"It means a lot to everybody, but maybe even more for me. Starting as an assistant coach in the ECHL, and 10 years later being in the NHL and to be a coach here, it's pretty special."
-- Chicago Blackhawks assistant coach Mike Haviland
Ten long years of killer bus rides during his days as head coach in the ECHL, 10 years that featured cross-continent flights from Trenton to Alaska, 10 years that featured two championships in the ECHL and a Coach of the Year Award in the American Hockey League.
Last Wednesday morning, all that sacrifice paid off for the 41-year-old Haviland. On a bitterly cold day in Chicago, there stood Haviland, now an assistant coach with the Chicago Blackhawks, skating on the ice at Wrigley Field, helping Joel Quenneville prepare the team for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic 2009.
The Winter Classic is only one of the most historic sporting events to ever take place in Chicago, a day that made those trips from Atlantic City to Roanoke seem so long ago. Without question, the hard work has paid off for the man who never played in the NHL.
"This is so awesome. Just the history of this building and the history of both organizations, it's obviously something special," Haviland said. "It means a lot to everybody, but maybe even more for me. Starting as an assistant coach in the ECHL, and 10 years later being in the NHL and to be a coach here, it's pretty special."
He may not be the head coach -- that job belongs to Quenneville -- but Haviland unquestionably has plenty to do with Chicago's success this season. The New Jersey native coached several of the team's current players at the American Hockey League level, including Dustin Byfuglien, James Wisniewski, Adam Burish, Kris Versteeg and Troy Brouwer.
Byfuglien raves about the job Haviland did with him personally. The 6-foot-3, 247-pound right wing split the 2005-06 campaign between Norfolk and Chicago, but spent the majority of the following season in the AHL. The lack of time in the NHL took a toll on Byfuglien's confidence, but Haviland was there for the restoration.
"He just believed in me," Byfuglien said. "He gave me the opportunities that I needed and gave me the ice time. If I was down, he told me to keep my head up. He stuck with me and showed me the ropes."
Wisniewski also spent parts of two seasons with Haviland in Norfolk. The 24-year-old defenseman played in only 19 games for the Blackhawks in 2005-06 before appearing in 60 contests the following season. He was appreciative of the way Haviland treated him during his time in the AHL.
"I think he realized my style of play and my personality," said Wisniewski, a fifth-round draft pick from 2002. "He knew how to deal with me. Some guys just don't like to be screamed at, and he recognizes that and what type of person you are and what you need to do to be better."
Those skills may lead to Haviland one day having a staff of his own.
Some of his players believe that day is coming.
"He'll definitely get an opportunity," Wisniewski said. "He's an assistant coach right now and he's learning just like everybody else. He's worked his way up to each level. One day, he'll get his opportunity."
"I think he'll definitely be a head coach sooner or later," he said. "It's a matter of time. Everyone has to work their way up."
The only certainty?
Should that day ever come, Haviland says he will be ready.
"I think it's good for me that I'm learning what this League is all about and what it’s going to take to be successful," Haviland said. "Learning from Joel is great for me and for my career. I don't think there's been a defining moment, but I feel confident enough that if there was a day -- whether it's two years, three years -- I feel confident enough that I could do the job at this level."
As he should. He has a decade worth of reasons to be confident in his abilities.
"It's been a long road, probably longer than some of the other guys," Haviland said. "But a lot of guys start in the minors. It would probably be very gratifying. When I started, that was the goal. If you can reach a goal in any job, I think it's pretty special -- especially in this business. It would be an honor and a privilege to be a head coach at this level, for sure."
Contact Brian Compton at: email@example.com.