Less than 24 hours after being hired as head coach for the Castleton men’s ice hockey program, Bill Silengo found himself in Deanna Tyson’s office asking if he could fly to Canada to recruit.
Tyson, associate dean for athletics and recreation at Castleton, was initially reluctant to grant his request – for his own sake.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘Bill, do you have a place to live yet?’” Tyson said.
The North Haven, Connecticut native had previously been living on the outskirts of New York City working as assistant coach of the Manhattanville College men’s hockey team, his alma mater. His living situation in Vermont had not been sorted out before he moved here.
“And he was like, ‘Oh, I don’t care. I’m not worried about that. I need to get on the road and start recruiting,’” said Tyson. “So right away I thought, wow, this guy is dedicated — he wants to be successful. He’s flying to Canada and he doesn’t even have a roof over his head, but he was ok with that.”
DJ Fimiani has an impressive background in the sport of hockey – having experienced the sport’s highest of highs and lowest of lows. For these reasons, he was selected over a Division I coach, to coach the Castleton women’s hockey team.
“His disposition, I thought, was just a much better fit than the other candidate we had brought on campus. DJ was very appreciative of everything that we had here. His enthusiasm toward coaching and his personality were also what set him apart,” Tyson said.
Fimiani’s first head coaching position was at Daniel Webster College, and when he began, the team was nonexistent. Not one person had ever played for the Daniel Webster women’s hockey team. He had to build the program from scratch, finding female players to come to the predominately male school.
“We didn’t have very female-oriented majors. It was just endless recruiting, always traveling. My assistant coach and I spent a lot of our own money. So it was, um, tiring … stressful,” Fimiani admitted, looking away as if to say he preferred not to dwell on the tough times.
The first-time head coach was given little to no instruction about how to get the program up and running. He was merely given a set of keys and an impossibly small budget, but Fimiani made it work.
The new faces of Castleton University hockey embody determination, hard work and commitment. Silengo and Fimiani were hired for their strong work ethics and commendable characters.
If Silengo had to choose one adjective to define himself, it would be ‘passionate.’ His decision to recruit over finding a home perhaps illustrates that. It could also be the driving factor behind him being the first person in his family to graduate college, or why he landed his dream job of becoming a head coach quicker than he ever imagined.
In college, while his friends were interning at local businesses, Silengo’s internship was at the hockey rink. While he was a player, he said he felt as if he were interning simultaneously.
“I always knew I wanted to be a coach. During practices and while I was a part of the hockey team, I kind of took mental notes on what I liked and what I didn’t like, and how the coaches implemented game plans and things like that,” Silengo said.
His strategy seems to be working.
“I like him a lot, he’s a straight-up guy. Bill stops play, talks to the guys and tells them what to do. He takes personal time with them. The guys respect him, and the team seems a lot happier and more cohesive,” said assistant coach Terry Moran.
Silengo’s job at Castleton marks his first head coaching experience.
Previously, he held assistant coaching positions at Fredonia State University and Manhattanville College, where he graduated in 2012 with bachelor degrees in management and history and later with a master’s degree in sports management. He was one of 30 applicants for the position, but Silengo’s qualifications, confidence, and professional demeanor sealed the deal, according to team captains who were part of the final interviewing process.
“You could tell in his voice that he really, really wants to win something here and build the culture back up in our program,” said senior assistant captain Nick Kovalchik.
“What I first noticed was how confident he was, and he just felt very in place and very comfortable. He knew what he was trying to get across and what he was going to do here,” added senior captain Brock LaBelle.
Unlike Silengo, coaching for Fimiani was something he “never saw coming.” He always pictured himself pursuing a career in business, having acquired both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the field from Norwich University.
Fimiani played hockey for Norwich too, winning a national championship in his senior season. He then went on to play professionally for a year in the Southern Professional Hockey League. But after dabbling with other work environments and then trying coaching, Fimiani said he would never go back.
His players at Castleton are glad he made the switch.
“He’s very passionate and charismatic, we can tell he loves his job and really cares about the process of making everyone better. It doesn’t matter if you’re the best player on the team or not, he believes in your abilities and uses your strengths to make the team succeed,” said senior Lisa Kilroy, one of the six seniors who have experienced three coaching changes in their time at Castleton.
