VAUGHAN, Ont. – Legendary college basketball coach Tubby Smith once said that his favourite thing about the job was teaching.
Jason Nobili does both.
Over a career that has taken him from Ontario Junior A to the professional ranks to the growing frontier of the North American hockey world and back, the 42-year-old has settled into a role that allows him to both remain behind the bench and begin life as a full-time teacher.
“When you’ve been coaching as long as I have, teaching has always been part of that fabric.”
It was supposed to be a way to get experience.
Nobili was contemplating going to teaching college after his undergrad degree at York finished up, and he wanted to get some reps working with young kids.
“I started coaching with the Toronto Red Wings minor hockey organization,” Nobili said, at an Etobicoke restaurant. “An old coach of mine, Bill Bowden was working with the [now-defunct Junior A] Ajax Axemen, and he brought me on as an assistant, then as head coach.”
“I was real keen, a real student of the game.”
His involvement with Ontario’s U-17 team got him contacts in the Ontario Hockey League, and he began to do local scouting for the Sudbury Wolves. When head scout Larry Stern moved to join the Owen Sound Attack, Nobili moved with him, joining the team as an assistant coach in 2000.
“The opportunity to work with the top junior players in the country allowed me to grow as a coach,” Nobili said.
He worked with eight future NHLers in Owen Sound, including Mark Giordano, Bobby Ryan and Joel Ward. Nobili also got to work with a man who would guide him into professional coaching.
“One of my major influences in coaching I worked with was [current Ontario Reign head coach] Mike Stothers. He had just come to Owen Sound from Philadelphia and I was able to watch and learn. He helped me take coaching into that pro realm.”
Late in the summer of 2004, in the midst of the NHL lockout, Nobili got the chance to make the leap. The Bolton, Ont. native followed the snowbird’s path and headed south, joining the staff of the ECHL’s Florida Everblades under ex-Canadiens defenceman and current Bakersfield Condors coach Gerry Fleming.
“I had a chance to take on a bigger role as an associate coach and we had a lot of success there,” Nobili said. “Winning became something I learned to expect.”
What he didn’t expect was how much hockey culture had permeated the Southwest Florida landscape.
“I was really surprised. Tampa Bay had just won the Stanley Cup that year, and a lot of that momentum helped both youth and adult hockey grow in the area.” Nobili said.
“Minor league hockey was huge down there. You see the results now with guys like [Arizona Coyotes prospect] Jacob Chychrun coming up from that pocket.”
After four years, Nobili was given the chance to be a pro head coach, this time with the rival Reading Royals. However, he would only last 40 games before being replaced mid-season.
“I think every experience is an opportunity to learn. There were factors that led us to have a tough season, we were leading the league in [AHL] call-ups at the time. But there were great people who I worked with in the Maple Leafs organization. But at the end of the day, we struggled on ice and there are no hard feelings.”
After that, Nobili returned to Ontario, leading the Junior A Oakville Blades to the OHA championship the next year. It was a good bounce-back for the coach and while working on his teaching degree he eventually got back into the OHL with the Mississauga Steelheads as assistant coach and assistant general manager. He spent three seasons with the local team before leaving after the 2014-15 season.
“I got to do some teaching as well while working with Mississauga, so that was a funny balance, but it was good for my family.”
Nobili started working in the Toronto Catholic District School System as a full-time teacher last year. This fall, an opportunity came up that allowed him to continue his coaching career.
“We wanted an established coach to join our organization at the midget level,” Titans general manager Eric Cella said at the start of the season. “Jason was available and amenable to what we wanted to do, and it turned out to be a great fit for both parties.”
Not only was Nobili able to continue his coaching career with the Titans, but for the first time he got to share a bench with his brother Steve, who credits Jason as an influence on his own career.
“I’m able to learn a lot from him,” Steve said, while sharing a plate of wings with his brother and team manager Rocco Lisozzi. “Obviously he’s older, so I’ve always had to look up to him. To be able to work and coach with him has been a great experience and it brings our family closer together.”
“It’s kind of surreal coaching with him,” Jason said. “I watched him play and even coached him for a little bit. He’s gotten into teaching as well and he started coaching a couple years back. I think he wants to be a head coach at some point, but he’s trying to pick my brain and steal some stuff. But that’s OK!”
The players have certainly appreciated what Jason Nobili brings as a coach.
“Jason isn’t the kind of the coach that’s going to rip you apart,” captain Michael Keating said. “He’s not going to watch us fall apart and yell at us in the room. He sticks with it and you have to stick with things at times.”
“He understands us and having that kind of bond between the players and coach is one of the things that makes Jason unique.”
Looking forward, Jason Nobili is keen to learn again. After a 17-year coaching career, he’s ready to move forward full-time as a teacher and as a parent.
“I couldn’t do what I do without the support of my wife [Marianne] and my kids [Tyler and Dylan]. Both my guys are playing minor hockey now, and my wife helps a lot with that. She keeps me grounded and I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without her.”
“I think the way you relate to kids is the same as relating to young players. You want to be creative in your approach and adapt to the way people learn. It’s similar on the ice and in the classroom.”