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CHN: Borek Opens Up About Losing Josh Ciocco
On the morning of Oct. 3, Merrimack head coach Scott Borek and assistant coach Dan Jewell were in Borek's office preparing for opening weekend. That afternoon, the Warriors would get in their first practice of the week as they prepared to open the season at St. Lawrence on Oct. 7.
Assistant coach Josh Ciocco wasn't in the office. Borek didn't think much of it. After all, he had been on a long recruiting trip in Western Canada the previous week and had taken a red eye back to Boston the night before. He landed around 7 a.m. Monday morning.
When Ciocco didn't show up for practice that afternoon, Borek grew concerned.
Shortly after that, Ciocco was discovered inside his Andover, Mass., apartment. He had died at some point earlier in the day.
"I talked to Jody (Ciocco), Josh's dad, about it," said Borek, who lost his son Gordie from a car accident in 2018. "With Gordie, he was just gone. I didn't want to know how or why. It doesn't matter. All that matters is your child is gone. It's an unthinkable tragedy to lose your son. That was the hardest phone call I've ever had to make."
Borek and Ciocco weren't just co-workers. Their relationship went back more than half of Ciocco's life. Borek recruited Ciocco as a player — he was one of his first recruits after Borek was hired at New Hampshire — and a father-son relationship developed over the years. Ciocco wound up playing four years at New Hampshire, from 2003-07.
This weekend, Merrimack will play in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2011. Ciocco recruited many of the players that helped Merrimack reach this point. One of those is Jordan Seyfert, another player who, like Ciocco, didn't play much early in his college career, but formed a special bond with Borek that has paid off.
From his own son, to Ciocco, to Seyfert and many others, Borek is an emotional coach who wears his heart on his sleeve with those around him. But this is the first time he's opened up about Ciocco's passing, and Ciocco's impact on Borek personally and the Merrimack program.
McMahon: Take me back to when you first recruited Josh to play at UNH. What stood out to you about him as a player?
Borek: He was excessively competitive. Josh will be mad at me for saying this, but he wasn't the most skilled guy in the game. Even when he was in juniors, it was his competitiveness and his toughness that stood out. His competitive streak was elite. You have no idea. He hated losing. I've never been around a person who hated losing as much as Josh did. And he was a leader. He hated to lose, and he wanted everyone around him to hate to lose. That's what was going to make the team successful.
He was playing in Vernon (BCHL) and I trusted his coach, Mike Vandekamp, a lot. I knew him really well. He's a great coach. I was going out there on a trip and I asked him who I should look at when I was out there? I was going out with Richie (Umile) and it was August, before the start of the season. Mike said to me, "You have to recruit Josh, he'd be a perfect fit. He's from New Jersey, he's a hard player, he's tough, he'll do absolutely anything to win a hockey game."
When I heard that, I wanted to meet the kid. He sounded like the type of player we needed at the time. Mike set up a visit for us and we were going to meet at the rink before an exhibition game. Richie and I get there early, and there's no Josh. He doesn't show up. At that point, I was like, "Well this kid is off the list, he can't even show up for a meeting." But it turned out Mike didn't tell him about the meeting. He just assumed he was going to be at the rink. Later Josh showed up and we met, and it was a great conversation. Then we watched the game and Richie and I were both really impressed. He played super hard. He competed every shift. We needed a guy like that at UNH at the time. We weren't soft — the big ice can make you look that way, but we really weren't — but we needed an edge. Josh had that edge.
We got a few guys on that trip. We recruited Josh and we also recruited Jacob Micflikier and Matt Fornataro.
McMahon: Those qualities, being ultra-competitive, that's probably what made him a great captain for you guys at UNH as well.
Borek: He was just like Patrick Foley. I don't know if you remember him from UNH? But Patrick was the same player. He was in our depth, but he was so competitive and Josh had those same qualities. That's what made him a leader of his class, and later on, he was a leader on our team.
McMahon: You talked over the weekend about your relationship with Josh, and how it was not a typical coach-player relationship. You became close really quickly. How did that evolve? You've been around a long time — and you don't see relationships take shape like that all the time. I'm sure it happens, but there is usually a line between player and coach.
