As vice president of hockey operations for the AHL the past 11 years, Jim Mill ached with a competitive void. The former minor-league goalie joked that he was in a major slump, and that from a games standpoint, he hadn't won in ages.
"It's been a long time since I won. I played four years in the pros," he said. "It (working for the league) gives you great perspective. But you miss it. We were all competitors. We all played."
As something of a going-away present, the AHL made Mill a winner in one sense. At its summer meetings last month, it named him winner of the Thomas Ebright Award in recognition of career contributions to the league. Mill appreciated the tip of the cap, for sure, but he already had something else in mind -- something that would bring him closer to the action.
Effective June 30, Mill, 41, jumped back into the fray as assistant GM of the Minnesota Wild
and boss of the Houston Aeros. Since the free agent season started the next day, it was akin to taking a driver's education refresher course in the middle of the Los Angeles rush hour.
"You are right in the trenches, one of the busiest days of the year. I was having so much fun. I was so involved in helping to build two teams," he said. "It was different, but I was certainly prepared. You have a gameplan. You set a plan and stick to it."
That's exactly where Mill's AHL background helps him the most. Two of his biggest AHL responsibilities were the migraine-inducing tasks of putting together the league's schedule and coordinating its playoffs.
But the job that put Mill in the spotlight the most was his role as the league's top cop. He managed the AHL's officials, meted out player suspensions and handled teams' officiating complaints. From the clip-n-save department, Mill vows that his advocacy role with the Aeros doesn't mean he'll add his voice to the chorus of complainers about referees.
"The league is not going to hear much from me. I'll tell you that," he said. "You're going to stand up for Houston and Minnesota. But at the end, you play the hand you've been dealt. I would say I'd be more understanding. You have to take a step back, understand (the refs) are doing the best they can."
Eakins has home in Toronto -- With the way that Dallas Eakins
has become entrenched in Toronto the past few years, he has to view that city as his second home.
Actually, considering the transience of his playing career, it might be his first real home, at least during the course of the season.
Eakins won't have to worry about packing his bags any time soon. The Maple Leafs have picked Eakins to be the head coach of the Marlies. Eakins, 42, has spent the last four seasons in the organization. He was the club’s director of player development in 2008-09, served as an assistant coach with the Maple Leafs from 2006-08 and was an assistant coach with the Marlies during the 2005-06 season.
That's a contrast to his playing career, when he skated in 120 NHL games for Winnipeg, Florida, St. Louis, Phoenix, the New York Rangers
, Toronto, the New York Islanders
and Calgary. And that's in addition to the 10 minor-league teams with which he's played.
"I know what these players are going through, I know what they need to improve upon to make it to the next level," Eakins told the Toronto Globe and Mail. "I've got experience as an NHL assistant coach and the player-development job last year was wonderful. It enabled me to go out and spend time with other coaches, see the game a little differently and kind of step out of the box. I think I'm well suited for it and we’re going to do our best to get our players down the street as quick as possible."
Eakins will bring aboard former NHL player Derek King
as one of his assistants.
In other coaching news, Ian Herbers
has been named an assistant in Milwaukee. Herbers, 42, spent the last two seasons as coach of Johnstown of the ECHL. Houston has added another second-in-command, Mark LeRose, who spent the past two seasons as an assistant with the Everett Silvertips.
Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has picked John Hynes
as its new assistant. Hynes, 34, has spent the past six seasons as a head coach with USA Hockey’s National Team Development Program, posting an overall record of 216-113-19-9.
"Part of coaching is being able to adjust to the players and the teams you have," Hynes said of switching from coaching young teens to grown men. "It's about understanding them as human beings. The players have to know you are there for them. You are going to deal with a 35-year-old veteran differently than you would deal with an up-and-coming prospect. Coaching is about people. The rest will take care of itself."
Helmer still has it
-- Hershey defenseman Bryan Helmer
's 8-year-old son, Cade, used to ask him when he would get back to the NHL again. Before last season, the last time Bryan played there was 2003-04, with Phoenix, and Cade had no recollection of that.
"It's been a long time since I won. I played four years in the pros. It (working for the league) gives you great perspective. But you miss it. We were all competitors. We all played."
-- Jim Mill, on the difference between playing and working as an executive
"He kept bugging me all the time, when are you going to get called up?" Helmer said. "I'm like, I'm trying, I'm trying."
Helmer came through in 2008-09, earning 12 games in Washington. That delighted his little fan and sent Dad into the offseason with a different sort of spring in his step than he's had in several summers.
Helmer, 37, is returning to the Calder Cup champ Bears on a one-year AHL deal. This is the part where vets in their mid- to late-30s speak of the value of leadership and setting examples for young players. That's all well and good for Helmer, one of the true character guys in the league.
But after taking a break from his role as statesmen and proving himself as an NHL player for the first time in five seasons, Helmer knows he still has a role as a call-up guy.
"It's definitely a motivation. Maybe I am getting better with time," he said. "When you get older, some people say you are losing a step. I feel like I'm on an even keel."
As far as the AHL record books go, Helmer is ascendant. He enters the 2009-10 season with 911 AHL games played, good for 12th on the all-time list. His 367 career assists are 19 shy of the AHL record for a defenseman, held by Steve Kraftcheck
, and his 481 points are 38 shy of John Slaney
league mark among blueliners.
Helmer also ranks third all-time with 117 career Calder Cup playoff games played, six off Ken Gernander
's league standard.
"Those are pretty amazing milestones if I could reach them," Helmer said. "That'd be nice to have on my resume."
Pohl puts family first
-- Forward Johnny Pohl was playing overseas last year when his wife, Krissy, made a strong suggestion right around Christmas.
Making money was great, Krissy noted. But we are done basing decisions on that factor. Family and comfort are more important.
Several days ago, Johnny signed a free-agent deal with the Chicago Wolves. Credit Krissy, herself a former U.S. Olympic hockey player, with one of the most important assists of her career.
Both Krissy and Johnny are from Minnesota. They have a 1-year-old daughter, Emmy. Switzerland and Sweden, where Pohl played last year, were fun. Living a lot closer to extended family is better.
"It's tough to be away from your family. We can make a good living at home," said Johnny, 30. "It's a perfect mix between a great hockey opportunity and a great family opportunity. Life is too short not to blend them."
For as sensible as the decision seems, it still required a great leap of faith. Many players return to North America from time abroad, but they usually do so for the hint of an NHL shot. Pohl, who spent the entire 2006-07 and 07-08 seasons with the Maple Leafs, is coming back on an AHL deal.
A good relationship with Wolves coach Don Granato
, who coached Pohl in Worcester, was one lure. So was the opportunity to leave himself open to all NHL organizations if he proves he's got something left. Pohl's been a consistent standout at the AHL level, with 183 points in 193 games with Worcester and Toronto.
"Any NHL team would have signed me to a two-way offer," Pohl said. "I want to be open to all 30 teams. The last time I played in the American League (2005-06 with Toronto), that was the best I became as a player. I played in all situations. It's tough to develop when you are playing four minutes a game (in the NHL)."