Porter here. I'm happy to introduce you all to Will Moran, who is going to be writing about UConn hockey for us. His first article is below and you can find more of his work at goalmouthradio.com. Be sure to follow him on twitter at @GoalMouthRadio.
There was a time in Dan Naurato's life where he thought he had had enough of hockey. He even went as far as to take two years off from the sport while in high school, however, when the UConn Huskies step onto the ice this upcoming season Naurato will be standing behind the bench as a full-time volunteer assistant coach. The Michigan native will bring a non-traditional voice to the Husky coaching staff this season and has an incredibly vast amount of experience in which to pull from, while providing a unique perspective on the rapidly changing program that he developed while playing 79 games for the Huskies as a student.
Naurato never dreamed of playing in the NHL, his goal was to always play Division I college hockey. After winning a state championship as a part of Detroit Central Catholic High School, Naurato moved to Massachusetts to play for the South Shore Kings of the Eastern Junior Hockey League (EJHL). It was there that he drew the attention of former UConn assistant Glenn Stewart, who asked Naurato to come down to UConn for a tour. Naurato visited Storrs in November of 2007 and committed to UConn just two weeks after his visit. When Naurato arrived in Storrs for his freshman campaign, he became a part of a culture that, in retrospect, was not where it needed to be for the team to be successful.
Four years removed from his rookie campaign Naurato was careful to choose the correct words to describe the state of the team in 2008.
"We had a good group of guys, we had fun, but we weren't a great hockey team," he said. "We didn't know what hard work was. We didn't know what it meant to be 100 percent dedicated to your team."
Still, Naurto pushed on, improving as a player over his first two years, and playing nearly 60 games over his first two campaigns, but his junior season ended seemingly as soon as it began. Just 12 games in, Naurato's year was ended by a serious concussion that was a red flag for the team doctor.
"I went to see Doctor Anderson and he told me that it was my choice to play again the next season, but if I got concussed one more time he was going to pull the plug," Naurto said.
Hockey players are a different breed, which is why after 3 concussions and two shoulder surgeries Naurato decided his senior season was worth the risk and was on the ice when the Huskies opened the year. He wouldn't even last as long as the previous season. It took only eight games for Naurato's career to end with his fourth concussion in three years.
"In one sense I was prepared for it, but it takes a long time to realize you're never going to play again," he said. "That doesn't really sink in at first."
It was the start of a rocky road back to health again.
"I was distant at first," he said. "I stayed home for the entirety of the month long winter break; I was away from the team and the room. Even when I first got back to school it was difficult to sit in the stands and watch practices. But the coaches and the players picked me up, they kept me involved."
A couple more moths passed before Naurato decided he wanted to become a part of the team again, and approached the coaching staff with the idea of joining them as a player-coach.
"They were extremely welcoming to the idea. They were excited for me to be a part of the team again
"The players all took to it. They were very respectful of me and what I was trying to do. I think that they were happy for me to be a part of the team again. It wasn't much of an oddity because I was an older guy to begin with and I had been in there skates, so I could relate to them."
Naurato had become part of a committed coaching staff at UConn, something that had not been prevalent during his years as a player. "It's difficult to have a coaching staff that changes every year. You would develop a relationship with that coach and at the end of the year they would leave. Then new coaches would come in and you would have to learn how they run the show. That doesn't take days or weeks, but more like months."
Naurato credits assistant coaches David Berard and Rich McKenna with igniting a culture change that has set UConn on a totally different path.
"Right from the time Coach Berard and Coach McKenna were hired you could sense the difference. When Coach Berard was hired he called every player on the team and talked to them for an hour, just so he could get to know them and vice-versa. I respected that a lot. ... They hold everyone accountable. For the way you act at the rink and away from it. In the way you hold yourself as a person, they raised the standard in that."
Naurato started his coaching career with just two games left to go in the 2011-12 regular season, when the Huskies were locked in a two game series with playoff positioning on the line.
"The first thing I noticed was coaching was way more stressful," he said. "When you're behind the bench, you're jumping up and down at every little thing. It wasn't like that when you were playing."
Even as a lifelong player, Naurato says he has gained a great amount of respect for what coaches do.
"As a player, you don't see the behind the scenes stuff that they do. There's a purpose to everything, everything they say has so much thought behind it. I always knew they worked hard, but I never knew they worked this hard."
The juxtaposition of the experiences as a player and a coach gives Naurato a unique perspective that he hopes he can use to help this year's team.
"I know how players feel and I know what the coaches are thinking. I'm not going to be a disciplinarian, I won't scream and call people out during practice, but I can help reinforce what a coach is saying and talk to players to make sure everyone is on the same page."
Naurato can't be sure what the future holds for him, but he's hopeful about it. Coming into his first full season as a member of the staff, Naurato thinks he'll be used in a utility role. Doing things like video work and being someone the players can come to and be comfortable talking to.
"I guess the best case scenario would be to end up as a Division I coach, it really doesn't matter where as long as it's the best place for me to succeed," he said.
For now, UConn's newest assistant coach can only hope that the players buy into the system, do things the right way and come together for an Atlantic Hockey championship and NCAA playoff berth.