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NHL turning to AHL for coaching positions

Friday, 02.06.2009 / 9:40 AM / NHL Insider

By Brian Compton - NHL.com Deputy Managing Editor

A chance.

Regardless of your profession, sometimes that's all you need in order to achieve success. The National Hockey League is no different.

With many successful coaches in the NHL, it can be difficult for aspiring coaches to reach the most prominent League in the sport. This season, though, there's been somewhat of a breakthrough, and it's due to the number of talented coaches the American Hockey League has produced.

Entering this season, nine coaches who began the 2007-08 campaign behind an AHL bench were at the top level. With only 30 teams in the NHL. Just last week, Cory Clouston became the ninth when he took over for Craig Hartsburg behind the Ottawa Senators bench.

NHL.com takes a closer look at the 10 AHL head coaches who have moved to the NHL this season.

Cory Clouston -- Cory Clouston was at the halfway point in his second AHL season with the Binghamton Senators when he got the call from Ottawa General Manager Bryan Murray to replace Craig Hartsburg.

To many, Clouston is an unknown commodity, but his work in the Western Hockey League with Kelowna and in Binghamton with the Senators' prospects impressed Murray.
"It's a goal that you set when you first start (into hockey) and you're this tall as a player," Clouston said "It didn't happen for me as a player but it was obviously a goal for me as a coach. And it didn't just happen overnight.

"Look at guys like Mike Babcock and Ken Hitchcock … they paid their dues. It took them 15 years, 20 years to get to where they're at now. It's no different for me. I think it's been 15 years now that I've been doing this for a living at every different level and I believe it's made me a better coach. It's prepared me for this level."

Bruce Boudreau -- Want to know why so many AHL coaches received NHL jobs this summer? Well, you really have to look no further than this Jack Adams Award winner.

What this 53-year-old was able to do in 2007-08 was nothing short of remarkable. After starting the season as head coach of the AHL's Hershey Bears, Boudreau was called upon to replace the fired Glen Hanlon on an interim basis in Washington on Nov. 22. Just over a month later, the interim tag was removed.

Under Boudreau, the Capitals went from 30th in the NHL standings to a Southeast Division title.  He became the fastest coach in club history to reach 30 wins (53 games) and the first coach in NHL history to lead his team from 14th place in the Eastern Conference at midseason to a playoff berth.  

Boudreau attributes much of the success to the Calder Cup he won in Hershey in 2006 -- which featured several players on the '07-08 Capitals.

"It's always difficult to take over when a friend of yours loses his job," Boudreau told NHL.com. "I was really lucky that I had coached eight of the guys before when I took over the team. We had all been together on a championship team, and you always get a special bond when that happens. We started to win right off the bat, which gave them more belief in me and me more belief in them. I hope we can continue the success. I stepped into a very good situation, and we were able to run with it."

Because of that, more AHL coaches may receive NHL jobs down the road. But Boudreau isn't ready to take all of the credit.

"I think everybody would like to be a trailblazer," Boudreau said. "It's coincidental. If I had fallen flat on my face, I would have hoped that the powers that be wouldn't have said, 'OK … an American League guy couldn't do it.' These guys have all got there on their own merit. They're really good at what they do. In the end, all of them deserved it.

"It goes to show you there're a lot people that are good at their craft, and not just only in the NHL. Sometimes, you just need an opportunity."

John Anderson -- After 11 straight winning seasons and four Calder Cup trophies with the AHL's Chicago Wolves, the 51-year-old is finally getting his chance in the NHL as coach of the Atlanta Thrashers.

Indeed, it was a long road to the NHL for Anderson, whose Wolves won 53 games during the 2007-08 regular season before winning the Calder Cup. Despite the fact that he waited more than a decade to get to the NHL, Anderson insists he wasn't bitter that he was being passed up in favor of less-experienced coaches.

"One thing you have to remember is I had a great job in Chicago," Anderson said. "I don't think there's a better job in the American Hockey League. Maybe I'm just a little biased, but I loved what I did there, I loved the people I worked with and I loved the city. It wasn't purgatory. It was a great situation for me. It's very difficult to leave, but this is only one in 30 jobs at this level."

Scott Gordon -- The AHL's reigning Coach of the Year was named coach of the New York Islanders just one month prior to the start of training camp after Ted Nolan was dismissed in July.

