For Michael Peca, the turnaround from being a leader on the ice to one behind the bench was pretty fast. After retiring from a decorated NHL career in 2009, Peca took over as general manager of the Buffalo Jr. Sabres in 2011 and added head coaching duties to his resume a year later.
In 2012-13, his first full season as head coach, Peca led the Jr. Sabres to a 38-12-5 regular record. He was then named the Ontario Junior Hockey League’s Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year.
He seems to be on track for continued coaching success as the team is off to a stellar start this season with many new faces on the team. The Jr. Sabres currently boast a record of 8-1-1-2, putting them on top of the OJHL West Division with 19 points in 12 games.
Peca, 39, pointed to many lessons he learned from learned from the legendary Ottawa 67’s coach and Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Brian Kilrea when it comes to how he guides the players.
“I’ve adopted my style at this level from [Kilrea] when I played with the Ottawa 67’s in junior hockey. My style is stay out of the kids’ way as much as possible, let them continue to explore the game and learn the game,” Peca said.
A big part of that style is keeping things simple for the 16-to-20 year-old players on the team.
“We don’t overcomplicate it with systems and things like that. These kids at this age don’t need to be over-thinking the game,” he said. “They need to kind of learn the game as they go. For the most part, we allow our kids to use their creativity and it’s worked because now they can gain a comfort level and a trust with one another.”
I’m always a believer that you become a better hockey player by how you work. - Michael Peca
As a player, Peca worked his way up through the American Hockey League following four seasons of junior hockey in the Ontario Hockey League. He eventually broke into the NHL with the Vancouver Canucks, making his debut on Dec. 6, 1993 in Montreal.
Having been through many different levels of competition, Peca noticed an overarching theme that hardworking players are the ones that get rewarded. That carries into his coaching strategy for the Jr. Sabres.
“I’m always a believer that you become a better hockey player by how you work,” he said. “The older you get, skill has very little to do with it. A lot of guys have skill. It’s about how hard you’re willing to work in all areas of the ice. We always stress work ahead of skill here, and the ones that don’t learn about it very quickly and the ones that do are rewarded for it.”
In addition to coaching, Peca plays a major role in the recruitment of players by serving as general manager. Having both roles enables Peca to mold the team with players he believes he can develop effectively.
“It works better, especially at this level, to be able to do both,” he said. “As a coach, you want full control of what you’re doing with your program. If you can bring the players in, knowing what you’re bringing in and what guys you’re going to develop makes it a little easier.”
By combining the two roles, Peca has the ability to put his stamp on the Jr. Sabres program at multiple levels. The ability to bring in players willing to put in the work to improve as hockey players and young adults makes Peca’s job a lot easier.
The next step then is for Peca, as head coach, to hone those skills and prepare his players for the next levels of their hockey careers.
“We’re looking to be a program that continues to send kids to college hockey. It’s about trying to develop a maturity level and a hockey game to get them to a point that they’re ready to play either college hockey or a higher level of junior hockey,” Peca said.
It is easy to see the foundation Peca is building for the Jr. Sabres moving forward.
As a former captain of the Buffalo Sabres and New York Islanders and a two-time Selke Trophy winner as the League’s best defensive forward, Peca found success at the NHL level by putting in the work to become a better player in all aspects of the game.
In this new endeavor, Peca has found early success with his earnest approach to the game of hockey. He is building a program that aims to be successful for years to come and help player realize their dreams of playing hockey at a higher level at the same time.
“That’s what we’re going to strive for. Having now built relationships with a lot of the colleges in the country, I know from them that I have mature young men that are going to represent their program well,” he said. “If they can develop that respect for where they are, then they’ll be able to carry that over to where they play at the next level.”