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May Loving Move Back Behind the Bench

by Tris Wykes / Tampa Bay Lightning

Alan May had an awfully good life going last hockey season. Living in the Dallas area with his wife and three children, he commuted back and forth several days a week to do studio commentary work for the NHL Network. The setup allowed him to often spend time with his kids during the day and be recognized as an authority in the game he loved.

May's proudest feat during this time? Leading his daughter's school in lunchtime parent attendance, getting to know students, teachers and his own child much better.

“I just raised my kids and it was the greatest gift I've ever had,” May said.

But the former NHL player had always wanted to be a coach, either running his own Canadian Major Junior squad or working in the AHL as a way to return to the big leagues. He'd done well as a bench boss in the low minors but had tired of the crazy situations that often accompany such jobs. Now he was looking for a way back into the business at a higher level and a conversation with an old junior teammate provided the chance.

May and Mike Butters had played together in the early 1980s and stayed in touch. Butters, a former minor league player, had become part-owner of a junior team with movie producer Oren Koules and when Koules became part of a group that bought the NHL's Tampa Bay Lightning last year, Butters was named general manager of the affiliated Norfolk Admirals of the AHL. He brought May, an admittedly strong personality, on board as the assistant to rookie head coach Darren Rumble, a mild-mannered man who somehow maintains an upbeat disposition even in the toughest of times.

“We've gotten along very well from the very first conversation,” May said of his dealings with Rumble. “He calls me the voice of reason. When we shut our doors and chat, he can be emotional, but we have great give and take and we're smart enough to use each other and make it a great learning experience.”

Admirals players have learned to expect intensity from May, a scrapper and grinder as a player who went from being undrafted to a 393-game NHL career. A fitness buff who reviews and grades video of each Admirals game, May expects his players to show similar desire and to hustle. Failure to do so brings a withering gaze that makes the offender want to crawl under the Zamboni.

“He went to war every time he stepped on the ice as a player,” said Admirals captain Zenon Konopka, who displays a similar attitude. “If you don't, he has a hard time comprehending why.”

May came to hockey as a 3-year old and had played several years of league competition in the Edmonton area by the time he entered school. His father, Ron, worked a blue-collar job in Alberta's oil fields and he liked his hockey to reflect his background.

“My dad didn't like it [when I was] scoring eight or nine goals in a game, but rather scoring three or four goals and hitting as many people as I could,” May told the Lubbock (Tex.) Avalanche Journal newspaper in 1999. “I became a naturally aggressive player.”

May played mostly Tier II junior hockey, with 39 games of Major Junior thrown in when he wasn't hurt. He was invited to try out for an IHL team with more than 100 others and despite a good showing, was sent down to Winston-Salem (N.C.) of the Atlantic Coast Hockey League, where he put up 37 points and 310 penalty minutes in just 42 games of the 1986-87 season. May was paid $250 a week and an extra $35 per victory.

“It was the most fun I've had playing hockey in my life,” May told the Washington Post in 1990. “You would... practice for two hours harder than anywhere I've ever played. People made so little money, there were no attitudes.”

May's next winter was split between Nova Scotia and Maine of the AHL, with three games for the NHL's Boston Bruins thrown in. The first of those contests was in St. Louis and when Bruins coach Terry O'Reilly told May he was going to be a healthy scratch, veteran Willi Plett suddenly claimed he had a bad back so the new guy could make his big league debut. The 180-pound May made sure to get in a fight, as he also did in his two other Boston contests that year.

May was traded to Edmonton the next season and spent all but three games in the AHL. But in one of those Oilers contests, he scored the winning goal against the despised Calgary Flames on a breakaway with several hundreds of his friends and family at the game. The tally boosted Edmonton into first place in the NHL's overall standings.

“Life could have ended for me there,” May told last year. “I was the happiest guy in the world.”

Acquired by Washington for the 1989-90 season, May set a franchise record with 339 penalty minutes and was a Capital until being traded to Dallas during the 1993-94 campaign. He spent one more NHL season with the Stars and Calgary, then toiled for three more winters in the minors before retiring. Between his second-to-last and last playing seasons, however, he got the CHL's Fayetteville Force up and running as the expansion team's coach and general manager and partial owner.

“I slept in the office most nights and my wife would bring me something to eat,” said May, whose team missed the playoffs. “I learned that in the low minors, there are too many things you're doing besides coaching. You're everything but a coach almost. I didn't want to move my family to Timbuktu one year and Timbuk-three the next and the players were usually good from either the neck up or the neck down.”

May's last action was a 22-game stint in the Western Professional Hockey League and he went on to guide that circuit's Lubbock Cotton Kings to a 42-win season in 1999-00 before he moved into broadcasting. An NHL Alumni Association training program helped him land a gig with the Stars and he had been out of the pro coaching ranks for nearly a decade before moving to Norfolk to assist the Admirals.

“The entire organization's new on the hockey operations side and I think it's great we get to build from the top down and the bottom up,” May said. “The ultimate goal here is to help Tampa Bay win another Stanley Cup, but of course we want to win to create a good environment for our players.”

Rumble said he and May have combined well in that effort, pointing out that he's more inclined towards video instruction while May is good administratively and on the computer.

“We're polar opposites but we get along so well that people often assume we've known each other for years,” Rumble said. “He's more analytical on individual play while I tend to see team systems and how we can beat them.”

When Admirals are promoted to the Lightning, the Norfolk coaches often convene in Rumble's house to watch Tampa Bay games and agonize over their pupils' performances.

“We're the two most nervous guys in the world at that point,” Rumble said with a laugh. “Those are our babies going out into the world and we get so worked up watching them that we keep my kids awake late at night at my house. My wife has to tell us to keep it down.”

It sounds like Alan May's good life has continued in Southeast Virginia.

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