Borek: It's funny to think back about the circumstances. Not long after we recruited him, Josh got traded. I will never forget it. We were on a bus coming back from Maine. We just lost a game 1-0 and we had suspended like six players going into the game for something. I get a phone call from Mike Vandekamp and he tells me that he has to trade Josh. I was surprised to hear that. Josh was their captain. But I guess they were having some issues with the group and Mike said that the next player to miss curfew was going to get traded. Well, it was no big deal, but Josh was late on curfew the next week and Mike had to trade him. I said to Mike, "Well if he's not good enough for you, he's not good enough for us" and I was going to cut him.
Mike said to me, "SB, we know each other really well" and he calmed me down and said it wasn't a big deal. I asked Mike if I should cut him, and he said absolutely not.
But that opened a window where Josh and I started talking about other things outside of hockey. We talked about life a lot. He got traded to Cowichan Valley, and I went out to see him play in Powell River, which is at the end of the earth. You're on an island. There was one hotel there, so I stayed in that hotel, and there was only one bar open after 10:00, so after the game, I went there with some coaches.
Over the next hour, the entire Cowichan Valley team walks into this pub. The coaches are there, and then players start to walk in. I said to myself, as I watched the door, "If Josh walks into this bar, he's not coming to UNH."
Josh never walked in. I don't know if he was the only guy that didn't walk into the bar, but he was one of the only guys. We talked about it later, and he was pissed. He said to me that he didn't like being there, that the guys didn't care enough about winning, and they didn't hate losing. He ended up asking for a trade and got traded again, but that told me a lot about Josh as a player and what type of mindset he had. It wasn't just a show. He hated to lose, and if he was around people who were accepting of it, it drove him crazy. After that, I was really excited to get him to UNH.
McMahon: How did the relationship evolve specifically when he arrived at UNH?
Borek: He wasn't happy his freshman year. He was on the fourth line, or he wasn't playing. He was frustrated. He'd meet with me a lot, because I coached the forwards.
I usually didn't have the end of the year meetings, that was Richie. But Josh asked to have an end of the year meeting with me. We talked for a while and I had this card that I gave him with a saying on it. It said, "Good is not good enough." It has a deeper meaning about how good is the enemy of great. It was a wallet-sized card and it was laminated.
Some kids would think you're being corny giving them something like that. Josh took it to heart. Three years later at the banquet his senior year, he's up giving his speech and he pulled the card out of his wallet. He was thanking his mom and dad, and he also thanked me and pulled out the card, and I was blown away. Three years later. I couldn't believe he still had it. I had no idea.
McMahon: Did you know he wanted to be a coach? Did you see that in him while he was playing?
Borek: It's funny because I would go to Josh about our recruits while he was still a player. He just seemed to know everything about everyone. I'm talking about players all over the world. He'd ask me who we were recruiting and then he'd go back and learn about the player and give me his feedback. I think from playing in so many places, he had connections everywhere.
Back then, Josh was my ace in recruiting. I knew, if we had an important recruit coming to campus, I'd put him with Josh. He had a knack for people. So if the kid wanted to come to campus and have a good time, Josh would take the kid out with the guys and show him a good time. If the kid was a little more straight-laced, and a little more quiet, he was good there too. He had an ability to read and relate to people, even at a young age. He made everyone around him feel comfortable, so I used him a lot when we recruited players at UNH. I knew whoever we brought in would be comfortable if we put them with Josh.
I'll never forget one summer we had a kid visiting. He was a big-time player. I think he ended up going to Denver. But I asked Josh to be the guy we put the kid with. Josh was up for the summer working out and taking classes. He asked me to drop the kid off at Pirate's Cove, a part of the beach up in Hampton Beach. He said he was going to be up there with a couple of the guys. I get there, and it's all college kids. It's a party. Josh comes up to meet us and get the kid and he had a red cup in his hand. I didn't say a word at the time, but I said something to him about it later. Just like, "Come on, what are you doing?" He apologized for it but it just goes to show how comfortable we were with each other. He knew I wasn't going to judge him. He was a college kid.
So as he went deeper into his career at UNH we became closer and closer. We would talk about as much stuff outside hockey as inside hockey. Josh wasn't a slob or anything but he was a typical college kid who always dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. I used to tell him that he dressed like a bum around campus. I always said to him, "Come on, Josh, you have to dress for success."
