Career Wins Record Reflection of Towler's Dedication to Genesee County HS Hockey

By Paul Costanzo
Special for

January 10, 2024

Jeff Rouse called his former hockey coach Doug Towler one of the most intense people he’s met. 

Bay & Thumb“He was a (butt)-kicker,” Rouse said. “You knew Doug was the boss. If you weren’t listening in practice, you were skating, or he was breaking hockey sticks over the net.”

But when Rouse had the opportunity to attend a party celebrating Towler setting the MHSAA all-time coaching wins record recently, he and some of his former Grand Blanc teammates, who played for Towler during the 1980s, made sure to be there. And to see the emotion on Towler’s face as he walked into Madden’s Bar in Davison greeted by dozens of his former players made it more than worth it.

“I’ve got nothing but good things to say about Doug Towler as a coach, and even as a friend after,” Rouse said. “He’s always been a good dude. … We’re all just fortunate to have been blessed to skate for the man.”

Hundreds of players at Flint Northern, Grand Blanc, Davison and now with the Genesee Generals – a second-year co-op team with athletes from Davison, Flushing, Goodrich and Swartz Creek – have had the opportunity to play for Towler over his more than 40-year career. And on Saturday, Dec. 23, they all became part of history.

The Generals defeated Bay Area Thunder 3-2 that night, giving Towler his 630th career victory, sending him past Mike Turner of Trenton for most all-time for a hockey coach in Michigan. 

Towler knew it was on the horizon, but didn’t want to bring attention to it – “That’s so Doug,” Rouse remarked – as he didn’t want to put extra pressure on his players.

But when he stepped into Madden’s, it all started to get to Towler.

“When I got to the party that they had, it was a surprise, obviously,” said Towler, who now has 631 wins. “I got there and I see the guys I work with at (IMA Brookwood Golf Club), and I see some old players, and it did kind of hit me a little bit. It was, honestly, it was great. It was a fun night. A couple of the (Flint) Powers coaches came over after their game, and there was a Grand Blanc coach there, and so it was a nice night. There were a lot of laughs, a lot of stories. And I’m sure, you know, over the years, those stories have gotten bigger.”

One doesn’t need to exaggerate when telling tales of Towler’s career, though.

The Sarnia, Ontario, native played college hockey at the University of New Hampshire and signed with the Chicago Blackhawks organization, playing in their minor league system for two years. His pro career took him to Austria, but he returned to North America to play for the Flint Generals of the International Hockey League. After one full season with the Generals and an injury-shortened second IHL season played in Flint and Saginaw, Towler joined the coaching ranks, taking over the Flint Northern program in 1979.

After two seasons at Northern, he spent a decade at Grand Blanc, winning three Regional titles between 1981-91. He took over the Davison program in 1992, and over his 30 years with the program he’s won eight Regional titles, made four trips to the Semifinals and two MHSAA Finals appearances.

“I played for him for three years, and I’ve known Coach Towler for a long time, and personal accolades were never on his radar,” said Albert Mitchell, who played for Towler from 2001-03 and helped Davison finish as Finals runner-up in 2002 and 2003. “He was always about wanting to make guys better hockey players, and better young men.”

It’s that philosophy that not only helped Towler win more games than any other hockey coach in the state – Traverse City Central’s Chris Givens is second among active coaches, and entered the season with 428 wins – but made so many former players want to be there for him when the milestone was celebrated.

“It’s safe to say that, for me, I don’t believe I would have ever played high school hockey if it wasn’t for Coach Towler,” said Mitchell, who went on to play at Elmira College in New York and is now the coach of the Fenton-Linden Area high school team. “Coach Towler is somebody that my dad respected and he wanted me to play for, and fortunately I did. I was fortunate to go on and play at the next level, and without Coach Towler, I don’t think I would have been able to do that.”

As fun as the party was, it came dangerously close to not being a celebration of a new record. The Generals led Bay Area 3-0, but allowed a pair of third-period goals that put the game in doubt. Assistant coach Ryan Welch, who had helped arrange the afterparty, said there were some extra nerves down the stretch.

“Was I nervous? Hell yeah, I was nervous,” Welch said with a laugh. “We had planned it two weeks before, and we played Friday and Saturday of that week, so we had to win both of them. We ended up winning 3-2 in Tawas and won 3-2 in Bay City. One of the coaches, Tony Perry, he rarely says anything, and he was chirping the whole game. I do think there was a little bit of nerves with everyone. Doug had his whole family here, and I’m sure our kids were nervous – we didn’t play the very best. Everyone was a little bit nervous because they wanted to be a part of this history.”

Welch, who played for Towler from 2002-06, is one of his three longtime assistants, although his 12-year tenure is much shorter than the others. Both Tony Perry and Charlie Eakes have been with Towler for more than 30 years.

Welch, Rouse and Mitchell all marveled at Towler’s ability to span multiple generations of athletes during his time as a high school coach. But they all are less surprised that Towler could pull it off, and more in awe of what he’s done.

“He’s had a lifelong commitment to the game of hockey at the high school level,” Welch said. “Usually, coaches start to have a little success and they move on. He’s had a lot of patience throughout the years. That tells you that he enjoys coaching these varsity athletes. It takes a tremendous person these days to stick with it. Over 40 years, the generations have changed, and he’s had to change the way he does things. It shows his love for the game of hockey, it shows his love for the community and his commitment to the Genesee County area.”

Paul CostanzoPaul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTO (Top) Genesee Generals hockey coach Doug Towler, far right, celebrates his record 630th win with family Dec. 23. (Photo courtesy of the Davison athletic department.) VIDEO Towler addresses his team after a 2020 win over Flint Powers Catholic.