Gordon, 45, spent the past five seasons as head coach of the Providence Bruins, going 259-163-30-27. He won the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL's top coach after guiding the P-Bruins to a record of 55-18-7 record in 2007-08.

After spending close to 15 years in the minors, Gordon -- a former Quebec Nordiques goaltender -- is receiving his first crack in the NHL. Much like in the AHL, Gordon will be asked to work with a lot of young players as Isles GM Garth Snow spent this summer re-tooling the franchise's farm system.

"All I can tell you is that's all I've ever had to deal with -- a youth movement," Gordon said. "The last five years in Providence, we got younger every year. I think it's a great opportunity, because you can mold the players into what you believe and how you believe they should play."

Craig Berube -- This will be Berube's second stint as an assistant coach with the Philadelphia Flyers, as the 42-year-old left the club to coach the franchise's AHL affiliate in 2007-08. In his one season as the coach of the Philadelphia Phantoms, Berube went 46-27-4-3 and reached the East Division finals.

"You learn how to run a team … that's the biggest thing. You can be an assistant coach, but you don't have that pressure of running a team or running a bench. I needed that experience to show that I could do it, first of all, and to prove that my team was going to work hard every night. I think as a coach, that's the most important -- your team showing up and playing hard. It's great to get that experience."
-- Craig Berube

Berube was actually the Phantoms' head coach to start the 2006-07 campaign, going 3-2-1. He was named assistant coach of the Flyers on Oct. 23, 2006. But his desire to learn the ropes as a head coach in the minor leagues sparked his return to the Phantoms last season.

"I don't think I'd want to get an NHL job without being a head coach someplace else first, to be honest with you," Berube said. "I felt like when I was up there a year ago, I said to (Flyers GM) Paul Holmgren that I'd like to get that experience of being a head coach some place."

With a burning desire to be a head coach in the NHL, Berube now knows what to expect if/when that day arrives.

"You learn how to run a team … that's the biggest thing," said Berube, who played in the NHL over parts of 17 seasons. "You can be an assistant coach, but you don't have that pressure of running a team or running a bench. I needed that experience to show that I could do it, first of all, and to prove that my team was going to work hard every night. I think as a coach, that's the most important -- your team showing up and playing hard. It's great to get that experience."

Kelly Buchberger -- He spent 11 seasons with the Edmonton Oilers as a player, and now he gets to go home.

Buchberger joined Craig MacTavish's staff after spending one season as the head coach of the Springfield Falcons in the AHL. Under Buchberger's guidance, the Falcons reached the .500 mark (35-35-10) for the first time since 1998-99 and showed a 21-point improvement in the standings.

Buchberger has practically sprinted through the coaching ranks, as he only received his first bench job in 2004 as an assistant with the AHL's Edmonton Road Runners. Nonetheless, he's confident he can help MacTavish and the Oilers reach the postseason for the first time since they lost in the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.

"Anytime you're on a coaching staff, you're all in it together," Buchberger said. "The biggest thing is we want to make the playoffs. As coaches, we'll do whatever we can to make our players better so we have a chance to win the Cup."

When reminded that nine coaches who began last season in the AHL have since made their way to the sport's top level, Buchberger gave all the credit to Boudreau and the job the latter did in Washington.

"Obviously, Bruce Boudreau opened up some eyes about what's in the American League," Buchberger said. "He did an amazing job. There's no question the players responded to him. He elevated their play. He wants the players to have fun and not be scared to make a mistake."

Randy Cunneyworth -- It truly will be a new look behind Atlanta's bench in 2008-09, as Cunneyworth is assisting Anderson.

Cunneyworth, 47, completed his eighth season at the helm of the AHL's Rochester Americans last season and earned a 306-267-67 record in 640 games. He ranks second on the franchise's all-time list for games coached and wins, and is only the second coach in the franchise's 52-year history to coach 500 games.

"It was really only the last year or so that I had been searching actively (for an NHL job)," Cunneyworth said. "I was quite happy with where I was and pleased with the way things were going. I wasn't in much of a rush. Both of my boys are in college now, so it was a lot easier time to move. I was looking for something fresh, and this came along."

Cunneyworth was recognized for his efforts in 2005, when he was named the AHL's Coach of the Year. In 2004-05, the Amerks went 51-23-6 and led the entire league with 112 points. Without question, those are impressive numbers to put on a resume -- a resume that obviously impressed both Anderson and Thrashers GM Don Waddell.

