400 wins, countless friendships

Devils hockey coach Meredith discusses career

OBSERVER File Photo Jeff Meredith (left) poses with his son, Mike, in March. Jeff Meredith won his 400th game as Fredonia Blue Devils hockey coach Saturday. As seen in this picture, he is also an assistant coach for the Dunkirk Fredonia Steelers high school varsity hockey team; Mike starred on last season’s state champion team.

Jeff Meredith now has 400 wins as Fredonia State hockey coach after Saturday’s win over Plattsburgh. But it’s the connections and friendships he and his players and assistants have made over his 30 years as coach that stand out to him the most.

“Whether it’s someone in business, or an athletic team, you want to have great people before you do anything,” Meredith said Monday in an interview with the OBSERVER. “We tell recruits it’s not enough to come to Fredonia and come to school for four years and play hockey. The extra part of that is you have to be so connected to our program, and when you leave, you always have to stay connected. That’s proportionate to the experience they have while here, and that experience is important to us. I’m proud to say our alumni are really connected.

“At the end of the day, it’s the relationships you developed and the friendships you have that you will remember forever,” he added.

One of the first relationships Meredith made that got him on the road to becoming Blue Devils coach came about while he was a player himself.

“I played college hockey for a guy named E.J. McGuire at Brockport, who was inducted into the Greater Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame posthumously this November,” he said. “Playing for him and watching him, he was instrumental in my life in helping me figure out what I wanted to do. He was the first one to expose me to coaching. He directed me to grad school, and ultimately a graduate assistant (coaching) position, at Ohio State.

“He was always looking after players. I learned that from him early on,” Meredith added.

After a one-year stint as an assistant at Brockport, Meredith spent four years in the mid 1980s as an assistant at Hamilton College, where he worked under head coach Phil Grady.

“I thought, ‘if I want to get into coaching, I better get with someone who knows what they’re doing.’ The four years with Phil Grady were amazing,” he said. “Recruiting, dealing with people, discipline… a lot of the things we do today, and the successes we’ve had, are attributable to things I picked up working with Phil.”

In 1988, the Fredonia athletics department chairman at the time, Everett Phillips, recruited him to take over the school’s hockey program — only a year old at the time.

“When I came to visit, I fell in love with the campus,” Meredith said. “It was gorgeous, the people were friendly. You could see that it had amazing potential.

“Taking the program over at that point… the formula was the same then as it is now. It’s to recruit great people who are really, really hard workers and tremendous teammates.”

The games that stand out the most to him are the Blue Devils’ 1994 and 1995 appearances in the NAPA Division IIWI Frozen Four. But what he really cherishes and appreciates is the loyalty of alumni to the Fredonia hockey program.

“Last week on Wednesday, we Skyped one of our alumni in Norway… On Thursday, we had another alum on his way back to Ohio stop in and visit,” Meredith said. “On Friday I was in the office and one of our Michigan alumni was on campus, and he worked out in the fitness center and came to my office and we talked for 45 minutes. Later that day we had three other alums and they were outside our room talking to us.”

“Those things mean so much,” he continued. “You know, you coach these guys for four years — they’re married, successful, have growing families — to have them come back and to share in that, I’m proud of that. Obviously they had a great experience while they were here.”

It’s not just the relationships with players that Meredith cherishes.

“I’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of great assistant coaches over the years,” he said. “Every one has left their imprint at Fredonia hockey-wise and connecting with student athletes. …They’ve been able to kind of grow and find their own head coaching positions.”

His newest assistant coach, Scott Bradley, played for him and wanted to work with him after gaining a bit of experience with the Nichols School and Buffalo Junior Sabres.

“It was more a matter of wanting to be around the program again. It’s something that he essentially built,” Bradley said.

“I don’t know how many even NHL coaches have been coaching since the 1980s,” he added. “It takes a lot to adapt to different players… you have different generations and he’s been able to adapt to all of them. It’s an opportunity to learn from him about how to deal with different situations.”

At the end of the 400th win, he congratulated Meredith. “His comment was what a big win it was for his team to beat Plattsburgh,” he said. “I think the praise is kind of awkward for him.”

“I can speak on behalf of everybody from the early 2000s until now, a lot of people were excited to see him get there (to 400 wins),” Bradley concluded. “He has changed a lot of people’s lives… He gave me a chance at Fredonia (as a player) when no one else would. Plattsburgh, Oswego didn’t want me but Coach gave me a chance without really seeing me play.”

In turn, Meredith is grateful for the assistance he’s received in his own career.

“There’s always been some great people that helped me get places,” he said. “One of the things we want to do is help players get to the next place in life they want to go. Most of the times it’s just connecting people… At 59, I like doing that a lot more than I did at 29. I appreciate that more, maybe.”