The Edmonton Oilers were in need of an interim head coach. They leaned on Oklahoma’s top dog, Todd Nelson to hold down the fort, following the departure of Dallas Eakins.
Naturally, the spotlight stayed on Nelson all season, following his relationship with the players, as well as the success and growth of the Oilers. But, in the meantime, there was still a job to be done in OKC. So the Barons, in turn, leaned on coaching veteran Gerry Fleming to steer the ship down in the American Hockey League.
“It was just a natural transition,” Fleming insists. “The way Nelly (Nelson) worked, obviously the final decision came down to him, but we did presentations and a lot of what head coaches do in terms of presenting drills and talking to guys. It was relatively seamless, just the voice was a bit different.”
Not much of a surprise, since a coaching staff that shares ideals is what makes a leadership group operate effectively. And Oklahoma was a very effective team leading up to the December 16, takeover by Fleming.
“Todd and I worked pretty close, as far as systematical stuff goes, we have the same kind of beliefs on how the game is played. There are always little things that you do differently, maybe different practices, different drills, etc. But it was a smooth transition”
But between himself, Tony (Borgford) and Kelly (Buchberger), the Barons continued their success post-Nelson.
Then, the perfect storm hit. As the Barons prospects were flourishing in the AHL, at times leading the entire league in points, Edmonton faced a host of injuries and needed reinforcements up in the NHL.
So, as affiliates do, OKC surrendered their guys. Even though you may think that made it tough for Fleming to direct his depleted corps, it’s actually the exact opposite.
“Not at all!” Fleming exclaimed, when asked if those losses made it hard to find success without key players.
“That’s what we’re here for, that’s our job,” he emphasized. “To develop these guys and when Edmonton calls on us to bring up guys, they’re ready to go and fill-in. And when they get up there, they’re ready to play in the NHL and contribute and help the Oilers win.”
“Ultimately, everyone down here wants to be in the NHL, so when we put guys up there were proud, were happy, especially when they perform well.”
Fleming knows the importance of his role in making sure the prospects and NHL hopefuls are successful. As a mentor and a teacher, he has a huge impact.
Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons
Many remarked on the laid-back demeanour of Nelson and although Fleming doesn’t disagree with the observation, from his perspective, behaviour of a head coach is largely dictated by the position that you find yourself in.
“I think that down here is different than the NHL (on if he shares Nelson’s calm and cool demeanour). Here, there is a lot more teaching to be done,” said Fleming, while addressing his coaching approach.
“Guys are coming in, some coming out of junior. (It’s the) first time living on their own, cooking their own meals. So their demands are a little bit different than the guys in the NHL, but I think it’s important to teach (them) how to be a good pro. So, (there’s) a lot more reinforcing of professional habits down here.”
Fleming has firsthand knowledge on how to be a pro. Hailing from Montreal, Quebec, the former left winger made a name for himself in the QMJHL as a part of the Verdun Junior Canadiens.
From there, he spent his entire career with the Montreal Canadiens Organization (Fredericton Canadiens in the AHL and played eleven games with the Montreal Canadiens in the NHL).
For everything that he’s accomplished - playing in the NHL for any length of time is an achievement – it’s his coaching career that has established him as a fixture among the professional ranks. Starting with two years in a back-up role in the AHL (Fredericton and Quebec Citadelles) before he seized a new job opportunity.
Fleming’s first head-coaching job was in Tallahasse, with the Tiger Sharks. It began with a 38-win season. From there, the former AUAA athlete (Fleming attended the University of P.E.I for a season), found a home with the Florida Everblades.
Seven seasons there, making the playoffs every year and the finals twice (2004 & 2005). After that chapter concluded, the coach ended up with the Oilers, from Springfield then to OKC, where he loves to be.
Photo by Steven Christy | Oklahoma City Barons
“It’s a wonderful place to play,” Fleming said. “You know we didn’t get much support here, but the fans that we did have were very vocal, energized and enthusiastic when we played. It’s great were going to a city that’s excited about having us there (Bakersfield) but it’s also sad leaving a city that the fans (we did have) really wanted us to stay.”
Even so, the narrative remains the same. Before leaving Oklahoma City, the Barons, led by their new, old, coach have some unfinished business.
They have failed to claim the Calder Cup, and wouldn’t it be poetic if they were able to in the final season in OKC? But despite their success in making the playoffs for the fifth-straight year, the season hasn’t been a cakewalk for the Barons.
“What hurt us a little bit this year wasn’t the call-ups, it was the injuries that we had. So I think that is what kind of set us back a little bit,” said Fleming.
But it’s not a unique situation to anyone in the league, “Every team goes through that. It’s not how your team’s doing when things are going well. It’s when you hit a little bump in the road, a little adversity, (then) you want to see how guys deal with that and handle it … and that’s all part of the growth.”
Some players really stepped up to fill the voids in the lineup. And although Fleming stopped short on naming someone that has made the most progress in their development, “I think they’ve all made strides in the areas they need to improve on. All of the guys down here have worked hard to get their game better,” Fleming did single out a player that really blossomed.
“I think Dillon Simpson. It was a good growing year for him. I think he made strides in his development this year, and I think he’s going to just get better.”
Adding, “There were also a lot of guys we brought up from the ECHL that impressed us too.”
As Matt Ford said earlier this week, ‘The focus is on gelling with all the guys back,’ and from a coaching perspective the priority is to utilize all of the tools the teams been working on throughout the season.
“Well, number one is to play sound systematically, with and without the puck. It’s something we’ve emphasized all year long,” Fleming said. “After that, the foundations of hockey (are need to be executed). Just working hard, paying the price, competing every night, getting in the dirty areas and battling - all the things necessary to give yourself a chance to win.”