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Fitzgerald Goes Behind Bench For Team USA

by Joe Sager / Pittsburgh Penguins

Tom Fitzgerald excelled as a player on the ice.

Soon, he’ll see how he fares behind the bench.

Fitzgerald spent 17 seasons in the NHL before retiring after playing the 2005-06 season with the Boston Bruins. The right winger played 1,097 career NHL games and racked up 329 points (139+190), including 17 game-winning goals.

Now the Penguins’ Director of Player Development, he was named an assistant coach for the U.S. Men’s Select Team that will compete at the 2007 Deutschland Cup from Nov. 8-11 in Hannover, Germany.

Tom Fitzgerald

“It was an opportunity presented to me during training camp here in Pittsburgh by Ray Shero,” Fitzgerald said. “He told me I was on the list of candidates USA Hockey was thinking about asking, then he asked if I’d do it and I said I would. It’s a great opportunity. It’s a great honor. I played for my country and now I have the opportunity to coach for my country.”

A coaching career is something that interested Fitzgerald. And, he got his first taste of it last season as a volunteer assistant with the UMass-Lowell program/.

“I was on the bench. I ran some practices and helped plan some practices and worked with kids and talked to them. It gave me a good feel,” he said. “I wasn’t the top assistant, so I wasn’t changing the lines or drawing up all the practices – I’d throw in a drill and explain it. But, now, I will be running the defense for Team USA, so I will just be thrown right into the fire.”

Fitzgerald looks forward to the on-the-job training he will receive with Team USA.

“I am a big believer in that. What better way to learn than to be thrown right in?” he said. “It’s going to happen and I am sure there will be some mistakes, but I feel I am a quick learner. I won’t know the personnel real well, so that sort of hinders you, but after a couple days of getting to know what we have, it’ll be OK. The head coach, Greg Poss, who coaches in Germany, will have a better feel for these guys than I will.”

The U.S. roster will not draw from NHL teams.

“Most of them will be guys who are playing professionally in Europe somewhere. I think we have one college kid and potentially a couple of AHL kids that GMs could release to us for about five or six days to play in the tournament,” Fitzgerald said. “Apparently, Europe has a break for a week starting Nov. 5 and they put this tournament on.”

The Deutschland Cup, formerly known as the TUI Nations Cup, has taken place every year since 1990. The tournament includes teams from Denmark, Germany, Japan, Slovakia, Switzerland and the United States. Team USA won the Deutschland Cup in 2003 and 2004, and took third place in 2005, the last year the team competed at the event.

“The U.S. has been successful in the past at this tournament. This will be no different – you go over to win,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a little different because we’re not a club team; it’s a mixed bag and we’ll have to pull it together, so we have to pull it together early. To me, keeping it simple is probably the best thing we can do. We don’t want to hit them with all kinds of systems and things like that. We will just keep it simple and play. There are certain fundamentals that you need to do to win and that’s battling, playing with some urgency and keep the puck out of your net.”

Fitzgerald’s selection to the team is yet another example of the long and rich relationship between USA Hockey and the Penguins. Also, Penguins Executive Vice President/General Manager Ray Shero is on USA Hockey’s management advisory board.

“It’s nice, especially with Ray being one of the focal points in the leadership group of USA Hockey,” Fitzgerald said. “To me this is a stepping stone, maybe down the line, if it means an opportunity to coach at the World Juniors or World Championships or something like that. To represent my country is quite an honor. To have a guy like Ray in your corner fighting for you is pretty nice, too.”

So far, Fitzgerald enjoys his job with the Penguins, which involves keeping tabs on the Penguins’ prospects and working with them.  

“It is going well. I enjoy dealing with the kids, calling them, talking to them, emailing them, picking their coaches’ brains and keeping tabs on these guys through their coaches. Everybody has been great,” he said. “We all have the same goal and that’s to help this team right here. Helping Todd Richards and Dan Bylsma at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton has been great for me, too. I have been learning from them also. The bottom line is trying to get guys and build a franchise from within. So far, if you look at the homegrown talent in Pittsburgh and the number of kids we have in the AHL, who we feel are good prospects, and all the draft picks from last year – and they are all doing well – it makes for an enjoyable place to be.”

The varying responsibilities make Fitzgerald’s job with the Penguins an interesting one.

“I always thought I’d be a coach with the type of player I was and how I thought the game. That could be, but I really enjoy what I am doing now,” he said. “I like the fact that I can watch Ray and Chuck Fletcher and Jason Botterill and the things they are doing, when it comes to the pieces of a puzzle from prospects to the AHL to this team to the salary cap.

“I really find it intriguing and love that part of it. I went to two expansion teams and saw how teams were built from the ground up and was always intrigued by it. I always thought, too, when I took a job like this, it’d help me define which path I want to go down. I am management, development, coaching kids and trying to help kids with their personal games within a team system. Coaching with Team USA might give me a clearer picture or it might show me I like both. I can’t do both, so maybe that’s why this job here is perfect for me.”

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