“Always,” he says, when asked when he first thought about getting into coaching. “Sixteen years old. My dad coached me growing up. I just always wanted to do it. You take a little bit from every coach you’ve had, and I thought it would be something fun. You can stay in the game even though your body is not taking the beating. I ended up retiring because of my body; I blew my back out in ’97. Rick Vaive was the head coach down here. He asked me to stay on as an assistant, and I said, ‘Absolutely.’
“We won in ’97, and I played in the playoffs that year and we won the Kelly Cup. They gave me the MVP of the playoffs, and I was hurt that year, but I came back to play in the playoffs. So I thought, ‘I can’t quit now, I’ve got to keep on going.” I tried to battle through the next year and it was just brutal. It was half the year in the stands and half on the ice. That’s when Vaivey said, ‘Listen, I want you to be my assistant.’ He ended up going up with Calgary’s farm team, and they hired a guy named Rick Adduono, but Vaivey had already given me the position. I stayed on and worked with Rick Adduono for four years as an assistant. And then when he moved on, I took over as the head guy. It’s been a fun ride.”
In his five seasons as South Carolina’s head coach, Fitzsimmons compiled a 188-116-46 record, leading the Stingrays to the playoffs in four of his five seasons. Despite a 36-27-9 record, the 2006-07 Stingrays missed the playoffs by a single point. Days after the season ended, Fitzsimmons and the team held a press conference to announce that he was stepping down as the team’s head coach.
“I was very thankful that they gave me this opportunity,” Fitzsimmons says. “The organization created a position for me and I am very thankful for that. I have an extreme passion for the game, it’s something I have always had and something I will always have. But I needed a change. If I took another contract extension, I would have been cheating myself and the players.
“I needed a break. There’s no offseason at this level. You take two or three weeks to clear up your loose ends and you’re right back on the recruiting trail. I felt like I had just gone 12 rounds with the champ.
“I will have a decision to make after this year. I am going to work with [Bednar] in whatever role he wants me in. I am a people person, that’s one of my strengths.”
Fitzsimmons will mull over his future in the game while helping Bednar and the team through the 2007-08 season. Coaching may still be in his future, but he’s just not sure at this point.
“I realize that I am far from knowing everything,” says Fitzsimmons. “I will never, ever claim that I am a great coach. I will never claim that I know it all. I feel that I’ve got to develop more and learn from other people, whether it’s taking a job as an assistant in the American League or wherever, I’m up for that challenge, for another chapter.
“I’ve coached under Rick Adduono and now Jared and I have coached together, but there are so many other ideas and philosophies that I haven’t tapped yet. I have had the privilege of going up in training camp and working with Glen [Hanlon] and Jay [Leach] and Deano [Evason] and just taking tons of stuff away from that that has been great for my game, too. Everything from their philosophies to the way they handle themselves on and off the ice, too. I’ve got a lot to learn. I don’t want the gold watch. I love the people here, and I love coming to the rink. It’s fun.”
It’s fun, yes. But it’s also hard work. And the pressure of coaching a short-staffed roster and still being expected to win can and does take its toll on coaches at the ECHL level.
“It’s like every other thing,” Fitzsimmons says. “You just keep working your ass off. Losses are hard to take. Whether you have seven forwards in your lineup or 12, you still want to win the game. It’s an emotional rollercoaster, it really is. Sometimes you ask yourself, ‘Is it really all worth it?’ And the answer is always, ‘Yeah, it is.’ I didn’t get up at 6:30 and go sit with my tie on in a corporate office and crunch numbers all day. I’m not saying that’s a bad way to make a living, but it’s not the way I would like to.
“You can put a price on it, and say, ‘Yeah, I want to make this much money, or I want to be here at this certain stage of my life,’ but it’s all about happiness and it’s about way of life. And what you deem as that point of your life that makes you happy. If you’re making $150,000 a year but you’re miserable every day and you’re working until 8:00, or you’re making $55,000 a year but you’re doing something you love and you’ve got a great family life. Before you know it, it’s gone.
“[It’s] your life. You only live once, so you better enjoy it before it’s gone. That’s where I feel fortunate to be in the game that I love.”previous page 2