UTICA — Nick Palmieri has spent the last year bringing his NHL hockey experience to the Jr Comets. And though he said he still has a lot to learn he is excited to see what the future is for him behind the bench.
Palmieri, who is 30, is an assistant coach for the Comets’ National Collegiate Development Conference team and the premier team.
He grew up locally, playing high school hockey for Clinton in eighth and ninth grades before heading to prep school to sharpen his skills for a pro career. After one season at Northwood Prep School in Lake Placid, he transitioned his game to the OHL where he played four seasons between the Erie Otters and Belleville Bulls.
After two seasons in the OHL, he was drafted 79th overall in the 2007 NHL draft by the New Jersey Devils. He went on to play in 87 games with the Devils and the Minnesota Wild, tallying 13 goals and 12 assists. He also appeared in 212 AHL games from 2007 to 2013, where he scored 49 goals and collected 46 assists. He then played in the DEL in Germany for two seasons and then in the EBEL in Austria where he finished his playing career in 2017.
On March 28, 2019, the Comets organization announced he would become the acting head coach of the Utica Jr Comets 18U team. He had asked Comets president Rob Esche — who he’s known since he was 13 — about possible coaching positions. He was supposed to coach younger players but a shortage of players meant the team he was linked to didn’t materialize. So, “They asked me if I wanted to stay on and help with the junior team.” He helped with the two teams composed mainly of players ages 18 to 20.
“I’ve been involved in hockey since I was six.” he noted, but he wondered if coaching would be something he could do. “Is this something I want to do for a full year?” He had done instructional work at camps, which are much shorter than a full season, and had an “enjoyable every time. I enjoy helping kids get better. I just didn’t know about the grind of a full season.” He said coaching is similar to playing, but for coaches it’s a mental grind as opposed to the physical.
“I think I like it more than I thought I would,” he said of the past year. He said he has a good relationship with coaches Louie Educate and Paul Kelly.
His focus has been on “Helping the kids get to where they want to go. The playing days are over for me but helping a kid get where he wants to go is just as rewarding to me.” He continued: “The easiest part is just being able to relate to the kids. I’m not that much older than them.” He said it’s similar to the relationship between veteran players and rookies, a non- traditional player-coach relationship. “This is where they start to understand the veteran-rookie relationship,” but at this level it’s a four-year age gap. In New Jersey, he noted, he played with Hall of Fame goalie Martin Brodeur when he was 21 and the four-time Vezina Trophy winner was 38.
“I like to invest myself fully in anything I do,” Palmieri said. “The reward of seeing guys get better was far more than what I could have expected before I started to coach.” He said coaching is a different perspective than playing in part because players are not focused on the development of teammates, whereas that’s a coach’s primary job. “This kids are very coachable and very invested in what they’re doing.” Those who are stilling playing hockey at this level tend to be extremely committed to improvement, he said.
One challenge for Palmieri was learning to coach defensemen, having been a forward himself. He said he had to think on how to help defenders improve. “As a forward I know what was hard to play against, I know what made good defensemen good defensemen.”
The game is in a different place than it was a year ago. Palmieri was helping coach at the USPHL Premier and Elite National Championships in Merrimack College in Massachusetts. They played a game, and 30 minutes later the entire tournament had been canceled, he said. “It was a pretty devastating for the kids. Some of them are aging out of Junior hockey and it was a last chance to showcase their talents.” He said, “It was tough to see” for the kids.
Now that it’s the off-season, Palmieri is helping at his father’s contracting company. “There’s not really anybody doing anything because nobody’s playing.”
So what does Palmieri see for his future? Does it include coaching?
“I see myself here helping in whatever capacity they want,” he said. “I’m happy with what I’m doing now. I would love to see where coaching takes me, but I’m not really in any hurry to get to a specific point. I’m trying to learn what it is to be a good coach. Would I like to be a head coach? Possibly, I don’t know for sure. That’s a different relationship between a coach and players.” But, he added, “I’d like to see what opportunities arise from what I’m doing. The best thing you can have on your resume is how many kids believe in you.”