One of the funniest stories I've been a part of in hockey was with Josh. We were up at Vermont, he's a senior and I was obviously coaching. I met the team in Vermont because I just got back from a recruiting trip and we're in that hallway area outside of the locker room. That's where you meet the families after the game and stuff. I must have caught something when I hopped out of the car and I didn't know it. Anyway, I walk into the rink and Josh comes up to me, with the entire team standing there, and starts going after me, "So, SB, you need to dress for success right? Do you think you're dressed for success today?"
So I told him that I thought I looked pretty good. I had my suit on, I was ready to go.
Josh said again, "Are you sure you're dressed for success today, SB? You might want to reach behind you."
So I reached around, and unbeknownst to me, I had ripped my pants from my knee all the way up the back of my leg. The whole team is going nuts laughing. And the best part is the game was on TV that night. Richie didn't like doing the interviews so I did them. So Shireen (Saski) is the rinkside reporter, and I knew her from Lake Superior. She is interviewing me and I have a dress shirt on, a suit jacket, and sweatpants. It was awful. I just had to tell her it was a long story. But Josh got such a laugh out of asking me if I thought I was dressed for success.
Getting Into Coaching
After Ciocco graduated from UNH he played two seasons of professional hockey in the ECHL. When he finished playing, he began working for an agent scouting players. He got started scouting players while in college, going over UNH's recruits with Borek and sending in unsolicited scouting reports to US Hockey Report, a for-pay online news outlet about prep hockey. The owner of the site, Chris Warner, gave Ciocco a gig scouting players eventually.
That led to a job at Milton Academy, a prep school. From there, he began his college coaching career with Alaska Anchorage.
Borek: Originally, he wanted to avoid getting into coaching. He went to an ECHL team and he called his dad shortly after that and told him, "this sucks. No one cares if we win or lose." He was with Fresno and (former Alaska Anchorage coach) Matt Thomas was there as the coach. After a while he told Matt that his heart just wasn't in it.
So he stopped playing and he went to work for Ian Pulver, who is an agent. He was a runner. He was out trying to find players and trying to recruit players for the company. He did that for a while and he went everywhere. He was out in Russia, he was everywhere.
I was still at UNH then, and Josh loved his alma mater. So we talked all the time because he was out seeing players all the time. Then the Alaska job opened up and he asked me to call Matt (Thomas) on his behalf.
I ended up calling Matt, and Matt wasn't sure at the time. He just remembered Josh as the guy who bailed on him in the ECHL. Matt asked me if Josh was loyal, and I told him that he was the most loyal person I've ever been around. He was just a kid back in the ECHL and he hated being around guys who didn't hate to lose. Fast forward and Josh got the job and those guys moved the needle there. They did well.
McMahon: After Alaska, he ended up at Brown, and you were in Providence at the same time, right?
Borek: He was so mad at me about the Brown job. He was going after that job and so was Jim Tortorella. I've known Jim for a long time and Jim asked me to call Brendan Whittet to put in a good word for him. I was on the phone with Brendan, who I also recruited, and I told Brendan that I thought JT would be great. He's a hard worker and he's a good recruiter and I thought he would be really valuable to Brendan because he was a younger coach at the time. JT would be the perfect guy on the bench. He's really smart.
We got done talking and Brendan asked me what I thought about Josh?
I was in a weird spot, because JT asked me to call. I love Josh, but I didn't want to bury JT either. I told Brendan that Josh and JT were totally different candidates at the time, but they would both be great. But I was really telling him I thought JT was the better choice for him at that point, because JT asked me to call and I didn't want to betray that. And honestly, I thought JT was the better option given the circumstances.
Somehow, that got communicated to Josh. But this goes to show you how loyal Josh is. After he gets the job I called him up to congratulate him and he said to me, "Yeah, I heard you tried to get the job for JT." So I explained to him that I just told Brendan the truth, I gave him my honest opinion.
If I were in Josh's shoes there, especially at his age, I would have cut me off for life. I never would have spoken to me again. That's just how I was. But Josh told me he understood it. He gave me a hard time about it, but he said he understood it and he never held it against me. That's how what I would have done, especially at his age. In that moment I learned a lot from him, and he was the younger guy.
