Trusting the process: Danny Vanderwiel’s Journey

By: Megan Youngblood

For many players, the best parts of hockey are their achievements, accolades, and stats. For Motor City Rockers player/assistant coach Danny Vanderwiel, the process and the work are the best part.

“I love the process," Vanderwiel said.“I love skating and being on the ice. I love working at hockey. I always had a hockey stick and a ball in my hand, and it was always just hockey, hockey, hockey.” 

Even if you don’t get the end goal you desire, it is the process that matters most to Vanderwiel.

“Trial and error is so important. Failure is so important,” Vanderwiel said. “Put in the work, obsess over the work, learn how to love the work. It's not about the result." 

Return to the ice

When injuries caused Vanderwiel to take some time off, it was that process that he had to work towards once again.

“I stopped playing when I was twenty due to injuries and then started again when I was twenty-seven,” Vanderwiel said. “What brought me back was the state of the world we were in, mid covid and I had a buddy that was playing in Binghamton (New York) and they needed some bodies.”

After taking seven years off, Vanderwiel returned to the game and fell back in love with it.

“I just fell back in love with the game,” Vanderwiel said.“I re-found the passion that I had as a kid before it got all serious."

Vanderwiel joined the Binghamton Black Bears in 2021 for his first season back since 2015, playing 28 games.

“After that, I trained and had a really good summer,” Vanderwiel said. “I went to a Kalamazoo K Wings camp on the East Coast and had a good camp there. I reached out to Dante Suffredini because I knew him and knew he was on the team here and asked him if I could come to skate with the guys just to keep my legs in shape. Turns out they needed a body going on the road and ever since I’ve been here.” 

New role

In his first season with the Rockers (2022-23) Vanderwiel head coach Gordie Brown gave him a new role. 

“Gordie explained to me that they had named a leadership group and that he was giving me the captain role,” Vanderwiel said. “And it felt great honestly. When I played for the Plymouth Whalers back in the day it was kind of a similar thing where the leadership qualities just kind of started coming out within me. I’ve always had this attitude whether I have a letter on my jersey or not, it’s not really going to change the way I go about my business.” 

Taking on the captain and leadership role wasn't a new experience for Vanderwiel, but when Gordie couldn’t make it to a game, Vanderwiel found himself in a new experience. 

“The assistant coach actually came about more as a technicality because Gordie couldn’t make a road trip and we needed to have someone be put as a coach, so it just happened to be me,” Vanderwiel said.

While talking hockey and being a leader had always been a part of Vanderwiel’s hockey career, coaching was something different for him but something he came to love. 

“I do have an interest in coaching,” Vanderwiel said. “I love talking hockey and I like the X’s and O’s and JMO (Jamie Milam) mentioned it (coaching) to me and now me, him, and Gordie have been understanding each other a bit more.”

As Vanderwiel grew more into his coaching role and another injury put him on the bench, he began to love coaching even more. 

“I love it. It’s almost like a blessing in disguise the injury if you will because it’s kind of forced me to put more into just coaching,” Vanderwiel said. “It’s given me a sneak preview and a little bit of experience in the realm. I now understand why coaches said some things or reacted the way they did.”

Going from player to coach could be a hard adjustment, but luckily for Vanderwiel, he had a good group of guys around him. 

“I really appreciate the boys here,” Vanderwiel said. “They have had insane respect towards me and made it where I haven’t had to feel like the villain. They’re very respectful to me and I honestly couldn’t be more grateful for that, and I try to show them the same amount of respect.” 

Having experience as a player and a lifelong tip from Dad also helped Vanderwiel to make that adjustment a little bit easier.

 “But it's honestly just the opposite side of the game but being a player, you have that mentality of understanding how players are,” Vanderwiel said. “My dad was always big on accountability growing up and that’s just one thing that I try to hold myself and other guys accountable too, but again the boys have made that really easy.”

Lessons learned

Coaching has taught Vanderwiel a lot of different things, but the most important thing it has taught him was trusting that process once again. 

“I found a whole new perspective of the process,” Vanderwiel said. “I love the process and I love seeing where someone’s at because I know where I used to be and where I’m at now, and where I want to be when I’m 35. It’s that process that I love. You might not be good at something today but if you keep working at it consistently over and over and obsess over it, you’ll be amazing at it.”

Vanderwiel lives with teammate Jonathan Juliano and his family, and it is Juliano’s two kids who have helped him love and see that process differently.

“His son Easton is 10 years old and his daughter Emerson is eight years old and they both play hockey,” Vanderwiel said. “He's got a really cool shooting room in his basement and recently I've been working with them on they're shooting and just seeing where their shot was and just the slight little progress and where their shot can be, I love it.” 

While coaching and playing have been able to teach Vanderwiel different life lessons on the ice, he has learned to take some off the ice as well. 

“The biggest thing is how to deal with adversity,” Vanderwiel said. “Once I stopped playing hockey and I got a life outside of hockey it wasn’t until then that I realized how much hockey actually taught me that and how much I learned and took away from the game.”

The biggest life lesson he's learned from hockey is that life is short but it doesn't always have to be serious.

"Life is short, yes, but the days are long, there is a lot of time," Vanderwiel said."Life is so much less about the good things that happen and so much more about your response to the bad things that happen, there’s going to be good things but there are going to be so many bad things and you’ve got to respond to them. It can either absorb you or it can help you reshape the way that your destiny or your life is going to be.”