American Head Coaches Making Waves in Pro Hockey

Wednesday morning, the Buffalo Sabres named Ron Rolston head coach for its AHL affiliate, the Rochester Americans. Rolston is just the latest among up-and-coming American coaches to earn a job in pro hockey this off-season.

This blog often focuses on the top prospects in the country, but the boom in American coaches earning high-profile jobs and honors is showing that there may be a new trend in hockey. It’s often said that hockey is full of people from the “old boys” network. They tend to stick together and that’s why you tend to see a lot of ex-NHL head coaches get new jobs pretty quick.

However, some teams are going in a new direction. What once was a rarity is becoming more and more the norm. Canadians had a stranglehold on NHL, AHL and even college positions for decades. This new wave of American coaches is changing that.

By my count, as of this writing, half of the American Hockey League’s 30 teams will be led by American coaches. That’s right, 15 American head coaches in the NHL’s top developmental league. There are currently six Americans leading NHL teams.

The growth in the AHL suggests something similar could happen at the NHL level in time, though it could be a long time.

Consider that only two Jack Adams Award winners (NHL Coach of the Year) are American. John Tortorella (2003-04, Tampa Bay) was the first, and Penguins head man Dan Bylsma joined him just last season. Will that number change in the near future? It certainly could with the plethora of American coaches at the helm of NHL and AHL teams.

In addition to Michigan-born Bylsma winning the Adams last season, his AHL counterpart, Rhode Island-native John Hynes, bench boss of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins earned that league’s coach of the year honors.

Where are these guys coming from? Let’s talk about it after the jump.

Before I get into the up-and-comers, I think it’s important to take a quick look at Bylsma’s rapid climb.

Dan Bylsma is slightly different than some of his on-the-rise American counterparts in that he actually played in the NHL for a while. Rightly, or wrongly, former players seem to always have an edge, but they have to be smart enough and skilled enough to lead a team. Bylsma is.

After he retired in 2004, he became an assistant for the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks in the AHL, then earned a gig as an Islanders assistant. He served as an assistant for two more years at the AHL level with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, before being promoted to head coach of the Baby Pens in 2008-09. Michel Therrien gets fired by the Pens that very same year, and who walks in? Dan Bylsma. What does he do? Leads his team to the Stanley Cup, one Qdoba burrito at a time.

Two years later, he’s named coach of the year, and looking at what he did with the Pens without the game’s best player for half the season, it’s well deserved. FACT: Dan Bylsma is a freak of nature.

Now let’s get to some of the newbies:

The National Team Development Program has apparently become the cradle of AHL coaches over the last few years. With Rolston added to the mix, there are now four former NTDP head coaches behind the bench at the AHL level.

Rhode Island-native David Quinn‘s only head coaching experience prior to earning a pro job was with the NTDP, serving as the U.S. National Under-17 Team’s head coach for two seasons (2002-04). Before being hired by the Colorado Avalanche to lead its AHL affiliate, the Lake Erie Monsters, Quinn spent five seasons as the associate head coach for Jack Parker at Boston University.

Quinn played at BU, but an illness cut his hockey career short, though he made a brief come back and played two years of minor league hockey. He became a coach in 1995 with Northeastern University and also spent time at Nebraska-Omaha. After helping lead BU to the national title in 2009, Colorado called and he accepted.

Hynes was the next to get a call from the AHL. After six years as a head coach at the NTDP, Pittsburgh lured Hynes away to become an assistant coach to Todd Rierden (another American), at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The following season Rierden moved up to be an assistant with Pittsburgh and Hynes was promoted to head coach. In his first year as a professional head coach, he won the coach of the year award after a record-breaking season in WBS.

Hynes played four years at BU, but never played pro hockey. He started his coaching career as a graduate assistant at Boston University, then became a GA at the NTDP. He also spent time as a college assistant at UMass-Lowell and Wisconsin before returning to the NTDP as a head coach.

Kurt Kleinendorst, a native of Grand Rapids, Minn., replaced Hynes at the NTDP. Kleinendorst, however, played college and minor-pro hockey, and also had 20-plus years experience in the professional game as a coach or scout. He even spent a season asan assistant with the New Jersey Devils. He also served as head coach of New Jersey’s top affiliate in Lowell for three seasons. In his one season at the NTDP, he helped guide the U.S. National Under-18 Team to gold in Belarus in 2010. Just a few months later, he was hired by Ottawa to be the head coach of the Binghamton Senators. Kleinendorst led the B-Sens to the Calder Cup last season.

The latest in the group is the aforementioned Fenton, Mich., native Rolston, announced as head coach of the Amerks Wednesday. He is the most decorated coach in NTDP history with three gold medals and a silver at the U18 World Championship, a title at the World Under-17 Hockey Challenge, and like his other NTDP counterparts has developed a ton of NHL talent.

