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Hurricanes' AHL coach Warsofsky impressing at early age

32-year-old could be next to make NHL leap, but he's focused on developing players

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / NHL.com Staff Writer

Ryan Warsofsky says in he's in no hurry, but the coach of the Charlotte Checkers seems to have always been on a fast track.

The Carolina Hurricanes' affiliate is the latest stop for the 32-year-old during his rapid rise from Division III college assistant to American Hockey League coach in eight seasons. And though he has more work and learning to do, he appears destined for the NHL.

Warsofsky is focused on coaching Charlotte, which is 6-7-2, but his next step is easy to project. He wants to coach in the NHL.

"That's why I got into this business, to get to the highest level and that's the National Hockey League," Warsofsky said. "I'm not trying to rush that by any means. My job is to coach the Charlotte Checkers and help players get better and develop them and win hockey games.

"I'm just going to try to do my job the best I can."

The question is if he'll have to wait for his opportunity because of his age.

When the Chicago Blackhawks promoted their AHL coach, Jeremy Colliton, who was 33 at the time, to replace Joel Quenneville, who was 60, last season, some wondered if it was the beginning of a trend toward younger coaches like in the NFL, which had four coaches age 40 or younger at the time (it has six now).  

The Toronto Maple Leafs promoted 39-year-old Sheldon Keefe from the AHL to replace 56-year-old Mike Babcock on Wednesday, giving the NHL two coaches age 40 or younger. Looking to follow a similar path from the AHL, Warsofsky believes the NHL will have more younger coaches soon.

"I do think it's going to go that way eventually. I hope it does for my sake," Warsofsky said. "I don't really worry about the stuff that's outside that I can't control, but hopefully one day it goes that way." 

With the Hurricanes thriving under coach Rod Brind'Amour, Warsofsky's chance to be an NHL coach will likely come in another organization, but an assistant job with Carolina is a potential step in the interim.

Warsofsky was 24 in 2012 when he took his first coaching job as an assistant at his alma mater, Division III Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts. The following season, he was hired by South Carolina in the ECHL as an assistant.

When Warsofsky became South Carolina's coach in 2016-17, he was 28. Two seasons later, Warsofsky joined Charlotte as an assistant under Mike Vellucci.

Vellucci left to coach Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Pittsburgh Penguins' AHL affiliate, after guiding Charlotte to the Calder Cup last season. Warsofsky was promoted to replace him on July 10, making him, at age 31, the youngest coach in Capital District/Albany/Charlotte franchise history and the youngest coach in the AHL since Providence hired 30-year-old Bill Armstrong as coach in 2000.

"It was a quick turnaround, but I was obviously very fortunate to get the position," Warsofsky said.

A 5-foot-9 defenseman, Warsofsky knew the odds were against him making it to the NHL as a player, but the Marshfield, Massachusetts native earned a scholarship at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut before transferring to Curry as a junior. After college, Warsofsky played professionally in 2011-12, including a stint with Turnhout in Belgium.

Having hip surgery convinced him it was time to try coaching. Warsofsky was interested in it long before that, though.

"I just always followed coaches, I don't know what it was, in every sport," he said.

Warsofsky's younger brother David, a defenseman with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton who has played 55 NHL games with the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils and Colorado Avalanche, remembers Ryan always having more of a coach's mentality.

"When he was playing, he was still kind of a coach," David Warsofsky said. "I think he wouldn't be mad when I say this: Growing up, I would always say he was a better coach."

As boys, the Warsofsky brothers followed closely the career of their neighbor, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan, whose parents, George and Myrna, are Ryan's godparents. Before Sullivan went into coaching, he played at Boston University and in the NHL with the San Jose Sharks, Calgary Flames, Bruins and Phoenix Coyotes.

"He was a big role model for me," Ryan Warsofsky said.

Sullivan, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with Pittsburgh, got his coaching start with Providence in the AHL in 2002-03 and was promoted to coach Boston the following season at age 35.

Warsofsky, who played prep school hockey at Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, Massachusetts, took advantage of his connection to spend some time around the Bruins and pick Sullivan's brain. On one occasion, Warsofsky asked Sullivan for advice on becoming a coach and received an answer he didn't expect.

Don't do it.

"I think I was 18 years old," Warsofsky said. "I remember having a conversation with Mike in his office and he was begging me not to do it. Obviously, I didn't listen to him."

Sullivan is glad Warsofsky didn't listen, but there was a method behind his words.

"I gave him that advice for a reason, to make him think about, 'How bad do I really want to be a coach? And if I do, I have to be willing to make the sacrifices and understand that I'm going to go through challenges, some foreseen and some unforeseen, some fair and some not fair,'" Sullivan said. "But that's the reality of the business. So, that's why I said what I said to him, to really force him to look inside himself and say, 'How bad do I really want this?'

"He obviously wanted it in the worst way."

***

After a season as an assistant at Curry, Warsofsky heard South Carolina was looking for an assistant and emailed Stingrays president Rob Concannon, a fellow Massachusetts native, about t the position.

