Forbes using NHL experience to lead GV club hockey
As long-time Hockey Night in Canada host Don Cherry would put it, Mike Forbes is “just a good ol’ Ontario boy.”
Currently in his fifth year as the Division II men’s club hockey head coach at Grand Valley State University, Forbes laced up the skates for the first time when he was three-years-old at home in the town of Georgetown in Ontario, Canada. Those skates (and maybe a few more pairs) saw Forbes grow from a greenhorn into an accomplished player, and then from an accomplished player to an even more gifted coach.
Forbes began playing competitive hockey at the age of six upon joining his first travel team. Growing up a Toronto Maple Leafs fan, Forbes got to see professional success first hand throughout his childhood. The Leafs won back-to-back-to-back Stanley Cups from 1961 to 1963, and when his own dreams of success fell short, a young Forbes was crestfallen.
“My mother tells me that, even as a six-year-old, when we’d lose, I’d cry all the way home,” he said.
As Forbes grew, he never escaped the childhood fantasy of one day being a professional hockey player. His efforts culminated in 1977 when he was selected 52nd overall by the Boston Bruins in the NHL Amateur Draft. After a couple of seasons between the Bruins and their AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans, Forbes was traded to the Edmonton Oilers. While with the Oilers, Forbes threw hip checks in practice, defending against the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Mark Messier. In 1981, Forbes scored the lone NHL goal of his career—assisted by Gretzky, himself.
After the 1981-82 season, Forbes dropped out of the NHL, although he continued to play professionally in the Continental Hockey League and the International Hockey League. Once Forbes packed up his playing career, he knew he had a desire to stay close with the sport, so he started coaching.
In 2003, Forbes took over as head coach at Grand Haven High School. The Buccaneers had just closed the books on a 4-20 season when Forbes was brought in with the hopes that he could turn the program around.
He did just that. Grand Haven won back-to-back conference championships in 2004 and 2005, and by the time his tenure came to a close in 2007, he had amassed a 59-39-4 record.
Forbes signed on as an assistant coach with the Lakers in 2007. He stepped down in 2009, but was brought back to the program due to the support of his former players—some of whom he had been with since his days at Grand Haven.
Since Forbes has taken control of the program at GVSU, it has performed at a higher level than ever before. The Lakers have made the national tournament every year under Forbes, including the 2011-2012 season in which GVSU rattled off 24 consecutive wins—a program record. The Lakers have been undeniably successful under Forbes’ control, but why?
“It’s all a tribute to the way he coaches us,” senior assistant captain Chad Wilhelm said. “He’s tough on us, but he’s always good to joke around with. He’s really knowledgeable with the game, and the program has done a complete 180 from where it was since he picked it up.”
One of Forbes’ favorite quotes, Wilhelm said, is “We before me.” Forbes stresses a team-first mentality, advertising unselfish play as a trait of every successful team he’s been a part of throughout his career.
During the Grand Rapids Griffins (AHL) run at the Calder Cup in the last season, Forbes was given the opportunity to sit in on practices courtesy of Griffins’ coach Jeff Blashill. There, Forbes saw a winning formula that shared themes similar to those he saw in his playing career.
Blashill’s mentality was to recognize the value of each player rather than turning his back on those who didn’t bring as much to the table as others. Forbes noted the effects—a brighter locker room, crisper passes, and an overall joy for the game that comes hand-in-hand with high team morale.
Now, when he is between the benches, Forbes pushes this philosophy. He stresses to his players the importance of an unselfish approach to the game—a mindset he admits is tough for some college players to grasp.
“I think teams win for a lot of reasons, and I think ours is attributed to the culture that we try to build here,” Forbes said. “I ask guys to do things for the betterment of the team that might not be in their best interests, and that’s really hard, and you have to be really mature to accept that. I know when I was their age I didn’t accept it.”
The 2013-2014 season started off lacking the luster of previous years for Laker hockey. It wasn’t until Nov. 9 that the team broke the .500 mark, improving the record to 5-4-1 in the midst of a win streak that has yet to be stopped. GVSU has won five consecutive games—a streak Forbes attributed to advances in leadership and team-centric play.
The love for hockey will always be there for Forbes. It came when he tugged on his first pair of skates. The desire to be successful on the ice will never go away. The way his Lakers have been playing recently, he might whet that desire yet again this year. Regardless of the number individual climaxes reached, trophies won or goals scored this year, one thing has become apparent—the Lakers have a good man for the job.
“(There are) not many of us, if any are aiming to pursue hockey after our days at GV, but his credentials definitely allow for him to gain the respect of everyone in the room,” said senior captian CJ Pobur, who has played under Forbes for five years. “He has been through a lot and seen a lot at all different levels of the game, and all of that knowledge and experience only assists us in becoming better hockey players and better people.”