you to your ultimate best. He tries to get you ready for college and the future. He works you hard, but it’s all for good use.”
Carlson, 49, has amassed a 599-415-102 record in 19 seasons with the RoughRiders. His teams have won one Clark Cup championship and three Anderson Cups for most regular-season standings points.
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He has sent countless players on to college hockey and had 21 guys make it to the National Hockey League. The latest came last week when goaltender Alex Lyon made his debut with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Carlson has eschewed overtures and job offers at the college, pro and Canadian major junior levels to remain with a program he literally built from scratch. He was an assistant coach at Northeastern University in Boston when original RoughRiders owner Butch Johnson hired him for the 1999-2000 season.
“I hope that I’ve improved,” Carlson said. “I’m trying to work every day on getting better, studying different parts of the game. Improving that way. I hope that as times and people have changed, I have tried to learn different ways and find different ways to motivate players and teams and develop relationships. Try to find that balance there.
“I hope I’ve always had that balance, I think that I have. Everyone tells me that times have changed and people have changed, kids have changed. So you do kind of look at those things and find the best ways to get the most out of everybody.”
Carlson was asked if he believes kids have changed from when he first got into junior hockey.
“That’s a great topic,” he said. “I think we should have a seminar on it. In some ways, I still think that tough love is the best way of parenting. Coaching has a lot of similarities to parenting, especially at this level. But if it’s going to be tough love, the love had better be evident as well. I think that we’ve got that balance.”
He has many coaching influences, saying he has picked up things from a lot of people. That includes his mother and father.
Though not a coach, Carlson’s late father, Robert, taught him the value of persistent hard work. Getting anywhere in life, whether it’s hockey or something else, is never easy.
He tries to impart that on his teams each and every season.
“I don’t know what it’s like for everyone else, but, for some reason, when I was 24 or 25, a light bulb went off and I realized why my father, especially, pushed me so hard,” Carlson said. “He looked after me, but he definitely pushed me. My mother was demanding in her own way. But at 24 years old, I figured that out, and I’ll be thankful for that the rest of my life.”
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— The RoughRiders go into the weekend seventh in a tightly packed Eastern Conference, though only four standings points out of second place and three out of fourth place and the final playoff spot in the division. The club has 23 regular-season games remaining.
— The RoughRiders will host the second RoughRiders President’s Day Challenge Series youth tournament at the Ice Arena, Feb. 16-18. Twelve teams from around the Midwest will participate in the Under-13 and Under-14 event, with no admission charge to any of the games.
— Forward Brian Chambers has been sent to the Northeast Generals of the lower-level North American Hockey League. Chambers had four goals and eight assists in 30 games for Cedar Rapids. The Weymouth, Mass., resident is returning home, considering Northeast is based in Attleboro, Mass.
— Carlson said captain Marc McLaughlin is expected to be out of action for six to eight weeks after his latest bout with injury. The second-year forward and Boston College commit has been limited to 21 games with a variety of ailments, scoring 10 goals and 20 points.
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