The crazy part about Rolston’s hire, was that he was passed over by four different colleges this off-season, but was sought out by Rochester. Ryan S. Clark explains why college hockey missed the boat on this one.

What do they want at the AHL level? Someone who can help develop pro talent for the NHL. These NTDP coaches have done it, albeit for younger players. The level of success enjoyed by NTDP coaches after they leave Ann Arbor has been pretty remarkable. And that’s without mentioning two of the best coaches in college hockey, Notre Dame’s Jeff Jackson, who helped build the program from the ground up; and Wisconsin’s Mike Eaves, who was the first coach to lead U.S. teams to gold at the World Under-18 and World Junior Championships.

The NTDP develops players primarily, but its unique atmosphere also helps coaches develop over time. It’s no surprise to see the NHL’s top developmental league want former NTDP coaches with the track record of helping players get better and helping them prepare for their careers.

The USHL has also proven to be a good training ground.

Jeff Blashill, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., was just hired by the Detroit Red Wings to be an assistant to Mike Babcock, arguably one of the finest coaches in hockey. Blashill’s rise to the NHL has been meteoric. After serving as a college assistant at Ferris State and Miami (Ohio), he earned a shot with the Indiana Ice of the USHL to be a head coach. In his first season, he led the team to the Clark Cup. Following his second season in Indy, he was hired away by Western Michigan University and promptly turned that team around, making it to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1996.

That was all it took for Blashill, a former goaltender, to earn a shot with the Red Wings. He’s positioned himself well in his career and has proven himself at each level he’s been at. Who knows where he can go from here.

Another notable former USHL coach is Jon Cooper. He’s Canadian born, but holds dual citizenship. Let’s talk about a guy who built his career basically from the ground up en route to becoming the head coach of the Norfolk Admirals, AHL affiliate of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Cooper, who never played higher than Division III college hockey (Hofstra), obtained a law degree and was a practicing lawyer until 2003 when he began to focus on his coaching career. Crazy, right?

Like Bylsma, Cooper may be a freak of nature. He coached youth hockey with the Little Caesar’s program before moving on to the North American Hockey League. After leading the St. Louis Bandits to back-to-back Robertson Cups, he got hired away by the Green Bay Gamblers in the USHL. The Gamblers posted the best regular season record in each of Cooper’s two seasons at the helm and won the Clark Cup in his second season.

He’s an inspiration for a youth hockey coach that aspires to be something greater, but as I mentioned… he’s a freak of nature. It is so rare for something like that to happen. The guy has won wherever he’s been. Not everyone can do that.

Troy Ward‘s been everywhere, man. He’s been everywhere. The Wisconsin-native is another guy who’s worked his way up from near the bottom and the Calgary Flames recently named him head coach of its AHL affiliate, the Abbotsford Heat.

Having started his career as an assistant coach at his alma mater, University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, it’s been a long, meandering climb for Ward to earn his first AHL head coaching job. After two seasons as an assistant, Ward became head coach of UW-EC, then an assistant at the University of Denver. Next, he was head coach with the USHL’s Dubuque Fighting Saints, then as an assitant in the old IHL with the Indianapolis Ice. Next up for Ward, was a three-year stint as an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He then earned his first pro head coaching job with Trenton in the ECHL, and was named the league’s coach of the year. Next it was a three-year stint as an assistant with the University of Wisconsin. Then 34 games as a head coach for Victoria in the ECHL. Then three years with the Houston Aeros as an assistant. Then a year as an assistant at Abbotsford and now the head coach. Did you get all that? Oh, and he’s run a pretty successful hockey camp for a number of years. He’s been everywhere.

Another new AHL head coach is Minneapolis-native Jeff Pyle, recently tabbed by the Dallas Stars to lead its top affiliate, the Texas Stars. Pyle has been a longtime pro coach, having spent the previous 12 seasons as an ECHL head coach, with the last eight coming with the Gwinnett Gladiators. Pyle played college hockey at Northern Michigan and had a long minor-pro career, playing in the AHL, IHL, and Germany, among others. It took a little while, but now he has a big opportunity to further his career.

Rob Riley, a native of West Point, N.Y., is about to enter his second season as the head coach of the Springfield Falcons, top affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets. Riley spent the previous four seasons as a scout for the Jackets. Before catching on with Columbus, Riley was the head coach for Army for 18 seasons. The former Boston College standout never played pro, as he became a coach immediately after his senior season at BC.

Another second-year bench boss is Chuck Weber, who hails from Lockport, N.Y. After serving as the head coach of the Rochester Americans last year, as part of the Florida Panthers organization, he’ll be with San Antonio next season. Florida has switched affiliations. Weber is another former Division III hockey player, having skated at the University of Albany. He earned an assistant coaching position in the ECHL with Trenton, spent the following year as an assistant in the AHL with Milwaukee, and then returned to the ECHL for three more years as an assistant. He earned his first pro head coaching job with the Cincinnati Cyclones of the ECHL and helped lead the team to two Kelly Cup titles. He was the 2007-08 ECHL coach of the year.

