Tech’s ice hockey team continued its undefeated run to start the season on Friday, defeating South Carolina 6-2 at the Kennesaw Ice Forum. Senior center Brian O’Connor notched two goals, and senior winger Drew Baker added two assists to lead the attack. The team’s effective defensive play also continued as the Jackets moved to 7-0 on the year.
However, the most memorable moment of the night came just before the game began, when the players and coaches conducted a brief memorial service for Greg Stathis, the team’s longtime head coach who passed away in March due to complications from kidney transplant surgery. Stathis was far more than simply a coach in the Tech hockey community; he served as a mentor, a friend and a hero to students and parents alike.
The Tech players, both alumni and current, lined up at center ice, and assistant coach Norm Spafard called three of Stathis’s close relatives—his wife Maryann, his father John, and his brother George—out to the ice. Shawn Montague, a former team captain who played from 1998-2002 and is one of four Tech players to have his jersey number retired, then spoke on behalf of the alumni. He recalled the late coach’s dedication to the team despite his lingering health problems, his constant pursuit of perfection and his undying joy for hockey and for life.
Montague concluded by signaling to the rafters, where the team unveiled a new banner displaying Stathis’s name, his tenure of 1991-2008 and his career win total of 348. McSparron then presented Maryann, John and George with an honorary team jersey that bore the number 348, and the three participated in a ceremonial puck drop with players from both teams.
“What Greg Stathis was to Georgia Tech was something almost beyond words…[He was] a great teacher and a great motivator for the kids, and just a super role model,” said Pat O’Connor, Brian’s father.
Stathis had struggled with medical problems for decades. During the ceremony, Montague spoke of times when Stathis would check out of the hospital and head straight to Tech games, as well as times when he would return to the hospital immediately after games. However, the late coach could always rely on hockey to help him overcome the many obstacles he faced over the years.
“He had a lot of illnesses since he was young, but hockey was something that he could always find comfort in. If he wasn’t feeling well, he could turn on the TV and have friends over…When I first met him, he was like, ‘You’ll love me in the summer, but come winter, I can’t give up hockey. It’s a part of my life, and it’s something I can’t compromise, but I want you to be a part of that,’” said Maryann, Stathis’s wife of 17 years.
“He was a very passionate person all along, and this was just another way that you could see what a passionate person he was. He put his heart and soul into [hockey], no matter if he was having a good day or feeling horrible; he was definitely dedicated to it.”
The health issues never got in the way of his personality. Stathis treated his players and fellow coaches, and really the entire Tech hockey community, as an extension of his family.
“He was an educator, so his main concern was making sure these kids…[became] successful wherever life took them after Georgia Tech. So we’ve been to weddings of players and stayed in touch with them, and it truly is a family,” said Assistant Coach Kenny “Sarge” Day, who also noted that there were almost never any disagreements among the coaches.
“He’s so good at developing the kids, and he understands the game, and he’s a great coach. But more than that, he was just a wonderful, tremendous person…everyone respected him for making [hockey] fun, and for having so much knowledge. He had the whole package,” said O’Connor.
Nobody had anything remotely negative to say about Stathis, except in jest. “Greg was very loud, but he was also very predictable…before a game, he would always have written out on a notepad, ‘These are the 15 things we have to do tonight.’ It was always the 15 things. And by the time he got to #3 on the list, everyone had forgotten what the first two were,” Day said.
Stathis’s coaching career began long before his time at Georgia Tech. As the head coach at St. Peter’s High School in Staten Island, NY, he led the team to a number of state championships. He also coached at the collegiate level in New York with considerable success.
In 1991, Stathis took over the Georgia Tech hockey club and quickly grew it into a nationally competitive team in the College Hockey South, winning five division titles. Eight years later, in 1999, he played a key role in the founding of Division III of the American Collegiate Hockey Association (ACHA), and he led the Jackets to the title game in the league’s first season. Though Tech lost the title game 1-0 to Butler, it was at that tournament that Stathis pulled off perhaps his most notable on-ice victory.
“[The tournament] was in Annapolis, Maryland, at the Naval Academy… and the first night, we beat the U.S. Naval Academy 3-2. And they were ranked #1 in the country at the time with a record of 29-2. Greg said that was one of his most memorable wins,” Day said.
Tech hosted the ACHA D-III national championships for the next two seasons, and both years the team finished in third place. The team consistently excelled throughout Stathis’s tenure, posting winning records in 15 of his 17 seasons as head coach. Stathis was also responsible for starting a major part of Tech hockey’s culture—the Pep Band, a small group of students that occasionally play at Tech games and have earned the collective nickname of “the seventh man.”
Perhaps the most notable statistic relating to Stathis’s career lies off the ice, though. During his 17 years as Tech’s head coach, every single player who took the ice for Tech went on to graduate.
“We talk about academics first…. if anyone has a smart kid who’s not going NCAA, but wants a world-class education and wants to play competitive hockey, then we want to talk to them. They can play competitive hockey here, but the focus has to be on education,” Day said.
The team has continued its strong play under new coach Brian McSparron, who has deep ties to Stathis; he captained one of Stathis’s championship teams at St. Peter’s High and served as an assistant coach at Tech from 2000-04. McSparron left the team to take care of his young children, but decided to return and assume the head coaching duties on hearing of Stathis’s passing.
“The way I looked at it was this: When he left our high school, the program went downhill. He was also coaching a college program back in New York, and when he left, that program went down. I didn’t want to see a third program go down. He put a lot of time and effort into this program, and it became his baby,” McSparron said.
Stathis’ presence remains strong among the players and coaches even today, even to those who never met him. “I was honored that guys look to me and ask me about him…ten of these guys [the freshmen] aren’t going to know who Greg was, so hopefully…they can appreciate what he meant to this program,” McSparron said.
“He will be sorely missed, but… his spirit lives on. I think this will be a great season, because this season is really dedicated to him,” O’Connor said.