When Toby Harris steps on the bench, he always knows he’s right where he was meant to be.
After all, Harris has been a certified coach since 2004 and Head Coach of the Jersey Hitmen since 2007.
While other offers have come and gone, he’s been thrilled to be part of one of the foremost junior programs in the United States. The Hitmen are happy to have him, not only for the hundreds of players who have gone on to college and pro hockey, but also for the more than 500 wins for the Hitmen’s top team with him behind the bench. He reached the No. 500 milestone on Jan. 11 against the Utica Jr. Comets.
“I always wanted to give back because of what hockey did for me - playing for Boston College, playing in Russia and [Germany],” said Harris. “With my playing career over, I wanted to get into giving back. I’ve been really lucky with the people I’ve gotten involved with and the players coming through our program.”
Harris, a native of Kingston, Mass., retired from pro hockey in 2002, after earning his first coaching experience as a player/assistant coach with the Amarillo Rattlers in the Central Hockey League. When he moved back to the East Coast, he talked with his former Boston College roommate Peter Masters, current part-owner of the Boston Junior Bruins.
At the time, the Masters family owned multiple teams in New England and New York, and wanted to start one in New Jersey as well. With that, the Jersey Hitmen were born.
“He asked me, ‘Can you build a team in New Jersey?’ So we embarked on that. Jim Hunt [current President and Asst. Coach of the Hitmen] was our first Head Coach from 2004 to 2007,” said Harris. “When Jim became heavily involved with USA Hockey and the creation and launching of the American Development Model, I became head coach.”
Around this time, Bobby Reiss bought the team and moved them from two different northern New Jersey rinks to the Ice Vault in Wayne, N.J., which has been home to the Hitmen ever since.
The first year in the Ice Vault was also Harris’ first year as head coach, and the Hitmen captured the Dineen Cup, then emblematic of the Eastern Junior Hockey League playoff championship.
“In our first three years [2004-07] we were always around .500, but we were gaining an identity,” said Harris. “We won the league in 2008 in our fourth year of existence. Jim and I, and Bobby, have done a great job of finding the right players for this team and putting them in the right spots. Culture breeds success.”
Every player who has worn the Blue And White have made the Hitmen the organization it is today, one that is competitive at all levels. There are some who played for Harris’ top team, however, who have stood out.
“It goes back to Mark Armstrong, who was later a captain for St. Lawrence, and Jeremy Langlois, who played at Quinnipiac and in the AHL. Those are the guys who [were on the first championship team] and helped us move forward,” said Harris.
“The seasons that stood out for me were when we had Chris Funkey [2012-15], a kid from the Midwest who had a tough go of it and had bounced around junior hockey. With him on board, we won two championships,” said Harris. “Also, coaching the Clifton brothers - Connor [now with the Boston Bruins] and Tim [Quinnipiac/AHL], they also helped us win back-to-back titles.
“Mike Laffin [Holy Cross] is another guy we won with who set the scoring record with 91 points,” said Harris. “He was a kid who was like a Mickey Burns, who has been here two years and is five points away from 100 in his career halfway through his second year. We’ve been blessed and lucky to have guys these commit to play here.”
He’s been grateful to several individuals over the years for helping him to get here, but especially to those he sees everyday - in-season or off-season.
“I want to thank the Masters family for making this happen; Bobby Reiss for allowing me to coach as long as I have; and Jim Hunt for being a mentor for 16 years, and really a special person in this process,” said Harris. “Mostly, I want to thank my wife and children who have allowed me to do this. No matter what I do on the road, I always come home to a smile and a hug.”