Christmas came early for Doug Towler, with maybe the most historic moment to happen thus far during the 50th season of MHSAA hockey. He became the winningest coach in Michigan state high school hockey history when his Genesee Generals defeated the Bay Area Thunder 3-2 last Saturday.
Cohen Palmer’s goal helped clinch Towler’s 630th win, passing Trenton’s Mike Turner with the most all-time victories. The game, however, was anything but easy.
“I think the kids felt the pressure of it,” said Towler. “Maybe along the way, my voice had the pressure in it too.”
This is Towler’s 45th season behind the bench. His high school coaching career began in 1979 with Flint Northern, before he spent a decade with Grand Blanc. Since 1992, though, Towler has been the head coach for Davison; who’s now part of the Genesee Generals co-op with Flushing and Goodrich. Few, if any, have seen as much of MHSAA’s 50 years of high school hockey than Towler himself.
“All of the hard work that the [Michigan High School Hockey Coaches’ Association] has done to create that bond with Michigan high school and USA Hockey has been tremendous,” said Towler. “It’s been good for the association, it’s been good for the coaches, I think it’s been good for youth hockey in general. I take my hat off to them for what they’ve done.”
Some of those recent changes include the restructuring of the MHSAA state playoffs, where co-op programs are now dispersed amongst all three divisions. Additionally, the Michigan Amateur Hockey Association (MAHA) moved the Tier-II 18U state playoffs from November to March. All of which, Towler said, has had a positive impact on the game in the state.
Reaching the coaching ‘summit’ in terms of win totals didn’t become a reality until Towler hit 600 wins in February of 2021. While it certainly seemed more attainable, breaking the all-time win mark was never really the goal.
“If I would’ve stopped at 620, I would’ve been fine,” Towler said. “I’m grateful for what I’ve had and what I’ve been given.”
The truth is, after spending five decades on the ice, Towler still enjoys it. He enjoys having an impact on the kids and the community. Working together to achieve a common goal. Problem solving and finding new ways to fix age-old issues. Hell, when he took the phone call for this interview, he had just put the finishing touches on the Generals’ power-play issues after meeting with players and staff.
He’s the only person in MHSAA hockey history to coach more than 1,000 games, and Towler doesn’t have much interest in slowing down.
“This keeps me going, this is good for me,” said Towler. “It’s medicinal. I don’t want to quit, not just for [the win record] but I enjoy it. Today was fun. We’re running down the power play, showing kids their options. I still enjoy that part of it.
“I always liked that challenge of trying to put that puzzle together and make it work.”
In addition to the 700-plus Michigan high school hockey players that have competed under Towler’s leadership, he was quick to point out a few of the many people who have played an impactful role in reaching 630 wins.
“My wife is a hockey fan and my girls loved the game,” said Towler. “I was very lucky because I had support at home. My wife would pick the kids up, I would schedule practices so I could get to [my daughters’] games. There were days where I would go from work, to practice, to my daughter’s game and then referee two men’s league games at 9 p.m.”
A support system at home is half the battle for any youth sports coach. Having that foundation to ‘hold down the fort’ while Towler continued his treks to and from the rink were paramount. The second support system — the one maybe a bit more impactful on wins and losses — was a reliable coaching staff at the rink. Assistant coach Charlie Eakes has been by Towler’s side for the past 37 seasons. Assistant coach Tony Perry has been on staff for 35 years. That core provided a solid and reliable group that’s won 10 regional championships since 2000, made four Final Four appearances and back-to-back State Finals in ‘02 and ‘03.
Add in former player and Davison alum Ryan Walsh, and the coaching staff has been as consistent and cohesive as any group in the state. Support at the rink, support at home, and the cherry on top? Stellar athletic directors in the schools.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have great bosses,” Towler said. “You need that support from your school or your boss or your athletic director; that support staff. All the way from Flint Northern where it wasn’t really much of a hockey school, to going to Grand Blanc and having two great guys. Then, coming to Davison and having four over the years. I think that’s the key to success.”
Saturday’s win surpassed a mark that had stood for almost 10 years. With Towler sitting atop the coaches’ leaderboard, he may remain there for quite some time. Traverse City Central’s Chris Givens holds the second-most wins among active coaches, with 428 according to the MHSAA. Brian Dallas would be next at 366 wins, as he currently coaches for Plymouth.
With a significant gap from the pack, and each win adding to his total, Towler’s top mark will only continue to grow. The milestone may not fully sink in until he finally decides to hang up the whistle, but for now, Towler’s just focused on the next game at hand.
“I think about the game tomorrow,” he said. “I think about the power play. I think about line matchups. I think about line combinations. I can’t say that [the record] has been a real focus. I didn’t even want it mentioned. We never talked about it amongst the coaches because it’s about the kids.”
Win number 630 was Genesee’s eighth of the season, and third in a row heading into winter break. They’ve out-scored opponents 41-22 through the first 10 games of the season and sit third in the Saginaw Valley League standings behind Flint Powers and Bay City. The second-year co-op has significantly improved upon its inaugural season from last winter.
“For me, the most important thing is the people who have crossed paths with me, it’s just been special and I’ve been very very fortunate to have coaches a lot of really nice players,” said Towler. “I think of that more than I think of [the record].”