When new Chicago Wolves head coach Ryan Warsofsky was born in 1987, his parents, Dawn and Mark, asked their next-door neighbors in Marshfield, Massachusetts, to serve as Ryan’s godparents.
On its own, this tidbit doesn’t explain why Warsofsky can be regarded as a coaching prodigy.
(Among his credentials: Warsofsky led the ECHL’s South Carolina Stingrays to the Kelly Cup Finals when he was just 29. He was an assistant coach for the Charlotte Checkers squad that won the 2019 Calder Cup, then became the AHL’s youngest head coach in 20 seasons when the Checkers hired him last year at the age of 31.)
But when we reveal his godparents were George and Myrna Sullivan — and their son, Mike, happens to be the two-time Stanley Cup-winning head coach for the Pittsburgh Penguins — it starts to make more sense.
Thanks in large part to the Sullivans’ presence in his life, Warsofsky put himself on the path to becoming a hockey coach before he even finished high school. Between all of his experience and all of the advice he has gleaned from mentors like Mike Sullivan, Warsofsky is well-suited to guide the Wolves through the 2020-21 season and beyond.
Learn about Warsofsky’s career path and much more in Part 1 of this Q-and-A with the new leader of the pack, who grew up 30 miles south of Boston.
How did Mike Sullivan’s influence steer you toward hockey?
“He was right next door when I was real young. His parents were my godparents. (Mike and I) still talk quite a bit throughout the season and the offseason. And then we see each other. He lives in the town right next to my parents (North Marshfield).
“Growing up, I used to go to his hockey school. He was playing in the NHL back then. He had just left Boston University and started his pro career, so my family and I followed him around. He’s just someone that I’ve always looked up to.
“Mike’s parents both have passed recently, but Mike’s dad was living in Florida when I was coaching for South Carolina (in the ECHL). He lived in Fort Myers and Naples and he would come to our games against the Florida Everblades, so that was pretty cool.”
You and your brothers (Adam, Jarod and David) all grew up playing hockey. When did you first put on skates and grab a stick — and did you have any choice in the matter?
“Not really. Having two older brothers — Adam is seven years older than me and Jarod is five years older — I took some beatings when I was younger. I started skating when I was 2, probably because of Mike being our neighbor. I think that’s how we all got intrigued by it.
“Then we went to his hockey school. And his sister, Kathie, was a big figure skater. She was the one who taught me how to skate. That’s how I got involved in it and fell in love at a young age. I’m very thankful for it because it’s what I love to do.”
So the neighborhood you and your brothers grew up in — did you live on a busy street? Were you able to play hockey in the street?
“It wasn’t a very busy street, so if we had a lot of kids around we’d play in the street. Me and my younger brother, David, who plays in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization, were really close. If it was just him and me after school, we would just play in the driveway. Our garage doors were obviously destroyed. Lots of broken windows.
“When the winter came, we’d play knee hockey in the basement and it would get aggressive at times and physical. That’s something that people in Chicago will discover quickly: I’m super-competitive — probably to the point where it might be too much at times. I just love to win. Whether that was playing backyard football with my brothers, playing street hockey when I was 10 or even now when I’m 32, it gets physical, it gets super-competitive and that’s probably where I get it from.
“It’s just who I am. Sometimes my wife (Caroline) says I just need to relax, but it’s very hard to come off the gas pedal.”
When you say super-competitive, do you mean in a fiery way? Can people read your face and know exactly how you feel?
“I think so. Maybe you’d have to ask some of our players. But, yeah, I wear my emotions on my sleeve as a coach. Now, you have to have a balance as a coach and as a player to keep your emotions in check. But I want us to win. I want to see a player get to the National Hockey League. I’m going to push him as hard as I possibly can to help him reach his goals — and ultimately reach the goals of our team.
“That’s just who I am as a person and who I am as a coach. That doesn’t mean I don’t like you. That doesn’t mean there are hard feelings. But at the end of the day, we’re here to get a couple things accomplished: One is to improve the players and two is to win a lot of hockey games and ultimately win a championship.”
Can you share a little bit about your family?
