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Return To Coaching Is Sweet For Acton

by Rob Mixer / Columbus Blue Jackets

No matter how long you’ve been in the NHL, how many games you’ve coached or the myriad of circumstances you’ve been part of, it’s never easy to sit and watch from the sidelines – and Keith Acton found out firsthand a year ago.

The longtime NHL veteran spent the previous 10 seasons as an assistant coach with Toronto Maple Leafs, but was let go after the 2010-11 season. It would be the first time in 32 years that Acton was not working in hockey, and it was painful. But he kept an eye on several opening around the league, and when opportunity arose in Columbus, Acton saw a fit.

Not too long after, he and Todd Richards agreed. There was a fit with the Blue Jackets, and the 54-year-old was formally announced as the team’s assistant coach on Wednesday afternoon. Along with newly-named associate coach Craig Hartsburg, Acton rounds out the Blue Jackets’ coaching staff which is loaded with experience.

Between the two new hires is a combined 38 years and over of coaching pedigree at the NHL level and both men had extensive playing careers, as well. Acton said he envisions his new coaching staff collaborating as a team, in sequence, all the time – just how successful teams play the game on the ice.

Acton, with former Leafs coach Paul Maurice in a 2008 game.

“This group of coaches has a lot of expertise in every aspect of the game,” Acton told “We’ll break up some of the responsibilities that need broken down, whether it’s the power play or penalty kill. But at the end of the day, there will be a group discussion on how we make this work. We’re all capable of having some perspective on all aspects, and that communication is healthy.

“I’m beyond thrilled to be able to join the Blue Jackets organization and work with Todd and our staff.”

A large part of the thrill is getting back in the NHL after a long career in Toronto, where Acton served as assistant coach under three different bench bosses (Pat Quinn, Paul Maurice, Ron Wilson). Prior to that, he plied his trade as a hard-nosed forward that logged time with six different NHL teams over 1,023 career games.

Acton’s competitive nature as a player has transferred into his coaching life. Many have said there are few players who despised losing as much as Acton did, and as he moved into a career behind the bench, he became a believer in the concepts of commitment and sacrifice.

Every player on the ice has to pull on the same rope, he said – and if the buy-in doesn’t happen, the odds are not favorable for success.

“There are no dynasties in the league anymore,” Acton said. “This is a very, very competitive league and there’s a fine line between winning and losing. You have to get a commitment out of everyone to play solid defense, and when you lose the puck, there’s a maximum effort to get back on the right side of the puck and defend.

“I think there are some cornerstone players in place here in Columbus. What (Richards) has implemented has started to gain traction with the players and it’s working. If you’re not going to make your opponent work for everything they get, it’s way too hard to score in this league and you don’t have much chance of success.”

Now entering his third stop as an assistant coach, Acton has been involved with both successful teams and with clubs trying to get back on track. The list of coaches he has worked under is impressive, and Acton said he is a better coach today because of guys like John Muckler, Roger Neilsen and Wayne Cashman -- and things he took away from each coaching experience have stuck with him throughout his career.

The year without hockey gave him perspective, he admitted, and now that’s back in the NHL with the Blue Jackets, the motivation has never been higher.

“I’ve been really privileged that I’ve played with great players and played under some great coaches,” Acton said. “I got to work as an assistant coach under some very good coaches, too. I’ve been grateful that way to have been able to learn from all of them.

“I feel blessed that hockey’s been part of my life forever – it’s my desire. It doesn’t mean that I’m an expert at it, but it’s what I know best. I have a strong desire to stay in this profession, and I’ll continue to do my best to stay in this game.”


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