When Eric Lang took to the podium on April 19, 2016, to be introduced as the ninth head coach of the men’s ice hockey program at American International College, it was the culmination of a career that had come full circle. Lang, a four-year letter winner and two-year captain with the Yellow Jackets from 1994-98, returned to AIC once to begin his coaching career as a graduate assistant from 2006-08. This second homecoming, though, was even more significant. It is, of course, an opportunity to give back to a program and a college that helped shape him into the person he is today. But for Lang, it’s also about more than what’s going to happen on the ice—it’s about building a program that will provide his players with the same experiences he received during his student-athlete days at AIC.
“Coaching provides you that unique opportunity to impact lives, teach, and lead,” said Lang. “It allows me to help my players remain in that competitive balance that will help them throughout their lives. That AIC hockey jersey is sacred to me. I feel an obligation to our alumni to provide them with a product that’s going to make them proud. I want our players to have that same feeling.”
This is the way Lang sees AIC, and the way he plans to sell AIC to his recruits. It’s a passion that can only be born from personal experience, and it’s the first building block in creating a team—a family—that Lang sees as the future of AIC men’s hockey.
THE LONG JOURNEY BACK HOME
Lang’s story begins back in his blue-collar neighborhood in the Bronx, N.Y. As the youngest child of Roger and Patricia Lang, he grew up in a community where everyone looked after and supported one another, values that he’s carried with him throughout both his playing days and coaching career. He began ice skating at age 5 and playing hockey competitively at 14, always with the support of his father and grandfather, who would drive him to every practice and would never miss a game.
That game wasn’t always hockey. In fact, growing up just a few miles from Yankee Stadium, Lang was an avid baseball player and was the starting shortstop on his high school team at Mount Saint Michael Academy. But hockey always remained his true passion, and would be the sport that led him to American International College.
Yet, when you speak to Lang about his time at AIC, hockey is only a part of what made the school such a special place for him. He remembers choosing AIC for its hands-on education, smaller class size, and a learning environment that allowed him to ask questions and get extra help. He thinks back on the professors he had, such as Bruce Johnson and Gregory Schmutte, and appreciates both their approachability and how they were always able to get the most out of their students. He also recalls conversations with longtime men’s hockey head coach Gary Wright about the importance of teamwork and the intricacies of leadership.
That last point hits close to home for Lang, who acknowledges the challenges of taking over for the coach who recruited him, hired him as an assistant, and whom he counts as one of his biggest mentors. Yet it’s not a situation that Lang shies away from when speaking of the past and future of AIC hockey.
“For me moving forward, part of the responsibility is making sure I make [Coach Wright] proud. This is a guy who, over 32 years, gave every ounce of himself to this institution.” It’s that same level of commitment that Lang wants to bring to his own head coaching tenure. “I believe the investment in where you went to school and played is on a completely different level. The one thing that I will tell you—you can’t find another person in the world that wants to be the coach at AIC more than I do.”
Perhaps the most significant memory Lang has from his undergraduate days, however, actually occurred far from AIC’s campus—on a spring break trip to South Beach, Florida during his senior year. That was where he met his wife, Christine. As fate would have it, the two lived in the same neighborhood in the Bronx—less than a mile from one another—and they’ve been together ever since, including stops at Purchase, New York and West Point, New York.
At the former, Lang was both women’s and men’s head hockey coach at Manhattanville College from 2008- 12; at the latter, he was an assistant at Army (a team in the same conference as AIC) for the past four seasons, where he advanced from volunteer assistant during the 2012-13 campaign to lead assistant since 2013.
It’s a lot of experience and sacrifice over a 10-year stretch, a point that Lang emphasized as Christine and the couple’s three children—Addison (6), E.J. (4), and Reese (2)—watched his formal introduction at the Henry A. Butova Gymnasium.
“Being the wife of a hockey coach is not a great deal. We spend 50-75 nights a year in a hotel. My family gives up every Friday and Saturday from October to March. On Sunday, when it’s supposed to be a family day, we’re just thinking of how we can make this team better on Monday. My wife has done it so unselfishly.
These same sentiments—family support, teamwork—are ones that Lang echoes when speaking about the program he’s preparing to build: “It’s about working together. Together, our staff and players will embrace the overall mission of AIC. We’ll recognize the responsibility we share to represent our institution, program, and community, on and off the ice, with class, enthusiasm, and excellence.”
A NEW ERA BEGINS
Though Lang has only been at his position for a few months, it’s been a dynamic time for both his family and for AIC hockey. The newest member of the Lang household, his son Drew, was welcomed into the world just a few short weeks after Lang became head coach. And as his family has expanded, so has his team. Lang’s current recruiting class, which currently stands at 11, includes players from the prominent United States Hockey League (USHL) and the British Columbia Hockey League (BCHL). The class also includes three recruits from Sweden and two more from the Czech Republic—a fact that embodies the values of a school that was founded as a multi-cultural institution.
He hasn’t always had such opportunities. While at Army, Lang worked with a limited recruiting pool due to the fact that he could only recruit American players with high GPA’s who were willing to be sent overseas, if necessary. Despite this, he helped create a string of contending teams and learned from working within Army’s restrictions.
“One thing my time at West Point taught me was to know the entire player pool, all of these players we have seen multiple times,” said Lang. “I feel confident that the players we’ve brought in here over the last month can be cornerstone pieces to building a winning program. At the end of the day, we have a lot of work to do and we are not in a position to turn down a good player that can help our program, as long as they fit our criteria.”
What is that criteria? For Lang, it involves identifying players with the right mix of high character, hard skill level, and extreme competitiveness, qualities that will be the bedrock of the culture he plans to create.
“The blueprint for us entails raising our expectation level and also our belief system. We will also have an unbelievable focus on our team culture. When your team culture is great, you have high buy-in; when you have high buy-in, you win more hockey games. We believe if our culture is great, it will attract high-level, elite talent. Ultimately, we want AIC to become a destination point for student-athletes wanting a great hands-on education and to play a top level of Division I ice hockey.”
With the hard work of off-season recruiting almost done, it’s time for Lang to begin turning that blueprint into his first AIC head coaching campaign. His first test won’t be an easy one, as AIC opens their 2016-17 season against 2014 National Champion Union College on Friday, October 14, but Lang insists that his team will never back down from a challenge.
“First and foremost, we have to create a winning environment. We have to raise the bar, we have to raise expectations, we have to plan on doing everything a little better than we’ve done before. I’m excited to get this thing going.”
Let the Ice Age commence!
-By John Hanna