McMahon: When he was at Brown and you were at Providence, you would stay together, right? (Borek moved from New Hampshire to Providence in 2015-16, right after it won the national championship.)
Borek: At that point, I was in Providence, and he was in Providence at Brown. Then my son Gordie passes (in 2018). After that happened I decided I needed to move back closer to my family. My girlfriend, now my wife, was living in Newbury. My son Charlie was playing for the Islanders (who play at Merrimack) and my son Owen was at Brooks (a prep school also in North Andover). So I started to commute from Newbury to Providence every day, but on the weekends I would stay down there because we had games. I'd stay at Josh's house.
He was such an important piece for me when Gordie passed. I'd go down to his place on the weekend and I'd get there and on the couch he'd have a blanket folded up for me and a pillow. That was so cool. He did it every time. He took care of me the way a son would take care of me. He knew what I was going through and he made sure I was taken care of. I'll never forget that.
McMahon: I don't know if this happened when you were staying together or not, but he had an injury with his leg, right? Wasn't he in the hospital for a while?
Borek: It was unbelievable. At that point we were living at my place in Rumford. There was three of us staying there. It was a little weird. It was me in one room, and then Josh and Jim Tortorella were also staying there. Jim and I were both at Providence and Josh was at Brown.
But at the same time, this is when I was moving back to Newbury. So I wasn't there when it happened.
I got a call from Brendan (Whittet) saying that Josh was in trouble. I didn't even know. He had overtrained and woke up in the middle of the night in a serious amount of pain. He had compartmental syndrome, which happened because he overtrained and there was less blood flow to the muscles in his leg. The doctors told (Josh's father) Jody that if he waited two more hours, he would have died because all these toxins get into your blood stream.
Luckily, Josh was smart enough to call himself an ambulance, and he crawled to the door to let the paramedics in. He was in bad shape for over a month.
Then when he was getting out of the hospital, I had moved back and was staying with him in his apartment on the weekends. So I was helping out a little bit when I was around.
In 2018 Borek was hired by Merrimack. It was his first crack at a head coaching job since he was let go by Lake Superior State in 2001. However, it wasn't the first job he tried to land. Back when John Micheletto was hired as the head coach at UMass, Borek was a finalist and thought he was going to get the job.
Ciocco was Borek's first hire at Merrimack and he would have been his first hire at UMass had that worked out.
Borek: For the Merrimack job, Josh helped me write my cover letter. He helped with the whole thing. We sat in his apartment and we worked on the cover letter and the resume. We knew we were going to go try to do this together.
McMahon: This was the first time you worked together on a coaching staff, right?
Borek: Yeah. I knew he would be great. He's hungry, and he was a good recruiter. Back when I thought I was going to get the UMass job, Richie (Umile) was all over Josh because he didn't want him to end up with me at UMass. He knew Josh's potential.
Josh was actually the one who told me I didn't get the job. He called me, and I remember I was laying in bed, and he told me Micheletto got the job. I couldn't believe it.
The next day I just wanted to not think about hockey. So Jill and I went out to get lunch. Josh texted (Borek's wife) Jill and asked what we were doing that day, and she said we were going to out to this place Michael's.
Josh didn't respond to the text, but you know what, he showed up at the place. He knew I needed him to be there. It was unbelievable. You want to talk about loyalty? That's how loyal he was.
The week before he died, Ciocco was on a recruiting trip. He had just arrived home after a red-eye flight.
McMahon: After it happened, you have a lot of experience coaching hockey, but I can't imagine anything prepared you for how to handle that situation.
Borek: Having lost Gordie, and having to take my family through that process, I wouldn't say it prepared me for it but I definitely learned things when that happened. Obviously, you're devastated. But I learned that it's OK to show your emotion. It just means you care. It's alright to tell a guy you love him, and it's alright to hold each other. So many things that happened to me five years earlier came back when Josh passed. It was the same emotions. It was like losing my son all over again, that's how I thought of Josh.
I had a hard time processing it. I'm not sure I've even processed it yet to be honest. I don't think you ever really do, especially when it's someone so young. I remember when I got the call, I kept asking what hospital they were going to, because I wanted to meet them at the hospital. I could not comprehend what they were telling me on the phone.
