TRAVERSE CITY, Mich. - The moment he officially joined the coaching ranks, Derek King thought about picking up the phone to make amends.
"I said I was going to call all the coaches I had and apologize because I probably drove them nuts as a player," said King, who is coaching the Blackhawks during the Traverse City Prospect Tournament that concludes Tuesday.
The Blackhawks organization has put its future in the hands of King as the head coach of their AHL affiliate, the Rockford IceHogs. After the promotion of Jeremy Colliton to the Blackhawks last November, King was named interim coach of the IceHogs and despite the change behind the bench and significant roster upheaval, he guided them to a record of 29-28-3-4. That prompted the Blackhawks to strip the interim tag following the 2018-19 season and make King the man to oversee the development of the organization's top prospects.
It's a role that King embraces after discovering at the end of his playing career that he relished the opportunity to counsel young players. King had a highly-productive NHL career from the mid-1980s through the '90s and tacked on three more seasons as an unofficial player/coach about two hours away with Grand Rapids of the IHL and AHL. It was there that King "got hooked" on mentoring young teammates.
"Everybody wants to be a head coach in the NHL and win Stanley Cups but I really enjoy the development part," King said. "When I was playing at the end of my career in the minors I was helping a lot of the young guys, so I was kind of coaching anyway. I was still playing but I was in their ear coaching and helping them out. That's when I got a little bug for it and said, 'I think I can do this.' And I finally got a chance to do it so I'm going to run with it.
"It's more just teaching these kids all the mistakes I made and helping them and watching them," King continued. "I get a big kick out of watching these guys develop and grow and when they get their first NHL game it's fun to watch. You feel like you're a part of it."
The Blackhawks - in particular Vice President of Hockey Operations/Team Affiliates Mark Bernard, who was a childhood friend of King's growing up in Hamilton, Ontario - had him in their sights for years before finally bringing King into the fold as an assistant with the IceHogs in the summer of 2016. In '17 he had a formal interview for the head coaching position that eventually went to Colliton but bided his time until the job re-opened.
"The one thing about Derek is nothing was ever gifted to him," Bernard said. "He worked extremely hard for everything he earned in a long NHL career (with the Islanders, Whalers, Maple Leafs and Blues) and he understands how we look at it as an organization and how important it is to us to develop and expedite the development of these players. He wants to win just as much as anybody but he also understands the importance of the development side of it."
During the Traverse City tournament, King is coaching many of the players who will make up the roster of the '19-20 IceHogs and is getting an early feel for what lies ahead.
"The big thing is to just get these guys on the ice and put them in situations where they can succeed and see what they have," King said. "You get a good read on your guys and you get a feel for them, get to know them and their personalities. The big thing for me is there could be 10-12 guys on this team that I'm getting and now I get a good chance to really get a good feel for them."
In return, they are also getting a good feel for their coach.
"Probably what he's best at is just communicating with guys," said defenseman Chad Krys. "He was a player for a long time so I think he gets where the players are coming from. He makes guys feel comfortable and feel like they're allowed to play. A big thing with him is effort and compete and he'll let you make a couple of mistakes. You definitely listen when he talks."
With the Blackhawks currently in a two-year postseason drought, it figures to be a critical developmental year in Rockford.
"Over the years they won so many Cups and never had to really dig into their minor-league pool other than one or two players," King said. "Now, it's not a rebuild but they have to look to their farm system to pick players out. We have a lot of young prospects, which is nice. We never had that before. It's not like you can go out there and just buy your team with the salary cap, you have to develop these players in your system."
The 52-year-old King is keeping his focus on his current situation and will let his coaching future play itself out.
"I just stay in the moment," he said. "I have a two-year deal and I'm just going to do my best and develop these kids. And I'm going to develop, too, as a coach. I have a lot to learn too. There's always room for learning."