It’s not just the up-and-comers that are making waves at the AHL level. Several established American coaches have been at this for a while.

John Torchetti is getting his second shot as an AHL head coach, though the Boston native has also served as an interim head coach at the NHL level before. The Minnesota Wild named Torchetti the head coach of the Houston Aeros. The well-respected Torchetti was an assistant for the Atlanta Thrashers last season, and spent the previous three years as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks. His first AHL head coaching stint came in 2002-03, when he served as bench boss for the San Antonio Rampage. His interim head coaching stints in the NHL came with the Florida Panthers (2003-04) and the Los Angeles Kings (2005-06). It may not be long before Torchetti earns a full-time NHL gig as a head coach.

Dallas Eakins, born in Dade City, Fla., played in 120 NHL games and had a pro playing career that spanned 13 years, mostly in the AHL and IHL. He’s been part of the Toronto Maple Leafs organization for the last six seasons, serving as the bench boss for the Toronto Marlies for the last two. His coaching career started as an assistant with the Marlies in 2005-06, and was followed up by two more years as an assistant with the Leafs.

Mark Morris has been an AHL head coach for five years, all with the Manchester Monarchs, top affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings. Prior to becoming an AHL head man, the Massena, N.Y., native led Clarkson University’s men’s hockey program for 12 seasons. Morris had a brief minor-pro playing career after four years at Colgate University.

American-born (Cincinnati), dual-citizen Curt Fraser has been the bench boss for the Grand Rapids Griffins for three seasons. He played in the NHL and served as the Atlanta Thrashers head coach for three and half years. Fun note about Fraser’s playing career, he’s one of the few that has represented both Canada (1978 WJC) and the U.S. (1987 Canada Cup) in international competition. Also interesting, Fraser coached the Belorussian national team at two IIHF World Championships.

Ken Grenander had a cup of coffee in the NHL, but was an AHL superstar. The native of Coleraine, Minn., spent the majority of his AHL career with the Hartford WolfPack, which is now known as the Connecticut Whale. Upon the conclusion of Grenander’s playing career, he served as an assistant for the WolfPack for one season. Last year, he completed his fourth campaign as the head coach of the newly minted Whale.

Oakland, Calif., native Roy Sommer has been an AHL head coach for 13 years and is the longest-tenured coach in the league. Currently with San Jose’s top affiliate, the Worcester Sharks, Sommer’s first AHL stint was with the now defunct Kentucky Thoroughblades. He also served as bench boss for the also defunct Cleveland Barons. Sommer had a brief stint in the NHL, playing in three career games. He did have a pretty successful minor league hockey career.

One thing you may have noticed is that the majority of the new hires in the AHL, listed earlier in this post, had little or no pro playing experience. That’s a severe deviation from the school of thought that a head coach has to have played pro hockey to be head coach at the pro level. It’s that kind of thinking that the NHL needs.

Some of the best managers in baseball never played in the Majors. I’ll always point to Tampa Bay Rays skipper Joe Maddon, who may be one of the best managers in baseball. He played in the minors for a while, but never made it to the big leagues. He thinks outside the box and the people who hired him thought outside the box. Hockey should not fear new blood.

Will a former player get more respect? Sure… initially. Players will respect any coach who knows the game and strives to make those players better. Whether a guy has played or not won’t make him a better coach.

The influx of American coaches, particularly at the AHL level, is extremely encouraging for hockey in our country. The more highly-skilled coaches we produce, it is likely because there are more highly-skilled players that are being produced. Hopefully this is a trend that continues on for many years.

We’ll examine this topic again in the near future, taking a look at some of the other levels in which American coaches are making an impact including the NHL, NCAA and Junior. I’ll also have a post about the impact Ron Rolston and John Hynes had on the NTDP coming real soon.

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About Chris Peters

Editor of The United States of Hockey. Contributor to CBSSports.com, USA Hockey Magazine and more. Former USA Hockey PR guy. Current Iowan.
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3 Responses to American Head Coaches Making Waves in Pro Hockey

  1. Anonymous says:

    It’s very encouraging news indeed learning that more and more American born coaches are hired as Head Coaches at the pro level, whether it’s AHL, NHL or ECHL levels. We used to go to Long Beach Ice Dogs games, the local ECHL franchise, played at Long Beach Arena during the 2004-05 NHL lockout season.

    In the NBA, the head coaching positions often came from the NCAA ranks and former pro players who themselves have played NCAA basketball, except one pro team in Canada, the Toronto Raptors which has Canadian-born head coach, assisted by a team of several American born Assistant Coaches, several of them were former NBA Head Coaches. Of course, that’s because 99.9% of active players in NBA are Americans with only a few Europeans and maybe 1 Canadian (this player played NCAA ball at the University of Santa Clara in California). There are 29 teams in the US, only 1 team in Canada …. :^)

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