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An Unlikely Journey

by Paul Branecky / Carolina Hurricanes


This summer, the Carolina Hurricanes’ rookie conditioning camp featured a star-studded coaching staff featuring the likes of Tom Barrasso, Rod Brind’Amour, Ron Francis and Glen Wesley. There is no scarcity of Stanley Cups, halls of fame and retired numbers in that group.

As recognizable as those names are, not just in Raleigh but across the hockey universe, there was one coach that may have seemed unfamiliar to the scores of observers who came out to the RecZone that week. That man was Paul Strand, the Hurricanes’ youth and amateur hockey coordinator.

How does someone, who as a kid initially disliked the game so much that he would admittedly sit on the ice and whine until he was taken to the bench, end up receiving a personal invitation from a Hockey Hall of Famer to work with the team’s best and brightest group of prospects in years?

It’s a story that began in western Canada and continued through minor league obscurity, a few too many hits to the head and a contentious board meeting showdown.

ARRIVAL IN CAROLINA

As suggested earlier, the love of hockey did not come quickly for Strand. However, it did come naturally. As a youth in British Columbia, he eventually discovered a passion for the game all on his own without any serious encouragement from family or coaches, which in itself is a lesson he applies in his job working with area youth players today.

Still, a career in hockey did not become a distinct possibility until he was close to finishing up his five-year career as a left wing with the University of Alberta in Edmonton. During his time with the Golden Bears, he scored 241 points in just 192 games, helping the team to two Canada West championships and twice winning the team’s MVP award. He still ranks 10th all-time in team scoring. 

That success opened the door to an NHL tryout with the Oilers, but nothing materialized. Still, he was determined to continue his playing career due to his by-now-intense devotion to hockey.

“I’m very realistic in that you have to do something that you love,” said Strand.   “I’ve never given any thought to, ‘Maybe it’s time to go and do something else.’ It never entered my mind.”

Strand’s search for a place to play led him to a brief stint with Baton Rouge of the ECHL and a subsequent trade to the now-relocated Raleigh Icecaps. Thus began a seven-year minor-league career that would also take him through Topeka, Pensacola, Greensboro, Cincinnati, Roanoke and Hamburg, Germany.

Even with all that traveling – he played for nine teams in just seven years - North Carolina was the place that made the biggest impression.

“You instantly get used to the weather from northern Alberta to down here,” he said. “I like to tell this story that I wasn’t in town for more than a couple of hours before I decided that this was the place I wanted to live.”

FROM PLAYER TO COACH

Despite Strand’s success in the ECHL, CHL and the German League – places in which he continued to post strong offensive numbers while establishing himself as a rugged, no-nonsense player – opportunities never presented themselves at higher levels.

However, that had nothing to do with why he stopped playing. A series of concussions, which were handled nowhere near as seriously as they are now, caused him to take a step back and evaluate his situation.

“I got to a place in the minor leagues where it finally just wasn’t fun to play anymore,” he said. “I think that was the best thing that ever happened.”

After consulting with Pete Friesen, his old trainer from college who had coincidentally moved on to the same position with the Hurricanes, Strand decided to sit out a full calendar year. Faced with the prospect of not being around hockey for the first prolonged stretch of his life, Strand decided to take up something that he had some experience with during his years around hockey camps in Edmonton – coaching. 

More than having to adjust to the lifestyle of a foreign place – his minor-league days were spent with an insulated group of Canadians not unlike himself – coaching in a non-traditional area for the sport proved to be a unique challenge. However, it was not without its rewards.

“You can learn more in one season coaching kids from North Carolina than you could in 20 years coaching in Alberta,” said Strand. “The things that come up, like kids missing practices for the prom or a dance or something like that, are just things that hockey players don’t do in northern Alberta. Even having a practice with nine kids, you learn real quick how to develop a plan for that.”

It wasn’t long before Strand realized that his career in hockey had taken another dramatic turn.

“The itch was still there and I managed to go back and play a little bit more after that, but I kind of knew that if I kept going that there were distinct possibilities that there could be some more injuries,” he said. “It was tough, but it was immediately replaced by coaching.”

