By Seth Kinker, firstname.lastname@example.org
Don Wright, the face of Chelsea Hockey, has retired after 18 years as Head Coach.
Wright knew that this past year could potentially be his last but didn’t make the decision until after their state quarterfinal loss to Riverview Gabriel Richard at the end of March.
“I take a lot of pride in what I do,” said Wright. “If I can’t do it at the level I want to do it at, I’m not okay with that. That’s what made the ultimate decision for me.”
Wright has been around hockey his whole life. He played as a kid in the Flint area, then at Swartz Creek High School, and even a little after high school before going into the real world.
Living in Florida at the time for work around 1990, his son took up the sport and that drew Wright back in. He was soon coaching his son’s youth hockey team, which wasn’t something he expected to do but they needed a coach. One thing led to another and Wright said that coaching his son’s team led to his appreciation for coaching.
“Yeah, absolutely,” said Wright when asked if the coaching bug had started to catch on after coaching his son’s team. “I loved the game and teaching the game. It seems what I did worked in helping players and what not, so I stayed with it.”
In 1994, he was transferred back to Michigan. He took a break from coaching, but it wasn’t more than couple years before he was again coaching youth hockey.
In January 1998 a club hockey team was started in Chelsea. Mid-way through the season they needed a coach. Wright was sought out, applied for the job, and became the club head coach. Once Wright finished out that year as coach one of his goals was to get it to be a varsity sport for Chelsea.
“The next year was my first full year and at the end of the season we weren’t truly affiliated with the school yet,” said Wright. “We were doing all the right things, so we were able to get varsity letters for the players after that first full season.”
After the second season hockey was made a varsity sport and Wright had been at the helm ever since.
Wright’s announcement took many by surprise. Several people involved with hockey at various levels around the state have reached out to him since to offer their congratulations and surprise at his announcement.
“I have a son and daughter and for the two of them I think they were surprised,” added Wright when asked about how his announcement affected those around him, whether co-workers or family. “They both graduated from Chelsea High School, so they envisioned Chelsea Varsity Hockey as me, you know what I mean? So I think it’s hard for them to picture it different.”
Another person caught by surprise was his co-worker, former assistant, and newly named head coach of Pinckney’s Hockey program, Kenny Grundy.
“It was kind of weird,” said Grundy. “I got offered the Pinckney job and I didn’t want to tell Don over the phone that I was leaving. He’s been out (from work) so I hadn’t seen him in about a week. I accepted the job and called him told him and he said, ‘Well I’m going to retire.’ So that’s how I found out. Kind of crazy.”
Wright told Grundy that he wanted him to coach at Chelsea, but at that point, Grundy had already committed to Pinckney.
“That really weighed on me because I’ve been in Chelsea for so long, but my son played in Pinckney,” said Grundy. “It was a really tough decision because we’ve been so close. I’ve been to him a couple times just these past weeks getting his opinion on things. Don has always been there for me, I’ve had some tough times in my life. I lost my daughter a couple years ago. He’s helped me through a lot of stuff he’s been a great, great man to me. Bad timing with the Pinckney and Chelsea job but Chelsea will be fine. He’s done a great job with that program and its one of the top jobs in the state.”
Although he will be stepping down as head coach of Chelsea’s Hockey team, he will not be stepping away from the game of hockey.
Wright is the high school representative with USA Hockey and the Amateur Hockey Association for the State of Michigan. In 2017 he was appointed the Executive Director of the Michigan High School Hockey Coaches Association (former President), he co-founded the Michigan Public High School Hockey Showcase which brings 40-60 high school teams to play at Chelsea and just finished its eighth year, and since 2011 he has been the General Manager of Team Michigan.
Team Michigan sends the top 20 seniors and junior high school players in the state to Minnesota where they participate against other top high school hockey states. The tournament is highly scouted by NHL teams as well as various levels of professional hockey. Wright is responsible for helping choose those two teams of seniors and juniors from between 230-300 Michigan high school hockey players that try out. Team Michigan will be traveling to Minnesota in mid-April.
“I’m very passionate about high school hockey. I think it’s a great opportunity for students and so I’ve been very involved in that,” said Wright.
Wright, one of four Chelsea Varsity sport head coaches to vacate their position this offseason, touched on some of the reason for Chelsea’s success not just in hockey but athletics in general.
“Coaching in Chelsea is special,” said Wright. “Over the years, we’ve had some outstanding coaches and I think the Chelsea School District is outstanding. I know Chelsea is different than a lot of high schools. The varsity coaches really work together because we’re such a small school and have so many sports. We don’t make the student-athlete choose if there’s a conflict. The coaches work it out.
Wright said that he’s enjoyed building the relationships with the young men throughout his years, even through adversity, leading the Chelsea Hockey program.
“We’ve just had so many good young men come through, it’s been really enjoyable every year,” said Wright. “What I like best about coaching is either getting an individual or group of players, especially the group of players, to achieve things they didn’t think they could achieve. Through the years that’s really been fun to watch, virtually every year, because we’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success.
Wright compiled a 304-146-35 record over his career and in the 15 years that there has been hockey in the Southeastern Conference, Chelsea has won 13 conference titles, including 11 in a row. He won six regional titles (three in the last three years) and three final four appearances, in addition to their performance on the ice, Wright’s teams have made Academic All-State 16 of the last 18 years, including the last 15 years in a row.
Wright produced two dream team players (best players at their position in the state), 16 first team all-state players, nine-second team all-state players, and 13 honorable mention all-state players. Chelsea has had 48 first league all team players and 41 honorable mention players, the most by any school in Michigan.
“After 18 years we have a strong number of alumni. We’ve done some things with alumni games and it’s always good to see the guys come back,” added Wright. “We’ve had a decent number of players that play at the next level. I’m in regular contact with those players. It’s just really enjoyable relationships.”
Grundy, who works for Wright at the Arctic Coliseum in Chelsea, knows he will always have a relationship with Wright too. He’s worked alongside Wright at the ice rink just as long as he’s been alongside him on the bench during games.
When he takes over the Pinckney program, he plans to do a lot of the things he learned from Wright over the years.
“Making kids accountable, being there for the kids, and doing things the right way,” said Grundy when asked about what he’ll take to Pinckney. “There are summer programs, the reason Chelsea was so successful was what we did in the offseason. The skill work, the skating, all those things, all those hours. That’s why he was so good. The program Don implemented, I’m going to do that with the Pinckney kids. It’s a lot of time and money but it’s worth it.”
“You deal with so many things as a high school coach with young men,” said Wright. “There’s so much. There’s the x’s and o’s of the game, but these young men are growing up and they go through a lot of situations, situations away from the ice.”
One thing that stands out about Wright for Grundy was his willingness to be there for players in or out of the game.
“He always thought it was always about the kids,” said Grundy. “I worked with him for a long, long time. New season, new kids, there are always issues. Don always had an open-door policy.
He tried to not only win hockey games he tried to prepare young men for after high school and I don’t think the players really knew what he was doing. But I knew what he was doing.”