If you get Brandon Naurato talking for long enough about his life in hockey, he’ll consistently remark, half-jokingly and half dead serious, “I really did get a PhD. in hockey.”
And while Naurato — Michigan’s new interim head coach — may not have had to spend seven years in a graduate school or defend a 300 page thesis, the sentiment of his statement rings true for many. With decades of playing, coaching and even commercializing his knowledge of the sport, Naurato must have genuinely obtained the highest form of education, one that now allows him to teach.
But while Naurato enters his new role with a plethora of junior, collegiate and NHL experience, it’d be frankly wrong to call his coaching path stereotypical. Because in many ways, Naurato is an NCAA anomaly.
At 37, Naurato is younger than all but three D1 hockey coaches. With only one year of experience as an assistant coach and only seven years removed from his first professional coaching gig, he takes the helm far greener than most who spend years or decades as an assistant before finally getting their chance. And more generally, his laid back disposition, cool demeanor and quirky mannerisms more closely resemble those of a surfer dude than those of a coach at a historic hockey powerhouse.
While Naurato seems to be well aware of this, he really doesn’t appear to be deterred by it. He knows that he’s a young coach with limited experience coming into a turbulent situation. And he knows that incredibly high expectations have been placed on his shoulders. But he’s embracing all of these distinctions.
“I know who I am,” Naurato said. “I’m not trying to be someone new because I have a new title. I know exactly who I am, and I’m just trying to show everyone who doesn’t yet.”
Who Naurato is within this new role is a much larger question. Yes, he’s a Michigan native, a UM graduate and someone who has spent his life around ice rinks; but that’s purely biographical. To understand who Naurato is as a coach is not learning where he has been or who he’s been there with, but rather what he learned from being there.
Following three years of post-collegiate minor league play, Naurato called it quits on his playing career, but quickly transitioned to enterprising in the hockey world. With his own consulting company, along with Total Package Hockey in Detroit, Naurato got his foot in the door of player development for the first time. But it was also during this period where Naurato’s understanding of game dynamics was born, and he crafted his own development model from this understanding.
“It started when I was back at Total Package Hockey,” Naurato told College Hockey News. “I started watching all individual players and like what skills they were using to create space or take it away. Then … I woke up every day at 5a.m.. like eight years ago, and I started manually tracking how goals were scored … And once you do that, and you watch 7,000 goals a year for several years in a row, you start seeing trends and you come up with your own thought process, and you try things.”
It seems that this experience was the genesis for a lot of who Naurato would become behind the bench. While former head coach Mel Pearson preferred operating off of whiteboards and hockey knowledge, Naurato is data obsessed.
“If you called him up right now and asked him how many goals in the NHL are scored off the rush, he’d know exactly what percentage,” former Michigan defenseman Nick Blankenberg told MLive last year.
Naurato’s understanding of the game is borne from data and film. That’s why he’s always excited to announce just how many new members of the analytics team he’s hired — 13 — and what innovations they’ll be using to analyze games.
“We’re building multiple platforms,” Naurato told The Daily. “Is it gonna turn into wins or help us? I think so, but we’ve got a plan with what we want to do, and then that’s how we fact check if we’re doing things the right way and where we can be better and what to work on.”
Part of Naurato’s confidence in this calculated and data driven understanding of the game comes from the fact that this sort of analysis is exactly what brought him his first NHL opportunity. He made a name for himself with a player development style crafted out of his analytics, and the Red Wings took note, adding him as a player development coach in 2018. It was in Detroit where Naurato’s understanding of the game grew further.
“He kind of took an approach where he embedded himself with our staff, so he wasn’t just a skills coach,” former Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill told The Daily. “So he was in all of our daily meetings. In those meetings you end up talking lots about philosophy, you end up talking lots about structure, how you implement, how you get better.”
And it clearly impacted Naurato.
“Just being in that war room every day without feeling the pressure of the wins and losses,” Naurato said. “Seeing what works, what doesn’t, what adjustments are made, … it just goes back into your core beliefs.”
But it wasn’t just knowledge of X’s and O’s that Naurato took from Detroit, he saw first hand how a coaching staff puts it all together. From skill training, to conditioning, to even off ice player management. It was in those war rooms in Detroit where the image of how to be a coach came into clearer focus.
“You know, I think a lot of what he had done up until that point was kind of from a micro approach,” Blashill said. “And I think probably his time in Detroit helped him with the macro, the bigger team picture.”
When Naurato talks about his career, he discusses each destination like it was leading to the next. His collegiate career was what made it possible to be a development coach. His time with Total Package gave him the technical and analytical understanding to work for the Red Wings. And his time in Blashill’s “war room” shaped the philosophy that he carries today behind the Wolverines’ bench.
“Every coach’s route is different,” Blashill said. “And he took a different route, but probably most importantly, he learned along the way. And I’m sure he’s ready to apply those lessons this year.”
This is the highest point of Naurato’s relatively young career. But whether it’s a short-lived high water mark, or the start of something much bigger, is still up in the air. And Naurato’s well aware of this fact.
“I’ve got this interim tag, and I don’t think about it much,” Naurato said. “But I’m thinking about proving it this year.”
If he’s going to prove himself, he’ll have to rely on the education he’s received up to this point. But there’s a difference between education and implementation. If Naurato learned more about how to be a head coach at every level, now is the time to actually put everything into practice.
Everything Naurato says he’s learned from his education in hockey is going to have to immediately be put into use. Not just the analytics, or coaching philosophy, or people management — but all of it at once.
He’s spent decades in the game, and he’s taken on each subsequent level by modeling, researching and analyzing like a student working towards their degree.
And from that perspective, with the chance to demonstrate everything he’s learned, this year is his thesis.