“My wife and I got married in July 2016, so our five-year anniversary is coming up. We got married in Charleston (South Carolina) when I was coaching there.
“Our son, Cal, just turned 1 in August. He’s getting big and getting close to walking. I told my wife once he starts walking and finds his balance, we’re putting him on some skates. My dad got him a stick and he’s got skates. He has cousins and nieces and nephews, including one nephew that plays, so we’ve gone to a couple of his games.
“When Cal was born, I would sit with him on the couch and he would watch while I was cutting up video or whatever. He’s pretty intrigued by it (laughs). I’m not going to push him, but we’ll see.”
“We’re living in Marshfield, but we’re building a house in Mattapoisett. It’s on the water and there’s a nice property we found near a golf course. It’s a quiet, little neighborhood. We’re about a month away from being done. It’ll be interesting to see when the season starts. We’ll probably just move in and then be leaving (for Chicago). My wife’s parents live in Connecticut, so it’s kind of halfway being my parents and her parents. It’s nice.”
What’s your golf handicap?
“I’m an 8. With a lot of time off, I’ve been trying to get that thing a little lower. I’m a little bit longer off the tee and I can find my way around the greens a little bit, but there always seems to be one part of my game that’s off. That’s holding me back a little bit.”
Did you and your brothers grow up rooting for Boston’s teams?
“Yep. Big Patriots fans. I really like Bill Belicheck. I know media people probably don’t like him, but I really enjoy following the Patriots. I loved the Red Sox and Bruins. And when Mike (Sullivan) was coaching the Bruins, I was fortunate to go in there to visit him.
“I think I was 16 or 17 when he was the head coach of the Bruins and I would go in there and see how it all worked. He got fired from the Bruins and my brother played for the Bruins, and they both have moved on.
When you’re in the hockey (world), I mean, yeah, I grew up a Bruins fan but I’m a Carolina Hurricanes fan now.
But other sports? Yeah, I’m a big Boston fan.
When your brother, David, made his NHL debut with the Bruins (on Dec. 19, 2013), was that the greatest thing that could have happened to your family at the time?
“Yeah, it was. He got drafted by St. Louis and he got traded in the summer of 2010. I remember I was watching the World Cup with my brothers when he got the call from the Bruins saying they had traded for him.
“It was pretty exciting, moreso for him because he was a hometown kid and getting to play for your hometown team is pretty cool. At that time, he still had a lot of work to be done. He played in the American League for a couple years and then got his shot.
“I remember his first game was against Buffalo and it was a random weeknight. I ended up flying in from Charleston (S.C.), where I was coaching, and got to be there. Our parents were there. It was a pretty cool experience, particularly for our mom and dad. They were super-excited. I remember my dad was on Cloud Nine. I think he loved it.”
Were your parents hockey people growing up? Or did they like whatever you and your brothers liked?
“My dad was more of a baseball guy when he was growing up and in high school. Then, for whatever reason, we just got attached to hockey. Living next to the Sullivans, we just all fell in love with it, I think.”
When you were hanging around the Bruins’ locker room and coaches room when you were 17 or 18, did you know even then that you wanted to be a coach?
“I knew right away that’s what I wanted to do. And it’s kind of bizarre, I think. I remember the exact conversation I had with Mike in the office. Even years after that, I think it was my first year as the assistant at South Carolina, I went golfing with him the next summer. He said, ‘Are you sure you really want to do this?’
“And I remember because he was grinding at the time because he got let go (by Boston). He had to go back to the American League. He had to be an assistant in the NHL. He had to grind his way through (to get back to Pittsburgh). I’m not sure he wanted me to go through it. But I understood the grind. It’s not just Mike. There are tons of coaches who have really grinded it out. Look at Rick Bowness in Dallas. Those are the stories that help keep you going, I think.
“But I love the preparation. I’d go to (Boston’s) morning skates and just watch how he communicated. His interviews. His postgame interviews. But it’s not just him. There are a lot of coaches that I look up to. As coaches, we have to continue to learn and broaden our horizons. I’m a young coach. I don’t know everything. I try not to have a big ego about how we have to run things. I want people’s input and I think that’s how you get better, ultimately.”
Stay tuned for Part 2 later this week.