Versatility isn’t just an important asset for an NHL player to have – it’s important for a coach to have as well. And it’s one of the things Penguins head coach Mike Johnston likes the most about new assistant coach Gary Agnew.
“(Gary has) got great versatility,” Johnston said. “He’s worked on the power play, worked on the penalty kill. He’s run the defense. He’s run the forwards. He’s done a lot of different things in his responsibilities when he’s been an assistant coach and also when he’s been a head coach. I just like that versatility in the staff.”
Agnew, 54, has done it and seen it all. Immediately after his playing career ended (he spent four seasons at the University of New Brunswick and two years in the International and American Hockey Leagues), Agnew wanted to begin coaching at his alma mater. He was told in order to get a job there, he had to get a masters’ degree in coaching. So he did, and worked as an assistant coach at the university while completing his studies.
From there, Agnew became a career coach. He spent the past two seasons as an Assistant coach for the St. Louis Blues under Ken Hitchcock. Before that, he was an assistant coach for the Columbus Blue Jackets – also under Hitchcock – from 2006-10.
“I think when you have the opportunity to work with a Stanley Cup champion and two-time Olympic champion coach and see how he performs, what he does and how he likes to see his teams play, it certainly gives you cause to jot a few things down,” Agnew laughed. “So it was good. I really enjoyed it.”
Before joining the Blue Jackets, Agnew was head coach of their American Hockey League affiliate in Syracuse for six years. He also has 11-plus years of head coaching experience in the Ontario Hockey League with London, Kingston and Oshawa.
“He’s been a head coach, which I always believe is important,” Johnston said. “If you’re going to be a really good assistant, you should at one time have been a head coach because then you have a better feel for how to be an assistant coach.”
How specific roles and responsibilities will be split up among the coaching staff has yet to be determined. But Agnew is looking forward to seeing how he will fit in alongside Johnston and fellow assistant coach Rick Tocchet.
“I’m looking forward to sort of complementing the staff, finding what areas (I can contribute),” Agnew said. “I’ve been coaching so long that I’ve kind of run the gamut of everything. I’ve done power play, I’ve done penalty killing, I’ve done all the systems.”
During Agnew’s last two years with the Blues, St. Louis finished no lower than fourth in a tough Western Conference. They had deep teams that were legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup each year. But for as much as Agnew enjoyed his time with them, he was ready for a new challenge.
“Coming to an organization that’s had such great success over the past few years and been sort of the top of the pile in the National Hockey League, so to speak, has been fun,” Agnew said. “The game is ever evolving, too. You see the West, teams like Chicago win and teams try to emulate them. Then LA wins and now teams are saying, what did they do that was so great? So you’re trying to hitchhike off of other teams, too, that have success and trying to find what’s going to work so that you can win a Stanley Cup. It’s ever evolving.
“That’s why it’s fun, for me anyway, to go in with two different guys and a different organization and throw mud against the wall and see what sticks and see where we go from it. And Mike obviously has his way of playing and it’s been successful, so it will be interesting to see all of his ideas as well.”
The chance to work alongside Johnston was certainly enticing for Agnew. While the two of them have never actually coached together, they’ve known each other for many years. Johnston and Agnew have a lot of mutual friends, have talked hockey quite a bit in the past and have carved a mutual respect for each other throughout their careers.
“The opportunity to work with him was really thrilling for me,” Agnew said of Johnston. “I’ve seen what he’s done with his teams and areas he’s coached in, and it’s been fun to watch. He’s done such a great job with the teams that he’s worked with, so it’s fun to have the opportunity to work with him and Rick both.”
“Gary was a guy I’ve known for a long time, and I just felt very comfortable with him,” Johnston said. “I felt that he has the right type of personality.”
With his background in education, Agnew said he has been described as being a teacher/communicator when it comes to his coaching style.
“I like getting in with the players, I like making sure that they understand fully what we’re trying to bring out of the coaches’ office,” Agnew said. “I think that, for me, it’s a really simple philosophy – if you want to score, you need to have the puck. To get the puck, you need to check. If you don’t have the puck, you better know how to get it back. I think there’s a plan in place for that. Some may call it a sort of defensive philosophy. I call it an offensive philosophy. It’s trying to get the puck back to go score. For me, that’s kind of the stuff I like to bring to the table in terms of how I like to see teams play.”
Johnston feels that Agnew and Tocchet will complement each other well. The three of them are excited to get together for the first time next week at Penguins development camp and get started.
“I think next week’s a big week for us to sort of get together and hash all these things out,” Agnew said. “It’s a great opportunity to spend a lot of time writing on napkins and firing off things while you’re drinking coffee and watching the young prospects. I’m really looking forward to it.”