WINNIPEG – Manitoba Moose head coach Scott Arniel celebrated winning the American Hockey Leagues coach of the year award with the most important people in his life – his family and players.
The 46-year-old native of Kingston, Ont., was named the winner of the Louis A.R. Pieri Memorial Award on Tuesday in his third season as Moose head coach.
Arniel got the news from the league office the night before because his team was travelling Tuesday for its final three games of the regular season.
His phone rang when he and his daughter, Stephanie, were in a grocery store.
The pair kept it a secret until they sat down for dinner with Arniel’s wife, Lia, and their son, Brendan.
“At dinner, my daughter clinked her class and stood up and said that she wanted to make a toast to the American Hockey League coach of the year,” Arniel said from Hamilton.
“It was a nice moment where we all could celebrate together. So many times over the years we aren’t all together for things that happen.”
Arniel has guided the Moose to a record-setting season.
This season the Moose posted the most wins in franchise history (49-22-0-6), captured their second North Division championship in three years, and has a 104 points to lead the Western Conference, tying them for first in the AHL with the Hershey Bears.
Manitoba’s final three games are against Hamilton on Wednesday, in Toronto on Friday and in Cleveland Saturday against Lake Erie.
The Moose have also racked up a franchise-best 24 road wins and second-year goalie Cory Schneider sports a league-leading, team-record 28 wins (28-8-1).
If Manitoba finishes atop the league it would be a first time since the club joined the AHL in 2001-02 and would give it home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.
They’ll face the Toronto Marlies or Syracuse Crunch in the first round of the playoffs. Toronto is one point up on Syracuse for the final division playoff spot. Grand Rapids in second and Hamilton third.
At the end of Tuesday’s practice in Hamilton, Moose captain Mike Keane gathered his teammates around Arniel to tell them the big news.
“I told them that good players make coaches look good,” said Arniel, who had an 18-year pro playing career.
Arniel has used 51 players this season – second most in the AHL – including 14 who’ve seen action in the NHL. Manitoba’s parent club is the Vancouver Canucks.
A former NHL forward with Winnipeg, Buffalo and Boston, Arniel also played in the American and International hockey leagues, including 1996-99 with the Moose, where he was captain his last two seasons.
He was an assistant coach with Manitoba for two seasons (2000-02) and four with the Buffalo Sabres (2002-06).
His career head coaching record of 140-82-15 with the Moose and .622 winning percentage ranks second among active AHL head coaches with at least one full season.
“I’m a big fan of his,” said Moose centre Jason Krog, who’s third in league scoring with 30 goals and 54 assists in 71 games and was named an AHL second-team all-star. “I think he’s done a good job at not letting us get too high and not letting us get too low.”
Arniel’s strength is also about using his players natural talents.
“He sees the game very well, he’s very innovative with his coaching and the systems we play,” Krog said.
“It’s fun for me to play for him. He doesn’t limit creativity and I think guys respect that.”
The Moose rank first in the AHL in defence, allowing an average of 2.30 goals. It’s penalty killing is third at 86.0 per cent.
But it all begins with Schneider, who’s backed up by Owen Sound, Ont., native Curtis Sanford.
Vancouver’s 2004 first-round draft pick (26th overall), Schneider has a 1.90 goals against average and .931 save percentage.
The Marblehead, Mass., native and Boston College grad was named the AHL’s first-team goaltender last week and will likely be named the leagues most outstanding goalie on Thursday.
“He has a very calm demeanour in the games,” Arniel said. “He doesn’t get rattled. He’s very confident, he’s very athletic and he’s a big-bodied guy. When he’s on, he’s tough to beat.”
Schneider knows the pressure is on him to lead the team to the Calder Cup.
“It’s a pressure that I put on myself,” he said.
“I don’t need anybody else telling me what I needed to do because I knew full and well that I need to be a rock back there and someone that makes the big saves when he needs to.”
Manitoba’s best playoff run was losing the Western Conference final twice to Chicago, in 2004-05 while in the AHL and 2000-01 in IHL.