AUSTIN— Chris Tok knows the Xs and Os, the little tricks that can turn an average player into a good player or a good player into a great player.
In his four seasons as a head coach, Tok has learned how to push his team's buttons and, more importantly, when to push them.
He is the main architect of an Austin Bruins franchise that has gone from scratch to the verge of a North American Hockey League championship in just four seasons. Austin's 4-3 overtime victory at Topeka, Kan., on Sunday lifted it into the NAHL Robertson Cup finals, a best-of-3 series set for Friday-Sunday at the Fairbanks (Alaska) Ice Dogs.
"Last year's team probably had more talent," Tok said of the 2012-13 team that won the franchise's first regular-season Central Division championship. "This year's team has gotten the bounces at the right time and has a little more grit.
"Even just looking at how the game ended in Topeka, getting scored on on a power play late in the third, but being able to overcome that and win the game in overtime on a power play. That's the adversity this group has learned to overcome. Whatever fashion it slaps you in the face, you have to stare it down and make sure you overcome it."
That's been how Tok has always handled whatever has come his way.
Just months after graduating from Greenway High School in Coleraine, where he was a star defenseman, the Pittsburgh Penguins selected him in the 10th round of the 1991 NHL Draft. He put up 36 points and accumulated 302 penalty minutes in four seasons at the University of Wisconsin, playing on four teams that reached the NCAA tournament.
He then played six seasons in the minor leagues, topping out in the American Hockey League, where he played in 48 games for the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in the 1997-98 season.
All of those experiences were laying the foundation for a coaching career that almost certainly has not topped out.
"The hockey knowledge that that man has, I've never been around anybody like that," said Jamie Huffman, in his third season as Tok's top assistant coach. "I'm not saying that because I work for him, I call him names to his face sometimes, but the things he knows, the Xs and Os, the recruiting and scouting ability, I'm 100 percent a better coach than when I came here.
"I came here to work for Chris Tok. I've chosen to stay here to work for Chris Tok. I've had offers to leave and I've chosen to stay."
Better players, better people
Tok and his coaching staff, which includes assistants Huffman, Keaton Wolf and goalies coach Elliott Hogue, don't throw a bunch of sunshine and roses at players they recruit. They have a straightforward message: Work hard and we'll do everything we can to make you a better player and a better person.
"I knew they are a good staff, but didn't know they'd be this good," said first-year Bruins forward Eli May. "It's a really great group of coaches. They've worked with me on a lot of little things. I tend to overthink a lot of things and they've helped me not do that as much. They told me to keep my game simple and everything will fall into place."
Tok's first stop as a coach was a good one. He was the associate head coach for the Waterloo Black Hawks from 2002-06, winning a national championship while working with head coach P.K. O'Handley in the 2003-04 season.
From there, he spent four seasons in Houghton, Mich., as an assistant coach under Jamie Russell at Division I Michigan Tech University.
He left Houghton to start the Bruins from scratch, less than a year after an NAHL team in Albert Lea folded.
"I wouldn't say starting a franchise from scratch was on the list of things I wanted to do," Tok said. "More so, I was given the opportunity to be a head coach. I'd been an associate coach or assistant coach in the USHL, then in college hockey. It's trying to re-climb the ladder, I guess, starting out as a head coach in this league. It happened to be a start-up franchise and it has been a lot of fun to build this into what it is today."
'Grumposaurus' isn't so bad
After Rochester Century graduate Drew Anderson scored the series-winning goal in overtime at Topeka late Sunday night, Huffman and Wolf made Tok pose for a coaches-only picture. It took some begging and convincing, then finally the two assistants ordering Tok to join them for the photo.
Wolf quickly posted the proof on social media.
"He didn't want it right away," Wolf said, "but we told him he owed it to Huffman and I for working with him over the years — we call him Grumposaurus — he finally took the picture and even smiled in it. We put it on Facebook and started getting comments from former players who said 'the boss man is smiling, you might want to frame that.'"
The Bruins have sent 14 players on to Division I colleges and more on to Division III schools in their short lifespan. And while every player who has passed through the Bruins locker room at Riverside Arena has met 'Grumposaurus,' it's safe to say they all have left with a good amount of respect for Tok as a coach and a person.
""It was a great two years there. I learned a lot, especially how to practice and prepare myself every day," said defenseman Christian Folin, who played for the Bruins from 2010-12, then spent two seasons at UMass-Lowell before becoming the first ex-Bruin to sign a pro contract when he signed with the Minnesota Wild last month."It was huge for my personal development. I wasn't acclimated to (living here) or the North American game, it's so much more of a north-south game, but he helped me work every day to get better."
Tok leans heavily on his captains to help younger players get through the ups and downs of a season that can last more than eight months and 70 games. Defenseman Josh Bretner is filling that role this season.
"He gets on us because he knows what we can be," Bretner said. "When we're not living up to our potential in practice, or even off the ice in just every-day things, he'll get on you because he cares. We know, when he yells, it comes from the heart, he's trying to help us be our best."
Tok and his family— wife Melissa and 10-year-old son Easton— have settled in nicely in Austin. And after building a franchise into a national title contender, it will take the exactly right job to lure the Toks away from the town that has become home.
"You want to re-climb the ladder," Tok said. "Here I get to spend much more time with my family than I did when I was coaching in college. My son is a very impressionable 10-year-old, so I get to be around him and be around my wife; we had talked about different jobs, but it would be a huge adjustment for the amount of time I'd spend away from home. This stop has allowed me to be at home a lot more than I had been in my previous 10 years of coaching.
"Yeah, you want to move up, but you also have to make sure you take care of your family and do right by your family."