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Minor League, Major Work

by Matt Sammon / Tampa Bay Lightning

Gene Ubriaco was the first head coach of the Lightning’s top minor league team, the Atlanta Knights. From reviving hockey in Atlanta to coaching Manon Rheaume, there was nothing minor about his brief time with the Lightning.

Imagine if you will, a television commercial being filmed starring Manon Rheaume and Nancy Kerrigan. Kerrigan is supposed to score on Rheaume, but Rheaume, being as competitive as she is, refuses to allow a goal. Kerrigan, as competitive as she is, is not pleased with how this commercial shoot is going. Rheaume has to be convinced to let Kerrigan score a goal in the commercial, and she finally obliges. Then Rheaume returns the competitive favor, mimicking Kerrigan’s figure skating moves in full goaltender’s gear off-camera while Kerrigan is filming a different part of the commercial.

Imagine no more-- it actually happened, says Gene Ubriaco. “I wish I had a camera and had pictures of that, because I’ll never forget (chuckling) it was funny. She was mimicking what Nancy Kerrigan was doing!” Ubriaco was the first head coach of the Atlanta Knights, the Lightning’s top minor league affiliate from 1992 to 1996. A man who had toiled in the AHL, experienced life in the NHL thanks to the 1967 expansion, and who coached Mario Lemieux during his career-best 171-point season was now witnessing two of the top female sports personalities mocking each other during a TV commercial shoot. “It was really hilarious… that actually happened. That was funny.”

Gene Ubriaco was the first head coach of the Lightning’s top minor league team, the Atlanta Knights.

Battle of the Network Stars antics aside, Ubriaco was an important and often overlooked figure in the early days of the Lightning organization. He had to coach a group of Lightning prospects and NHL-ready veterans for a parent club that had very few prospects and a roster full of NHL-ready veterans. He had to help breathe life in to a dormant hockey market, and he had to handle Rheaume’s non-Kerrigan issues with kid gloves, so as not to make what was admittedly a publicity stunt turn in to an all-out circus. It wasn’t a role Ubriaco was first looking for, but it turned out to be the right fit for the two seasons he was with the Knights.

“When they got the franchise, we were talking to Phil [Esposito] and he said, ‘You don’t want to be the first coach of Tampa Bay.’ I said, ‘Why not?’ And he said, “Well… usually they get fired.’ And I said, ‘Ohhh… geez that’s kind of a helluva way to start, right?’ But he says, ‘I sure would love you to be the development coach in Atlanta.” The relationship between Ubriaco and Phil and Tony Esposito started more than 40 years before, when the three gentlemen grew up on the Italian side of town in Sault Sainte Marie, Ontario. Ubriaco was a few years older than the Espositos, but ethnic ties and ice hockey run deep in “The Soo”, a steel town which then had a population of about 25,000 residents.

While the Esposito boys were seeing their NHL stocks rise in the mid-to-late 1960s, Ubriaco’s playing career ended in 1970 after 177 NHL games in Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Chicago. He began coaching, and over the next 20 years he coached and created several minor league teams from the ground up. In the 1980s, Ubriaco and the Espositos crossed paths again when Phil tried to hire Ubriaco as head coach of the Rangers in 1987. But the Rangers’ front office had their minds set on Quebec’s Michel Bergeron. Meanwhile, Tony was the general manager of the Pittsburgh Penguins, and based on Ubriaco’s success in Baltimore (a long-time farm club of the Penguins), Tony wasted no time in hiring him. Ubriaco’s Penguins would make their first playoff appearance in seven seasons, ironically sweeping Phil’s Rangers in the first round in 1989. Ubriaco and Tony were shown the door just 24 games in to the 1989-90 season, causing Ubriaco to coach in Italy while Tony joined Phil in the pursuit of an NHL expansion franchise in Tampa Bay.

That leads us to 1992, where the challenge of starting up a new team in a long-forgotten market was something Ubriaco looked forward to, given his start-up experiences in the minor leagues before. One factor that helped the Knights market their team in Atlanta, was the presence of Rheaume, whom Ubriaco met months before the Lightning signed her. “We’re at the draft, Phil had gotten a letter from Manon asking for a tryout. He had gotten me a tape [of her play], so I looked at it and after I saw it I said, ‘She won’t embarrass you, she knows how to play.’ She comes up [to the table], and he [Phil] says, ‘You really want to do this?’ And she says, ‘I really want to do it.’ He says, ‘Alright—we’ll do it!’ And we’re all just standing there and everyone’s like, ‘Ohhh… okay!’ She leaves, and we talk, and I say, ‘Hey Phil… we gotta do this right. If we do this right, it could be a plus.’ When she came, she had to tryout. She plays an exhibition game, in fact she didn’t play that bad. Wendell [Young] was her backup, and when he went in the net I think they [the Blues] scored two quick goals on him in the exhibition game and the fans are hollering, ‘We want the lady back!’ After that we made up a decision-- she was going to come with me to Atlanta. Her playing, and being the first woman to even play in an exhibition game in the NHL was huge. And that carried on over to Atlanta. All season, we had people coming from all over the world coming to see the lady goaltender, and it was amazing.”

With a female backup goaltender, Wayne Gretzky’s younger brother, and journeyman winger Keith Osborne leading the team in scoring, Ubriaco guided the team to a division championship. The Knights also averaged more than 7,700 fans a night at The Omni—roughly ¾ of what the Flames averaged in their final few seasons in Atlanta. Hockey was back in the ATL, and the following season the Knights would win the Turner Cup… but not without some controversy.

Despite a 35-15-11 record 61 games in to the season, team ownership wanted to make a change behind the bench, and not looking to make a controversy Ubriaco decided to stay in the organization as a scout. Recognizing his sacrifice moving to the front office, the Knights gave him a Turner Cup ring, and Phil wanted Ubriaco to stay in the Lightning’s scouting department. But he wasn’t ready to stop scratching the coaching itch. “Grant Mulvey… I knew Grant before, he played with the Hawks and I had played with the Hawks. So when they were looking for someone to start the team in Chicago, Grant called me. They saw what we did in Atlanta in just a year-and-half, how that team came about… it was a pretty lively team.”

Ubriaco became the first head coach of the Chicago Wolves, and after two full seasons behind the bench he again moved up to the front office of arguably the best team in minor league hockey over the past two decades. In 1997 he was named the Wolves’ director of hockey operations, and since 2009 he’s been the club’s senior advisor. Despite the incredible success in Chicago, Ubriaco still has a piece of his heart in Tampa Bay. “I wish I would have been there longer, I wish Phil would’ve kept the team. The thing is you got a lot of coaches now, they got on the train in front of me. When I was coaching in the IHL and working my way up to the National league, a lot of guys became assistants in the National league or went right on to become head coach. But I think I did it the right way because I’m still in the business and I’m enjoying every moment of it.”

Ubriaco’s time in the Lightning organization was brief, but it made an immediate impact on the fledgling organization. Six of the players he coached in Atlanta played a significant amount of time with the Lightning over the next few seasons, and he helped launch and manage the legend that is Manon Rheaume while also proving to naysayers that Atlanta deserved another chance in the NHL. Ubriaco turns 75 this December, and he is full of energy and plenty of hockey stories. But he looks back at those two years with the Lightning organization with fondness, and he owes it all to his neighbors from the Soo. “Whatever [Phil] did, he was probably the only guy that could have gotten it done. Because one thing about Phil, he puts his mind to doing something he just does it. Unlike his brother Tony… he’s the real cautious one of the two brothers. Between the two of them they made a good team.”

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