Lammers' vision guiding Niagara's return to prominence

James Neiss/staff photographerIn this Nov. 3, 2017 file photo, Niagara University hockey coach Jason Lammers talks to a player during a game against the Bentley Falcons at Dwyer Arena. 

LEWISTON — Winning is important to Jason Lammers, but it’s not everything. For Lammers, who’s going into his third season behind the bench for the Niagara University hockey team, teaching his players how to be upstanding, decent people is equally, if not more, important than wins and losses.

“We want to grow men from the roots up,” Lammers said, recounting a phrase his mother used to tell him, “but we also want to give them the wings to fly. We tell them all the time: They’re already a son, but they’re going to be a great son. And then we want them to be an elite husband and a world class father.”

A native of Pittsburgh, Lammers grew up with the Steelers and watched the Penguins win Stanley Cups in the early 1990s, with the likes of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. In high school, he dated the Pirates’ trainer’s daughter. That put him in contact with players like Barry Bonds, Sid Bream and Andy Van Slyke.

“I knew those guys,” Lammers said. “I saw how good they were, and the standards that were expected if you were going to perform at that level.”

Being around athletes and watching his teams win championships stuck with Lammers, he said. He’s also been influenced by the way the Steelers operate as a family-run business.

“That's kind of the gold standard to me, the way they do their business,” he said.

Lammers was also inspired by an 11th grade English teacher who challenged him to be a “Renaissance man.” It’s a challenge he didn’t take lightly and still strives for to this day.

“That's something that I've really taken to heart,” he said, noting that he recently started taking up lessons on the ukulele. “At the foundation, my core, I want to be a husband first, and a dad second, and have a strong faith in our family. That has been very important to us.”

After high school, Lammers went onto SUNY Geneseo, where he played Division III hockey and earned a bachelor’s degree in history. After graduation, Lammers went on to play two seasons in the West Coast Hockey League before taking his first coaching position as a volunteer assistant with Clarkson in 2000. He moved around to a few different schools before landing his first full-time coaching job at Geneseo for the 2005-06 season, leading the Ice Knights to a 19–9–2 record. From there, he went on to several more assistant positions with D-1 teams, eventually landing his next head coaching position with the Dubuque Fighting Saints in the United States Hockey League.

After leading the Saints from 2015-17, Lammers was hired by Niagara ahead of the 2017-18 season.

When Matt Nicholson got the call to join NU as an assistant, he didn’t know Lammers, but knew of him. What he had heard was all good, and although he had 48 hours to decide on taking the job, it only took him 24.

“I knew Niagara had a proud program in the past, and I knew with Jason at the helm, we could get there again,” he said.

Lammers has a vision for building the program and seeing it through, Nicholson said. He also challenges his staff to continually improve, which trickles down to the players.

“We push and pull each other to get better,” Nicholson said.

Over the course of his coaching career, Lammers has drawn inspiration from his parents, his wife, former coaches and his faith. Producing winning teams and extraordinary young men aren't mutually exclusive to Lammers, who sees his role as a life mentor just as much as a hockey coach.

“You can be elite at whatever you do,” he said, “but you can also be a great person. We teach that on a daily basis, and it's part of our culture, it's part of who we are. It's the whole premise of what we're doing here. That's the expectation.”

Forward Eric Cooley, who’s spent the last two seasons with Lammers as his head coach, likes the direction the program is going and is excited about the future. He’s attended NHL development camps the last two summers, most recently with the Buffalo Sabres in June.

“Coach Lammers has really taken over the program,” he said. “... Next year should be a great season. I give a lot of credit to him and what he’s done.”

In his first two seasons at Niagara, Lammers has a 30-31-5 combined record — a vast improvement from the previous three years, when the Purple Eagles went 18-84-13. Last season, NU fell to AIC in overtime in the Atlantic Hockey final.

Going forward, Lammers has big plans for the program.

“My vision, when I close my eyes, is a packed Dwyer, faces painted, and ‘We Are NU, We Are NU’ chants,” he said.

But the future is bigger than hockey for Lammers. He sees the program helping to lead the revitalization and invigoration of Lewiston and Niagara Falls down the road.

“I realize that those are big, audacious goals, but that's the world that we live in,” he said. “And that's the vision we have.”

As for the hockey, with three players attending NHL development camps the last two seasons, Lammers would love to see a player get an NHL contract, and actually play in the NHL. Last season, Niagara was picked to finish in last place in the conference. That’s probably not going to happen before the upcoming season.

“Everybody here wants us to be at the top of this league,” Lammers said. “And so this is now our first knock at it. I'm sure we're not going to get picked 11th again this year. This is our first chance to kind of be the hunted rather than the hunter. This is our first chance to really embrace having a target on our back and embrace the expectations that come along with that.”