MAKING IT TO THE NHL

Strand eventually came back to the Raleigh area, where he began to make a name for himself in the youth coaching ranks due to his experience and knowledge of hockey. However, the politics surrounding the amateur game at that time led to certain frustrations, which Strand expressed freely on one particular evening in 2005 that would end up further changing the course of his life’s work.

While at a board meeting that included a presentation by the Hurricanes, who were researching ways that they could become move involved in youth hockey at that time, Strand wasn’t the first to criticize the team’s representatives, but he may have been the most memorable.

“There were quite a few different organizations vying for the players and there was quite a bit of tension in the hockey community,” Strand recalled. “About an hour into this conversation I just kind of spoke up and asked if I could say something.  I can’t say that I was very polite with the way that I said it, but I knew that if the Hurricanes got out there and just took a stab at it, a lot of these things would just go away.”

“We almost got ambushed at the meeting, basically,” said Hurricanes’ Senior Director of Marketing Doug Warf. “A lot of people were upset, and one of them was this Paul Strand guy we’d been hearing about. He wasn’t as refined as he is now, so he kind of came pretty hard with his criticism of where we should be.”

Strand didn’t know it at the time, but his harsh words had made a positive impression.

“I caught him in the parking lot afterwards,” said Warf. “I said that I liked where his head was and I liked the way he was looking at things and the expertise that he brought. From there, we had him come out to summer camp and have his trial run as a summer camp counselor. That was when it was pretty easy to see Paul’s talent.”

Not long after that, Strand got the call from Warf to come to the RBC Center and talk about an open position.

“I don’t think it’s the textbook way about going to get a job, but I’m happy for it,” said Strand.

GROWING YOUTH HOCKEY

Since then, local youth hockey has continued to come a long way. The formation of Canes Youth and Amateur Hockey, which served to unite the competing local organizations under the Hurricanes’ brand, served to end many of the troubles that came to a head at that contentious board meeting five years earlier.

“A lot of the people involved started to trust each other,” said Strand. “Now you’re building a program that can expand each year instead of worrying about where the kids are going to come from or how they’re going to do it.”

Even with the scope of youth hockey in the Triangle continuing to grow, something that can be seen by looking at participation numbers that increase faster than the national averages, by the players who have been getting drafted into top junior leagues or receiving scholarships to Divison I universities or simply by the number of small children who know the correct way to hold hockey sticks at promotional events, the typical day-to-day challenges remain.

“I know from my personal experience that in times that I got cut, you usually just saw that your name wasn’t on that list,” said Warf. “With Paul, it’s much more than that. I remember specifically traveling with him one day after tryouts probably two years ago. I never once talked to Paul on that two-hour trip because he was constantly on the phone answering calls from parents.”

An appreciation for those hardships is part of what got him on the ice with a group of local legends.

“I think Paul puts in a lot of time and effort into this organization in an area that’s tough a lot of times,” said Francis. “In youth and amateur hockey, a lot of times you’re dealing with individuals who maybe think their kids deserve a better break and it’s kind of a thankless job. It seems like you can make no good decisions.”

Politics aside, the positives of the job far outweigh the negatives for Strand. In addition to cultivating a level of local talent that has already proven to be competitive with more traditional areas in international tournaments, his efforts have helped cultivate personalities as well.

“Everything is a lesson in sports, whether it’s a skill you’re doing or whether it’s wins and losses or whether it’s getting to the rink on time every week,” said Strand. “It’s rewarding in 10 years when a kid comes back to you and says, ‘Based on what I learned there, that really helped me in my job.’”

“A monumental piece of what sports bring at any level is an understanding of work ethic, teamwork, responsibility, ups and downs, and adversity,” said Warf. “Paul teaches that as much as anybody else on an everyday basis.”

As visible as the benefits have been from the efforts of Strand and all those involved in the youth hockey community, there is undoubtedly still room for growth. With interest and participation on the rise and a stable infrastructure now in place, Strand believes the area can eventually rival those in which he began his own career.

“Edmonton has a very large AAA program with five, six or seven teams within that area, and other than the lack of facilities right now, I can’t see why this could be any different,” he said. “I think that’s the vision. If we can have that type of competition in Wake County, you’ll definitely be seeing a great deal of growth and a great deal of benefit to those kids that are playing.”


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