BY RANDY SCHULTZ –
For 24 years Larry Brzeczkowski was a fixture at Dwyer Arena on the campus of Niagara University. Anyone who dropped in at the arena would see Brzeczkowski.
You might pass him in one of the hallways or see him coming out of his office. You might have seen him up in the stands checking out final details before a hockey game.
But most likely you may have seen him on the ice driving the Zamboni and resurfacing the ice. And usually if you caught his eye he would have a smile or say hello. He may have been the rink manager but he was a great ambassador for Niagara and Purple Eagles hockey.
But above anything else, Brzeczkowski was head coach of Niagara’s Club Hockey Team, now a proud member of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (better known as the ACHA).
Unfortunately late last spring, in the early stages of the Pandemic, Brzeczkowski tendered his resignation to NU. He explained.
“The University was restructuring the arena and restructured my position as arena manager, but they still told me I could coach if I wanted,” recalled Brzeczkowski, a native of North Tonawanda, NY. “So I went home, talked to my wife, thought about it for about two weeks.
“I decided that it was time to step away from everything. I decided to take a year off and then throw my hat into the ring someplace else.”
Brzeczkowski’s decision came as a shock to many how knew him in the Western New York area. But the ones who were shocked the most were his many hockey players he had coached over the years at NU.
To those players he was more than just Larry their head coach. He was respected and revered by his players.
So much so that Brzeczkowski earned the nickname “Larry the Legend.”
And many of those same players decided to give their former coach a better sendoff than they felt NU gave him. So at the end of September, on a sunny, warm Saturday afternoon a gathering was held on the grounds of Ft. Niagara State Park to honor Brzeczkowski.
“I was honored and really taken back when this was told to me,” remembered Brzeczkowski, who resides with his wife in Pendleton, NY. “I really didn’t know what to say.
“Guys have come in from all over North America to be here for this. And that really makes me feel good.”
As a head coach, Brzeczkowski always had a strong message that he addressed with his players every year.
“Anybody I ever recruited one of the first things I told them that were not a feeder team for the Varsity, D1 hockey team we have,” said Coach Larry, who is a graduate of Buffalo State College, where he played on a Bengals team that won a ACHA National Championship and he won a scoring title all in 1993. “They were the Division I team and we were the Club team.
“I also told them that Club hockey would not pay their mortgage. You are here to get any education. So if a guy had to miss a practice because of a paper or a test, or had to miss a road trip for the same reasons, they were excused. I got it.”
Brzeczkowski accomplishments as a coach are legendary: from 2013-2017 he led NU to five straight NECHL Championship games, winning three of them; led his team to the National Tourney four times in seven years; last season won the team’s fourth Northeast Collegiate Hockey League Championship in seven years and went to their fifth ACHA National Tournament since 2013.
He finished his career with 387 victories, which ranks second only to U of Rhode Island head coach, Joe Augustine on the all-time win list. On top of that he won coach of the year honors four times during his NU coaching career.
The former player who may have been the most instrumental in putting this gathering of former players together to honor their former coach was Clay Miller. It was done more for what Brzeczkowski did off the ice, rather than on it.
“Larry was a mentor to many of us,” said Miller, who grew up in Orchard Park, NY and today resides in Lewiston, NY. “Not a mentor in the traditional sense, but one like Larry where you could go into his office and talk about anything you wanted to talk about.
“It was easy for the guys who played on the team, but were already planning on coming to NU. But it was the guys that Larry recruited that he felt a responsibility to. Not only to them, but their parents as well because he promised everyone a good experience at NU.
“And Larry always had the players’ backs. If some player got in trouble and possibly get kicked out, he would take responsibility for them and ask the college to give them a second chance. And he made sure that they didn’t mess up again.
“Larry was the kind of guy who would help any player out on his team. Helped out met from giving them money, gave them jobs, gave them rides home, go and help get cars started in the winter and even towed several out that got stuck in bad weather.
“I don’t think there is a person who has ever worked at the NU campus over their 160-year history that has given as much time, had impact conversations with and stayed in touch with people than Larry has.
“The players have stayed in touch with him as well. He’s been invited to more weddings and even was a part of a wedding party for a former player. He’s been to funerals of former players’ family members, helped players get jobs, given tons of advice, helped former players through good times and bad.
“He wasn’t a professor. He was the rink manager and coach of the club hockey team. And I know that Larry isn’t comfortable with this gathering. He’s a humble guy who doesn’t like publicity. But I think this turnout of former players says it all about Larry.”
Another former player who shared his memories of Brzeczkowski was Dave Messbauer.
“I was on the first team that Larry coached at NU,” recalled Messbauer, who resides and works in nearby Rochester, NY. “We had gone through two coaches in just my first season. Larry came in, took the reigns and never looked back.
“He was a father figure to many of our players. Larry took all of us in as kids. He was a dad to all of us. We can’t thank him enough for what he taught us about how to be men, how to be respectful and how to work hard.
“He reigned us in a bit and taught us about life.”
Messbauer, the captain of that first NU team Brzeczkowski coached, recalled that first season.
“I think we had only about 18 players that tried out for the team that first year,” said Messbauer. “I think there were most game where we dressed only 13 players. I remember one game with had nine skaters and goalie. Out we went and played hockey.
“In that first year we had many games where just went to some of these schools and just got creamed, maybe 18 to 1. We were just getting beat up. But Larry was like a breath of fresh air. Players bought into his system and that’s when the program began to grow.
“And today, this is a team that is known across the Nation. All thanks to Larry.”
Messbauer also brought up one other aspect regarding Coach Larry.
“He brought a family aspect into our team,” stated Messbauer. “Larry would hang out with us in the dining hall when we were eating.
“And through it all, Larry would always look at the positive side of things. Take a beating in a game and Larry would say ‘we will get them next time because we now know what to expect from them. We will give them a fight next time.
“And things did start to turn around because we bought into his system.
“Throughout it all, right to this day, Larry hasn’t changed. He’s the same guy today that he was 24 years ago.”
Maybe Messbauer summed up Brzeczkowski the best.
“He’s still a friend to me, Clay and many of us,” concluded the former Captain of Coach Larry’s first year. “Many of us still call him for advice. Good or bad situations, he’s still there for us.
“He’s the man.”
(Photo by Janet Schultz)