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Changing Of The Guard

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
Life in hockey is a good life, even when it means that most of your year is spent on the road, away from your family and away from your own bed. A morning skate in Calgary or Kettler – or any small town rink anywhere on the planet – is alluring to the hockey lifer. Players, coaches, managers, media, staffers and especially scouts are drawn to the sound of skates on the ice, pucks off the glass and boards, whistles and shouts echoing off the ceiling, the chill of the barn and the warmth of a hot cup of Tim’s or Dunkin.

For scouts though, the job entails spending most of the year on the road, away from family and the comfort of home. As the years go by, the siren song of those pucks and skates gives way to the want and the need to be at home. Here’s how an NHL scout recently portrayed his life to me:

“I see my wife Labor Day and then I see her Memorial Day. We get to talk [on the phone] a lot. But there are no players in my living room. You’ve got to get out on the road. The scouts – the work they do and the time they spend on the road, people have no idea. You’ve got to love it and we all love it. So we don’t complain about it. There is nothing to complain about; it’s a great life. You love being in the rinks and when you’re not in the rinks, you wish you were in the rinks. Even summer time, the next six weeks will be awful. Because there is no hockey. There is nothing going on. You just get eager to get out there.

“It’s a lot of nights in hotels and rental cars and a lot of Subway sandwiches.”

As a scout and a goaltending coach, Dave Prior spent the better part of the last three decades living that life, and the better part of the last two decades doing so in the NHL. Except instead of the rental cars, he relied more on his trusty truck, a vehicle that absorbed more than its fair share of miles every year. After 12 years as the Capitals’ goalie coach, the longest tenured coach in franchise history is retiring. Prior plans on doing some consulting from his home in Ontario, and to spend more time with his family.

Former NHL goaltender Arturs Irbe, who played under Prior during his NHL playing career, was virtually hand-picked by Prior to be his successor as the Caps’ goaltending coach.

“Dave Prior came to us after the season and basically said that he couldn’t do the job any more,” says Capitals general manager George McPhee. “He was away from home 230 nights last year, not counting the day trips, and that he couldn’t do it anymore, he owed his wife a better life. You have to admire him for that.

“I asked him if he could help us in the job search, and he gave us some names. Arturs was highly recommended by Dave. Dave had worked with him in the past, and he said he was a real quality person and was a terrific athlete. We followed up on that a little bit and then asked Dean Evason about Arturs, because Dean had played with him. And both men really thought the world of him, really liked him.

“We had some conversations with [Irbe], and then Dave basically did the interviewing for us about what the job would entail and also [asking], ‘How are you going to teach? Are you going to allow goaltenders to play the way that got them here and so on?’ And he got all the right answers. Dave was really impressed with the interview. So, given the recommendation of Dave and Dean, and the fact that Arturs speaks different languages, we really thought it would be a good fit for us.”

Besides goaltending, Prior is one of those guys who knew a little bit about everything. And who has an opinion on everything. He is famous around these parts for his love of cigars, red wine, border collies, heavy-duty trucks and his proclivity for acquiring seemingly random farm equipment. Prior is the only I have ever known who was always on the lookout for a good backhoe.

A bear of a man physically (none other than Tim Hunter proclaimed Prior “the strongest man I have ever wrestled”), Prior has a good sense of humor himself. During the playoffs one year, one of the Capitals – a strong, strapping and very physical player – playfully grabbed Dave in the locker room after practice one day and cocked his fist as if he were going to punch Dave in the stomach.

“Better not,” warned Dave. “You’ll break your hand.”

Irbe will be serving as a goaltender coach at the NHL level for the first time. Certainly his experience as a European goaltender coming to North America and enduring his share of ups and downs will be an asset as he acclimates himself to his new position. Irbe is very passionate about the game, very thoughtful, elaborate and talkative, as was his one-time mentor.

“I think most of all what I would take from Dave was his approach to a goaltending coach’s job,” says Irbe. “He was not really putting much emphasis on technique, like what you have to do and how you have to do it. He put emphasis on making sure that you are successful and that you are doing things properly all that time that you do the best.

“That was one thing. Another thing obviously was the psychological side of the goaltending because he became a real confidant, a person who you could trust where the goalie can vent his frustrations or go with the questions.”

To the goaltenders who worked under him, Prior was a confidant, a sounding board, a mentor, a friend and so much more besides just being a “coach.”

“We were really pleased when he joined us 12 years ago,” says McPhee, “and that he stayed with us for 12 years. He has done a terrific job and is a real quality guy. He really looked after the goaltenders and was really dedicated to the job. And he really fought for the goaltenders. We’ve had some heated debates. Obviously when we walked out of the room we were unified, but he didn’t hesitate to stand up for them and express support for them or blame them when they weren’t performing well. He was terrific for us and that’s why we wanted him to help in the search for the new goaltender [coach].”

Prior was no frontrunner, either. When McPhee says he fought for his goaltenders, he didn’t just mean longtime No. 1 netminder Olie Kolzig. Prior also notably went to bat for the likes of Brent Johnson, Frederic Cassivi and Brett “Stretch” Leonhardt, too.

Two years ago this month, I wrote a story on Prior. That piece concluded with this quote, which foreshadowed Dave’s departure:

“I can’t think of anything that I’d sooner do,” he says. “The downside of this game for myself is just the travel. It can be as many as 200 days in a season. And not living in this area, I don’t have any home games. But that’s the only downside of the job. I really enjoy coaching young guys. You impact their lives, you live through their highs and lows and teach them to deal with them and how to respond to them and bring their game along. It’s a great job.”

Prior spent more nights on the road than at home last season, and he hopes that balance will shift a bit with his recent career adjustment. We will miss his presence in the rinks, on the buses and on the planes, but we’ll very much look forward to seeing him now and then out there on the road.

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