"They (the Nailers ownership) had some places that were here. But we had to make sure they had to get furnished and then we had to go out and had to probably get six more places. It was a lot of running around and it was a lot of hard work."
-- Peter Laviolette, on finding housing for his players
That is the opinion of Peter Laviolette, who won a Stanley Cup as the coach of the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006, but nine years earlier, was a rookie coach in a league then called the East Coast Hockey League that he knew little about.
Laviolette very quickly learned that it wasn't "summertime and the living is easy" in his first couple days as coach of the Wheeling Nailers. Being a coach two rungs below the NHL brings a totally different job description, and the first order of business may not be getting players, but finding the right real estate broker and getting proper housing for players.
A coach is a recruiter with July and August being prime season to get players. Generally, ECHL teams have players who return year after year, but there are some specific rules teams follow. For instance, a team in 2008-09 had to spend at least $8,300 weekly, but could not exceed $11,500 and NHL assigned players could make only $525 weekly and anything over that would be a salary-cap violation.
Last year, a rookie in the ECHL had to be paid at least $350 per week. Returning players, someone who has played in 25 or more professional hockey games, must get $395 per week. Additionally, ECHL teams can only have four "veteran" players per team (a veteran is a player who has appeared in 260 or more professional games).
In 1997, the salaries were lower, but Laviolette had to deal with a salary cap and other rules.
"Coaching, getting the players here, housing, everything that has to be with the hockey operations," Laviolette said. "Not necessarily sharpening skates or taping somebody's ankle, but flying (prospective players) them in, flying them out, bus trips, setting up the yearly schedule, salary caps, all that stuff. Yeah (looking for housing), it was a lot of work. I was never so happy to get a team and get on the ice (at training camp) than I was because the first two months before the team got here was a lot of headaches.
"You got to be able to move guys in and out, that is for sure. That was the biggest headache."
Although player recruitment was tough, Laviolette said there was one caveat.
"You got to remember too this was the East Coast Hockey League; it is not the NHL and these guys are looking for a place to play and these guys aren't going to be too picky. If they are, they are in the wrong business," he said.
Back then, the ECHL competed with the Central Hockey League and the International Hockey League for players, although most ECHL teams had an affiliation with NHL clubs and get a few players that are not ready for the NHL team's American Hockey League club. But it takes more than just money to land a player; housing was a big part of the coach's sales pitch to a player thinking about signing with an ECHL, CHL, IHL or even a lower level Southern Professional Hockey League club.
"They (the Nailers ownership) had some places that were here," Laviolette said of his apartment shopping experiences in Wheeling back in 1997. "But we had to make sure they had to get furnished and then we had to go out and had to probably get six more places. It was a lot of running around and it was a lot of hard work."
Another problem that Laviolette and all coaches in the lower minors have is buses. Hockey teams don't travel on the Madden Cruiser, although that didn't stop Laviolette from dreaming about a traveling on great bus in his only ECHL season.
"We didn't bus that far," he said with a laugh. "Some of the buses come with 21 sleepers, satellite TV, two big screen TVs, one in the front cabin, one in the rear cabin with couches, a stove, a microwave, a refrigerator, each bunk has its own individual TV, climate control. I haven't seen it yet. We were up in the north here; our longest trip was to Hampton Roads or Peoria which is about eight hours away.
The 1997-98 Nailers never did get that bus of Laviolette's dreams.
"If I had to worry about skates, this team would have been in big trouble."
-- Peter Laviolette
For those who never were on an ECHL team, Laviolette said the notion of bus rides like those that were portrayed in the movie "Slap Shot" where players were gambling away meal money and drinking was not true. The players were professional.
"This league took huge strides," said Laviolette. "I had never been in it before, I had no idea what to expect as far as the busing goes, as far as the talent level of hockey, as far as the money goes. The travel is not bad and you know what -- the hockey was surprisingly good. I wasn't aware of what it was like down here, but it was very good hockey."
Laviolette wasn't responsible for everything Wheeling Nailers in 1997-98. His equipment guy ordered rolls of tape and sharpened skates.
"If I had to worry about skates, this team would have been in big trouble," he laughed.
Laviolette spent only one year in the East Coast Hockey League. In 1998, he was named coach of the Providence Bruins and won the AHL Calder Cup championship. He spent two years in Providence and moved up to the parent Boston Bruins as an assistant coach. He made it as an NHL coach in 2001 with the New York Islanders. He was let go after two years and signed with the Carolina Hurricanes and won the Stanley Cup in 2006.
He also coached the U.S. Olympic hockey team in 2006. He was relieved of his duties in Raleigh last December, but not before he recorded his 240th career victory, the most wins by an American-born coach in NHL history. He has since been replaced at the top by New York Rangers coach John Tortorella.
Not bad for a player who turned to coaching and learned that there was more to the profession than just plotting strategy and pacing behind the bench.