“It’s very clear that his goal is to be the best coach we’ve ever had. He’s tough, but he’s also very fair. I’ve played for 18 years and he’s still teaching me new things every single day,” senior Ally Brandland explained.
During practice Fimiani can be seen jumping into the occasional drill, or gathering pucks around the ice to set up for the girls. If he’s impressed with something, he’ll slam his stick on the ground a few times, as if to clap, or shout something positive. He answers the questions of girls who are waiting in line for drills, and checks up on players he sees waiting by the boards.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he jokingly asks Brandland, who was grabbing decongestant medicine. She smiles, replies “nothing!” and rejoins practice.
Before his head coaching position at Daniel Webster, Fimiani was assistant coach to the Salve Regina men’s hockey team for two years – helping to turn that program around, as well. But Castleton has been a breath of fresh air for him.
“Getting to this point is my greatest accomplishment; I’m in a place that really supports what we want to accomplish,” Fimiani said.
Silengo and his staff watch carefully as the men’s team practices. Occasionally he removes his glove, reaches into his pocket and grabs his practice plan. He only needs a quick glance to remind himself of the plans he spent 30-45 minutes drawing up before practice. Throughout practice he will shout words of encouragement and instruction.
“It’s not rocket surgery, shoot the puck!” Silengo calls out at one point.
“He’s got a lot of, um, phrases,” senior captain Bart Moran says with a smile, in a previous interview.
“He’s got unique phrases,” LaBelle agrees.
“’We’ve got bigger fish to fry’, that’s his go-to,” adds Kovalchik.
“He’s got just kinda those types of sayings all the time. I quite enjoy ‘em, really. They’re fun,” says Moran.
“Yeah, it’s fun,” concludes LaBelle.
Each player agreed they couldn’t have asked for a better choice of coach to end their careers with. They described their experience this year as “night and day” in comparison to previous years playing for Castleton, especially appreciating Silengo’s positive attitude toward the team.
“His attitude is great and he’s also very prepared. He always has a plan in place for what we want to try and do. I think the program has a bright future ahead, and it’s in the right hands now finally,” Kovalchik said.
Moran expanded on Kovalchik’s thoughts.
“As a coach you have to be critical, and when he is, he does it in the right way. He tells you what you need to do better, and then how, instead of just ‘do better’. And he puts a positive spin on it so you don’t feel like you just screwed up,” Moran said.
The sense of mutual respect between players and coach is evident. When asked what it was he was most looking forward to this season, Silengo’s response focused on the players.
“We’ve got a really, really good group and a strong group of senior leaders. I’m looking forward to getting to know the guys on a deeper level. To really work with them and go through ups and downs, and the good and the bad and try to win as many games as we can,” Silengo said.
As the assistant coach of Manhattanville, Silengo had been to Castleton’s rink before landing the job here. Seeing the team rosters on the wall and Castleton green all around, he appreciated the community support and school pride he could see that was affiliated with Castleton.
“As a visiting team, all the coaches talk and we would always go, ‘Man, this is a first-class place.’ So when I had the opportunity to interview here it was super exciting and a dream come true,” Silengo said.
Fimiani’s office is a bit scattered. Compared to his coaching counterpart across the hall, it’s an organized mess.
It features notes to himself and schedules pinned to a small bulletin board. On the floor, there are pucks and a few pairs of shoes — both sneakers and formal. Hanging on pegs is an array of different Castleton wind jackets and a white dress shirt in the corner on a hanger. On his desk are sets of keys, blank CD’s, Robitussin, an empty Big Mac box, toe warmers, and a small toy basketball.
Perhaps not as meticulous in his office, Fimiani is meticulous on the ice.
“When he first got here, he spent the first two practices shooting pucks around the boards just to find out the geometry of the rink and how the boards are. He’s very nitty gritty and analytic in that sense. He has analyzed every single one of us; he knows the way all of us shoot. He just has this separate part of his brain specifically for hockey, it’s kind of insane,” said senior captain Ashley Pelkey.
On the ice, it’s clear the team and coaching staff enjoys being at practice. When it’s time to listen, the squad is silent and attentive. Between drills, though, smiles and laughter are common. During one break in action, Fimiani skates toward a puck by the boards, nutmegs junior assistant captain Hannah Rose, and then skates away coolly.