Mike Haviland -- One of the hardest-working coaches in the sport today, Haviland worked his way up from an assistant coach in the ECHL to the NHL as an assistant with the Chicago Blackhawks.

The 41-year-old from New Jersey played just 20 games of minor-league hockey before injuries ended his career. In 1999, he was named Bruce Cassidy's assistant coach with the ECHL's Trenton Titans. Four years later, he guided the Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies to a Kelly Cup. In 2005, returned to Trenton as head coach and guided the franchise to its only championship, becoming just the second coach in ECHL history to guide two different teams to titles.

After winning in Trenton, Haviland was rewarded by the Blackhawks, who named him head coach of their AHL affiliate. In his three seasons in the AHL, Haviland went 137-77-26. In 2007, he was named the AHL's Coach of the Year.

"I started out as an assistant coach in the ECHL, and to make it here 10 years later, it's obviously a dream," Haviland said. "I wanted to be in the NHL, and I get a chance with the team that gave me my first AHL job. I guess good things happen to people who work. Obviously, I had to have some success along the way, but if you work, good things happen to you. That's something I've always told my teams."

Todd Richards -- He played just eight games in NHL despite being grabbed by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round of the 1985 Entry Draft.

Now an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks, Richards pointed to a lack of urgency during his playing days. He admitted to suffering from it during his time as an assistant coach with the AHL's Milwaukee Admirals. A conversation with then-head coach Claude Noel (who is now an assistant in Columbus) basically changed his life.

"Maybe that was my problem as a player. You're constantly worrying about the end result instead of the process, and that's one thing we try to teach our young players. I think you can look at that from a career standpoint, too. I was just focused on the situation where I was at and trying to make my team better. I wasn't really focused on the NHL."
-- Todd Richards

"I was undecided with what I wanted to do," Richards said. "I think Claude challenged me. We sat down and had a meeting one day, and he really confronted me about certain things and what I wanted out of my career. I think that kind of woke me up. It got me more vested as a coach. I worked with him for three years, and we had some success."

Richards certainly enjoyed success as the head coach of the AHL's Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. In just two seasons there, Richards compiled a record of 98-48-5-8. This past season, Richards led the Penguins to the East Division regular season title with a 47-26-3-4 record and a spot in the Calder Cup Finals against the Chicago Wolves. Even while he was racking up wins at the AHL level, Richards wasn't worried that an NHL team wouldn't come calling.

"I wasn't concerned … I truly wasn't," Richards said. "Maybe that was my problem as a player. You're constantly worrying about the end result instead of the process, and that's one thing we try to teach our young players. I think you can look at that from a career standpoint, too. I was just focused on the situation where I was at and trying to make my team better. I wasn't really focused on the NHL."

Tom Rowe -- After seven seasons in the Carolina Hurricanes' minor-league system, Rowe joined the big club as an assistant, first to Peter Laviolette and now to Paul Maurice.

Rowe, 52, was head coach of Carolina's AHL affiliate for the past four seasons. He guided the AHL's Albany River Rats to a 93-point season in 2007-08, which was good for the third place in the always-competitive East Division.  Albany lost a heated seven-game series with the Philadelphia Phantoms in the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

This is Rowe's first coaching job in the NHL. A former right wing, Rowe tallied 85 goals and 100 assists in 357 games with Washington, Hartford and Detroit. Even though it took the better part of a decade to get to Carolina, Rowe said he never became discouraged. His relationship with the Hurricanes' front office has been solid since he first joined the Lowell Lock Monsters as an assistant coach back in 2001.

"I got into coaching because (Carolina GM) Jim Rutherford had asked me if I wanted to be Ron Smith's assistant," Rowe said. "I'm not one to put my resume out every time there's an opportunity with another NHL team. I really enjoy working for the Carolina Hurricanes. I was very happy working at the minor-league level, and I always felt that if I did a good enough job and Jim thought I was ready to come up, I always felt I'd get that chance. It's a great group of guys to work for and work with. I never really got too ahead of myself."
Quote of the Day

I'm just excited about the opportunity. I've been on the ice earlier than usual and in the weight room, pushing around a little more weights than usual. Every day I go into a workout with a smile on my face and ready to go. When you do have a little more responsibility, you want to take your lunch pail and get ready to work.

— Brian Elliott to Jeremy Rutherford of the Post-Dispatch on being the Blues' No. 1 goalie