As the Southern Professional Hockey League’s regular season came to an end, league executive Doug Price attended a Knoxville Ice Bears game and chatted with head coach Mike Craigen.
The conversation quickly turned to Augusta and its second-year coach Brad Ralph. The respect toward the reigning SPHL Coach of the Year was clear.
“Brad Ralph’s just done a tremendous job,” Price said. “We were both just talking about how he’s got a lot of respect around the league, and he’s a good, young coach so we’re proud to have him here.”
The reputation Ralph’s built in just his second year as a head coach, combined with his team’s success, puts him as a favorite to repeat when the league announces this season’s coach of the year award on Tuesday.
Ralph earned the award last season after leading the expansion RiverHawks to the President’s Cup finals. He brought Augusta its first minor league hockey championship of any kind earlier this year when the RiverHawks clinched first place in the regular season to win the William B. Coffey Trophy.
But what most impresses league executives and coaches is the way Ralph has found a way to keep his team winning despite facing major roster changes over the past two seasons.
“He seems to find players everywhere,” Price said. “He’ll have two guys go up, and then he’ll just go get two guys better coming in.”
A league-leading 16 players were loaned out to either the ECHL or Central Hockey League in Augusta’s first season, but Ralph was able to secure midseason free agent signings that helped fill the gap, including Jim Gehring, who provided a spark in last season’s playoffs and blossomed into an All-SPHL first team forward this year.
Ralph proved his hockey connections and ability to find free agents was no fluke this season. He once again lost several players to the ECHL and CHL, but the midseason signings of Tyler Howe and Brendan Taylor helped fill the void. Ralph also convinced former players Neil Graham and Egor Mironov to return to Augusta in the middle of the season after successful first-year stints.
Ralph, who lives in Columbia, hasn’t spoken publicly about his future with Augusta. He originally signed a two-year contract with the team, and RiverHawks owner Bob Kerzner said last year that he was pleased Ralph was going to honor the full two years instead of leaving for another coaching job.
Kerzner hasn’t commented on Ralph’s future but said he plans to make some staffing changes after the playoffs.