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Assistant coach Nathan De La Torre poses for a portrait after practice on January 31, 2017. De La Torre has transitioned from being a player to a coach for the same team.

Hockey: Player-turned-coach learns to balance player friendships with authority role

Nathan De La Torre doesn’t wear a jersey on game nights anymore. At practice, he’s blowing whistles and leading drills instead of taking orders.

De La Torre, a 25-year-old from Pittsburgh, has spent nearly a quarter of his life with the Bobcats. After four years of dekes, goals and a lot of wins as a forward, he traded in his No. 10 sweater for a tracksuit and is now a second-year graduate assistant coach with the Bobcats.

As a recent graduate, De La Torre coaches several players he once shared a locker room with. Two current forwards, Matt Hartman and Patrick Spellacy, lived with De La Torre two years ago as his teammates.

Now that he’s a coach, a switch has flipped. Guys he played with, lived with and joked with have become players he instructs and has authority over.

“I think with the older guys it can be awkward sometimes, just because they’re some of my best friends,” De La Torre said. “But I think my delivery to them is a little different than, say, how I would deliver (a message) to a young player or someone that I didn’t play with.”

Some of the current juniors and seniors who played with De La Torre refer to him by his nickname, Zorro. When he takes part in end-of-practice shootouts, they shoot pucks at his feet in a light-hearted way to try to throw him off.

But De La Torre’s group of former teammates is shrinking. In his first year coaching, 20 of the players had been his teammates the year before. This year, just 12 players know him from his playing days.

The fewer familiar faces, the easier it is for him to be a coach.

“I think the first year, you know, it’s always a little different from being a player to a coach and still knowing 70 percent of the guys on the team,” Spellacy said. “I think this year he’s taken more of a leadership role, being more vocal, getting on guys’ case and stuff like that.”

Ohio coach Sean Hogan notices a difference, too. De La Torre was quiet last year, he said, and now he’s gaining confidence when telling players what to do.

An assistant captain his senior season, De La Torre was a soft-spoken team leader. Even as a coach, he doesn’t get his message across by yelling. That’s not his style.

“Honestly, I’ve never seen him mad at anyone,” sophomore defenseman Tom Pokorney, who’s only known De La Torre as a coach, said. “He’s just a cool, calm, collected guy all the time.”

After completing his undergraduate degree in sport management, De La Torre weighed his options for his next step.

He initially planned on attending Manhattanville College, which is just outside New York City, to pursue a master’s degree in sports management. But when he was accepted to Ohio’s coaching education graduate program, he chose to stay put and diversify his education.

Because of his late decision, De La Torre couldn’t start as a graduate assistant coach with the Bobcats right away. Instead, he spent the fall 2015 semester as a hockey operations volunteer, where he exchanged video with opponents, prepared footage for film sessions and helped with travel arrangements.

In the spring, with one assistant spot open, Hogan gave it to De La Torre. The decision came down to trust, Hogan said. Familiarity with the program certainly helped, too.

“He understood the system,” Hogan said. “I think when you understand what we want done and you also do it (as a player), that makes it easy for coaching.”

De La Torre is on track to graduate in May. Then, the job hunt begins. He plans on attending the American Hockey Coaches Association Convention in late April in Naples, Florida, where he hopes to make connections and possibly land a job.

For now, with about a month-and-a-half left in his final season with Ohio, De La Torre is focused on helping the No. 3 Bobcats go as deep into the playoffs as possible.

No longer a player, he’s settled into his role as a coach, and the awkwardness with his friends still on the team isn’t what it was before. Besides, they’re all working toward the same goal.

“Obviously, when we come to the games, it’s hockey first and friendship later,” Spellacy said. 

That isn’t out of spite, but rather an example of the respect the players have for De La Torre. 

“You look at him a little differently just being a coach,” Spellacy said. 


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