First as a player, now as a head coach, Mark DeSantis’ star continues to rise in professional hockey.
The Rapid City Rush’s former team captain, player assistant and assistant coach made a splash in his first year as a head coach with the Fayetteville (N.C.) FireAntz of the Southern Professional Hockey League.
Starting with virtually a clean slate, DeSantis retooled the FireAntz into a winner after the 2007 champion franchise finished out of the playoff hunt the last two seasons.
DeSantis, the Antz’ fourth bench boss in three seasons, guided the team to the league’s regular-season title with a 35-18-3 record.
Fayetteville finished in a 73-all tie with the Louisiana Ice Gators, 34-17-5, but claimed the title because of the extra win.
“I only brought back four guys from the year before that stayed on our roster all year long. I had 14 new players that I brought in,” DeSantis said in an interview this week.
DeSantis did retain forward Bobby Reed for his fourth season with the Antz. Reed had his best year for Fayetteville with 18 goals and 45 total points.
Also anchoring were veteran goalie Marco Emond and veteran defenseman Andrew Smale (following DeSantis from Rapid City after two seasons with the Rush).
“Those three guys were the cornerstone, the key to our franchise. We brought in some good young talent and had a strong season,” he said.
Smale was named SPHL Defenseman of the Year. Forward Josh McQuade earned league MVP honors, pouring in 42 goals and 37 assists in his second season with Fayetteville.
DeSantis played 1,001 pro games in an 18-year career. He suited up for his last season in 2008-2009 in Rapid City.
DeSantis, crediting Rush general managers Jason Rent and Tim Hill, and ownership group Scott Mueller, Donny Ward and Barry Peterson for his opportunities, moved behind the bench for three years as an assistant to Rush head coach Joe Ferras after three years as a player-assistant to Ferras in Rapid City and Amarillo.
“Joe knows one thing and that’s to work hard and that’s how you put a good team together. I took what I learned from him and just copy-catted, obviously for my benefit and Fayetteville’s benefit. To go from a last-place team that never made the playoffs the last two years to winning the regular season championship is tremendous leaps and bounds,” DeSantis said.
The FireAntz’ season ended with a 2-0 loss to the Huntsville Havoc in the best-of-three opening round of the SPHL playoffs. Many Fayetteville players had to deal with a stomach virus but the Antz pushed the Havoc in both losses.
“We don’t like to make excuses,” DeSantis said. “We battled those two games and lost in overtime.”
DeSantis signed a one-year deal to coach the FireAntz. He said team owners are preparing an offer to keep him in Fayetteville, but upward mobility may be in the immediate future for the Brampton, Ontario native.
“I’m getting interest from other teams at another level,” DeSantis said.
What else can you expect from a rising star?