"He called me, no lie, like 10 minutes after the email went through and said, 'We're looking and you're very intriguing,'" Warsofsky said.

Warsofsky spent three seasons learning under Spencer Carbery and succeeded him as Stingrays coach when Carbery left to coach Saginaw of the Ontario Hockey League in 2016. In 2016-17, South Carolina went 40-28-4 and reached the Kelly Cup Finals before losing to Colorado.

At 29, Warsofsky was the second-youngest coach in ECHL history to reach the Finals.

South Carolina went 48-16-8 and lost in the first round of the playoffs in 2017-18 before Vellucci came calling seeking an assistant to run Charlotte's defense and penalty kill. South Carolina had the ECHL's top-ranked penalty kill in 2017-18 at 90.5 percent.

Vellucci and Warsofsky met for the first time at the 2018 NHL Draft in Dallas and quickly hit it off.

"I just liked his intensity and his knowledge," Vellucci said.

Vellucci said Warsofsky played a big role in the Checkers going 51-17-7-1 and winning their first Calder Cup championship last season.

With Warsofsky implementing a more aggressive penalty kill designed to disrupt zone entries, Charlotte's penalty-kill percentage improved from 24th in the AHL at 81.2 percent in 2017-18 to first in the league at 86.6 percent.

"His meetings were intense, almost like a football atmosphere I would say," Charlotte defenseman Roland McKeown said. "It was very intense, hard core. But that's what penalty killing is. It's nothing flashy. It's going to work and being willing to block shots and knowing where you have to be."

When Vellucci left Charlotte after the season for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, he told Carolina owner Tom Dundon and Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell that Warsofsky was "by far the best candidate" to succeed him. 

Waddell said Warsofsky's age was irrelevant when he promoted him. 

"Some people think you have to be older and I don't buy that," Waddell said. "When I got my first job as a GM (with Flint in the International Hockey League), I was 28 or 29 years old. Age isn't a factor with me. It's more the experience of how a coach is going to deal with each different situation."

***

The Checkers are a work in progress. They have yet to win more than two in a row, but Warsofsky believes consistency will come with hard work.

"We've got a new group compared to last year with some of the turnover, so a lot of teaching going on," he said.

Warsofsky speaks about once a week with Brind'Amour in addition to occasional calls from Waddell if the Hurricanes need to call up a player. Brind'Amour has been impressed by Warsofsky's eagerness to learn.

"I love the relationship," Brind'Amour said. "He's a good coach, but he wants to get better."

Warsofsky and Vellucci remain close and talk on the phone almost every day. They'll coach against each other for the first time when Charlotte visits Wilkes-Barre/Scranton on Saturday.

"He gets the buy-in," Vellucci said. "That's what all of coaching is, getting the players to buy in and holding them accountable and demanding excellence, and he does that."

Warsofsky's strongest endorsements come from his players, who praise his communication skills. Although defenseman Haydn Fleury has been with the Hurricanes this season, the 23-year-old has kept in touch with Warsofsky after splitting last season between Charlotte and Carolina.

"One of my favorite coaches I've had in my life," Fleury said. "Last year could have been a hard year for me with all the ups and downs and all that where you can get stagnant in your development, but every time I went down there I felt like I came back and I was better than when I went down, and I owe him a great deal for that."

Warsofsky's direct approach is appreciated by players who sometimes wonder what they need to do to be called up. It wasn't that long ago Warsofsky was a young player trying to find his way, and he hasn't forgotten what that's like.

"He's realistic about all situations and gives a very honest opinion, which you need, especially at the minor league level," said McKeown, who played 10 games with Carolina in 2017-18. "You need to be better at areas of your game to move up to the NHL. Ryan is very honest with those thoughts."

There have been other young NHL coaches. Gary Green was 26 when he became coach of the Washington Capitals in 1979 and Paul Maurice, currently with the Winnipeg Jets, was 28 when he was named coach of the Hartford Whalers in 1995.

But those hirings didn't start a trend, and it remains unclear whether Colliton's and Keefe's will.

"For me, I think teams are going to put the guys in those positions who they think can do the job," Colliton said. "A big part of the game now, of course, is communication and sometimes it's easier when you're closer in age. But again, ultimately, it's about if you can come in with a plan and get the guys to buy in."

Vellucci never thought Warsofsky's age was relevant. All he saw was a coach who knew how to get the best out of players.

"He's a young guy and people are going to look at that first, but he's an excellent coach," Vellucci said. "He's a great person. He cares about his players. He's passionate, but he still understands what the players go through. So, the sky is the limit for him."

The coach who once advised Warsofsky against coaching sees his potential too.

"He has all the attributes to be a real good NHL coach," Sullivan said. "He's smart, he's a student of the game and he's a great people person. He's a good communicator. But I think most importantly, he's willing to put the work in. … There are a lot of bright, young coaches that are honing their craft. He's one of them, but I think he's willing to outwork most to be the best coach that he can be."

NHL.com staff writer Tracey Myers and NHL.com independent correspondent Wes Crosby contributed to this story.

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