I haven't processed it completely, and I said to Jody that you're never going to process it.
McMahon: Then a few days later, the season started. We've talked about that week before, but does it seem like a blur?
Borek: It does. We ran into the season. I had very mixed emotions. I did not want to go to St. Lawrence and Clarkson. I really didn't. We allowed the players to decide and that's when I knew we had a great group. They said to us that they wanted to play, but if (assistant coach) Dan (Jewell) and I were not comfortable with it, we wouldn't play.
We had a memorial service at the church I think on that Wednesday and I tried to speak but my emotions got the best of me. The players really picked me up after that. I leaned on them a lot.
Pat Foley actually sent me a long message, and that pushed me in the direction of going. He said that the team needed to play, that was their therapy, and Josh would have wanted the team to play. So we went and played.
McMahon: Do you remember telling the team?
Borek: I called (AD) Jeremy Gibson immediately and told him what happened. Jeremy wanted me to come back to campus. I didn't know what to do or where to go. You feel helpless.
So I got back to campus and when I pulled in Jeremy was there with other people from our administration and the priests from the church were already at the rink. The support system was unbelievable. Originally I wasn't going to tell the team until the next morning, and I think that was because I didn't know how to tell them. But we called them over around 9:30 that night and there was nothing I could say. I just stood up in front of the room and told them what happened. Guys were emotional and confused. We all were.
McMahon: I know you said back in December you were looking forward to the holiday break because that was going to give you and everyone else the time to reflect. Did that help? (Merrimack was 13-4 at the time, Dec. 10, and didn't play against until Dec. 30.)
Borek: We gave the guys a long break and I thought the team needed it, but really I needed it.
We're dealing with college kids. Some of them never experienced loss like that. Matt Copponi was really close with Josh, and he's the youngest guy on our team. Josh was really close to Alex Jefferies. He was close to a lot of guys.
You think you're ready to handle it and then we got to St. Lawrence and they did a moment of silence, and Josh's picture goes up on the screen and we're all on the bench getting emotional again. It was hard to get through that. Then we got to that last game before the break against Providence and we were tired. We were all really tired I think, so I thought an extended break would do us good.
On the ice, there were a lot of things coming out of the break that went wrong, and it started with me.
I went home at the break and started thinking about everything that happened. I talked to Jody a lot and I think I was in a worse place coming out of the break than I was going into the break. I never gave myself the time to deal with it during the first half of the season and then everything flooded in at once when we were on break.
So we got back into our season and I was distracted. When you're distracted your work ethic isn't great. I was working, but I felt like a shell of my usual self. It showed in our preparation. I just wasn't any good. Our season started going in the wrong direction.
(Merrimack was 3-8-1 from Dec. 30 to Feb. 5, when it went into a bye week. Coming out of that, Merrimack won seven straight games to get back into the NCAA picture, before losing in OT of the Hockey East championship game last Saturday.)
McMahon: Then you guys had another break in February and you seemed to be able to get things back on track. In retrospect, that break seemed to be the best thing.
Borek: That says a lot about our room, right? The fact that we were able to come out on the other side, having dealt with so much.
McMahon: Josh's fingerprints are all over this team, too.
Borek: Look at the transfer portal right now. There are a lot of teams trying to copy what we did last year, and Josh had a huge role in that. Dan (Jewell) has been unbelievable. He has stepped up in so many ways for me personally and for this team.
No one recruits like Dan. He's unbelievable. And he stepped up for me in so many ways throughout this season with everything we have had to go through together. But yes, Josh's fingerprints are all over what we've done this year. He has played a huge role.
McMahon: Do you still feel Josh around the rink?
Borek: I do. You've seen me on the bench, I can get a little wild. And you know, Dan can too every once in a while. When that happens now, I think of Josh and sometimes I'll laugh because when that would happen with me, he would stay so composed and just look at me and smile. Jody and I laugh about it now, because he said there were times Josh would call him and say, "Scott is being a lunatic today," and he'd just laugh.
So when I feel myself being a lunatic on the bench, I think of Josh and smile, because I know what he would be saying to me and the look he'd have on his face. He managed me very well.
I miss him. I'll always miss him. Everyone here will.