When the Rangers went looking for the next Head Coach of the Hartford Wolf Pack and the man who would guide the American League affiliate as this new era begins on Broadway, the team made a choice to pursue a person who is both a coach and a teacher. In this case, quite literally.
That man is Kris Knoblauch, who on Monday was named the seventh Head Coach in Wolf Pack history. Knoblauch comes to Hartford after spending the last two seasons behind the Philadelphia Flyers' bench as an assistant coach, and having spent the seven seasons before that as a bench boss in junior hockey, coaching and developing the likes of Connor McDavid and other current NHL stars, and doing a whole, whole lot of winning.
Knoblauch "checked all the boxes," in the words of Chris Drury, and hiring him checks a big box off of the Wolf Pack General Manager's summer to-do list ahead of a season in which the Rangers will welcome a fresh flock of high-talent prospects, a group whose future will be shaped in part by the time they'll spend in Hartford.
"It was huge to find the right guy for this job," Drury said in an interview with NYRangers.com. "Finding the right guy is a big step for the Rangers, for the Wolf Pack and for the organization. We were determined to get it right, and we really feel like we did."
"To be able to be part of the regrowth and the development of these young players is just really, really exciting," Knoblauch told NYRangers.com on Monday. "I can't wait to get started."
After preparing for a career as a history teacher, Knoblauch wound up cutting his coaching teeth in Canadian major junior hockey, first in the Western League and then in the Ontario League, compiling a remarkable record of success over his seven seasons as a head coach, not to mention for a coach only 40 years old. His Kootenay team won the WHL championship in his first year as a head coach -- the team went 16-3 in the Western League playoffs. In 2013 he took the reins from Robbie Ftorek and coached OHL Erie for 4½ years, and won at least 50 games in each of his four full seasons, making the Otters the only Canadian Hockey League team ever to string together four consecutive 50-win campaigns. Erie won the OHL title in 2016-17, one season after Knoblauch was honored as the league's Coach of the Year.
"Winning that many games, winning league championships in those two extremely tough Canadian junior leagues," Drury said, "you know what you're doing."
With all that winning under his belt, perhaps Knoblauch's answer was not too surprising when he was asked to articulate what he wants the culture in Hartford to be.
"I want a group that wants to win, wants the organization to have success," the Head Coach said. "No matter what league it is, whether it's the NHL, American League, junior hockey -- when the team has success, individual players become recognized. I want players who want to win, and help their teammates win -- it's really enjoyable to win games, yeah, but it's also good for them, because people notice you when the team is winning.
"Whatever role you are -- it's not just the guys who are scoring goals, or the No. 1 defenseman -- you're always regarded more highly when you are helping a team win."
Knoblauch spoke on Monday of the valuable lessons he takes away from his two seasons as an NHL assistant -- including confidence in working and interacting with players of an older age bracket than the under-20 juniors he was used to -- but he admitted that "while I was in Philadelphia, one thing I was missing was being a head coach, and making those decisions, and having more involvement in the game. I am excited to be a head coach again.
"And I just think the Rangers, where they are in their development, and the young players that are coming in, it's just real exciting for me."
This was not precisely the career path Knoblauch had charted for himself from the outset, when he went to pursue his graduate-level Bachelor of Education degree at the University of Alberta a little over a decade ago. After graduation, Knoblauch -- a seventh-round pick of the Islanders in 1997 -- played a couple of seasons professionally before diving straight into coaching, beginning in 2006 as an assistant with WHL Prince Albert. When he was just starting out, Knoblauch would go to work as a substitute teacher once hockey season ended, kindergarten through 12th grade, to supplement his income and to keep his classroom skills sharp.
Whether he knew it or not, Knoblauch's schooling and his substituting were preparing him to climb the coaching ranks in hockey.
"You know, just being openminded and patient, allowing players to learn, accepting that they learn different ways and at different speed," Knoblauch said. "My time getting my education degree and spending time in the classroom, no question it has helped me with my coaching."
"For me, first and foremost, he's a terrific person -- everywhere we turned, everywhere we looked, people just raved about him as a human being," said Drury. "Then as we dug deeper into his coaching and his style, bench management, communication, we really liked what we saw and what we heard."
Those raw numbers of his coaching record didn't hurt, either, nor the list of players who have passed through junior hockey under Knoblauch's guidance: McDavid, Alex DeBrincat, Sam Reinhart, Dylan Strome, Andre Burakovsky, Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, Connor Brown, on and on. Drury called that "most exciting for us, the number of players he's been able to work with who have gone on not only to be NHL players, but terrific NHL players. We feel good about having him in charge of our young guys in Hartford, and getting them individually and collectively better."
Knoblauch, in turn, should be aided by Drury's own efforts this offseason to add some veteran presence to the room in Hartford. "That is so important," Knoblauch said. "They're the mentors. They're almost assistant coaches for those younger players, showing them what to do -- on the ice and off the ice. I'm absolutely confident that Chris has got the right guys in place."
Now Drury has his head coach in place, and can turn his focus toward filling out the rest of the staff -- "Sooner the better," Drury said, "but it's about finding the right guys, not about building a staff just to build a staff." In the meantime, Hartford now rests in the hands of a young coach whose career has traversed North America, and whose pedigree is all about educating and winning.
"I like to have my players involved, and I want them to feel that I am completely invested in their development," Knoblauch said. "Not only for winning and losing hockey games, but I want them to get better and to help them move up in their career.
"It's really important for a coach to develop and teach," Knoblauch said. "I'm just trying to make every one of my players better."