ST. PAUL, Minn. – While the Minnesota Wild searched for their latest head coach this summer, the usual handful of seasoned candidates was available.
Instead of scouring the market for significant experience or big-name recognition, though, general manager Chuck Fletcher turned to the NHL’s head coach factory: the American Hockey League.
Mike Yeo was the latest coach to turn an AHL job into the ultimate promotion, wearing a suit and standing on the bench in supervision of an NHL team. After Fletcher fired first-time head coach Todd Richards in April after only two years, he could’ve gone the other way and picked an accomplished and higher-priced leader like Ken Hitchcock, Craig MacTavish or Andy Murray.
But Fletcher wasn’t deterred. He went right back to the well—hockey’s less expensive fountain of youth, essentially—and chose Yeo from the Wild’s minor league affiliate. Yeo coached the Houston Aeros to the AHL final last season and impressed the front office by the way he had them playing hard, fast and together.
“At the end of the day, the only good reason I could come up with why Mike should not be the coach was that he was 37 years old,” Fletcher said then.
Fletcher took a risk by going with another young guy on the heels of a failed choice from the same category. He was hardly making a bold move, however.
Of the current 30 head coaches in the league, 13 of them were hired from the AHL without any prior experience as an NHL head coach.
Two more of them, Alain Vigneault of Vancouver and Claude Noel of Winnipeg, had previously been an NHL head coach but had an AHL head coaching job as the most recent line on their resume.
Perhaps the most prime example of the league’s unofficial apprenticeship program is in Pittsburgh, where Dan Bylsma was summoned from the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins at mid-season following the firing of Michel Therrien and guided the NHL Penguins to the Stanley Cup championship in 2009.
“I don’t have a reason why that has been the case. I know starting about four years ago I was all for it,” Bylsma said.
The consensus is that the work and preparation required to do the job in the AHL is the perfect foundation for the same duty in the NHL. Strong communication skills are a must with young prospects, and even if the spotlight held by fans and analysts doesn’t shine on the minor leagues the responsibilities of running the show in the AHL are just as many.
The success enjoyed by Bylsma, Guy Boucher of Tampa Bay and Bruce Boudreau of Washington also has helped give other general managers around the game more faith to make the same kind of hire.
“It’s eased it for the next group of guys that are good coaches that deserve an opportunity,” Bylsma said.
Capitals general manager George McPhee, like Penguins counterpart Ray Shero would do less than two years later, made Boudreau an in-season hire on Thanksgiving Day in 2007 and watched him win the Southeast Division and the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s best coach a few months later.
“When we made the change it was an easy transition for us because he knew all the players,” McPhee said. “That may be why it’s become a trend in the league because your minor league coach knows a lot of the young players that are in your organization.”
So just like the AHL is a feeder system of up-and-coming players, it can serve as the same source of new coaches.
“The GM also has a knowledge of you, so when the GM has the knowledge of you, it’s usually a good thing, right? He knows what you’re all about. He’s not guessing,” Boudreau said.
Boudreau said this week he was happy to be the “trail blazer” even if he didn’t realize it at the time.
“Obviously I wasn’t the first, but it sort of started a whole bunch in a row,” he said.
These hires sometimes come from another track, too. Columbus general manager Scott Howson hired Scott Arniel to be his coach before last season, after Arniel spent four years as the head coach of the AHL’s Manitoba Moose, then the top affiliate of the VancouverCanucks.
“There’s still room for experienced coaches, and maybe the pendulum has swung a little bit and it’ll come back,” Howson said. “The league’s younger, and some of these younger coaches have had a lot of success coaching younger people.”
For Arniel, the people skills he developed in Manitoba were critical to take with him to his current job.
“It’s about how you deal with players on a daily basis. Do your players get better through the time playing with you? Do they mature? And do you do all the things to help them?” Arniel said. “Sometimes, teams hire their coaches to fit their team. That league’s watched an awful lot.”
Fletcher picked Yeo not so much to fit the Wild but to shape them into a more aggressive, disciplined and spirited team that’s not afraid to shoot the puck. The Wild have missed the playoffs for three straight seasons.
Yeo, whose face makes him look even younger than most of the players he’s now in charge of, has made a point to exude an aura of confidence and poise, carrying himself without arrogance but as if he’s been on an NHL bench for 10 years.
Though he spent just one season in Houston, having served as an assistant under Therrien and Bylsma in Pittsburgh prior to that, the hands-on training he found there was invaluable.
“In the end you’re the one that’s got to come up with the answer,” Yeo said. “I’m a big believer that your team oftentimes takes on the personality of your coach. There’s a different set of pressures that you face as a head coach. When the buck stops with you, it’s how you deal with adversity, how you’re going to go in and deal with a team when you’re down 2-0 after two periods and how you’re going to deal with being on a five-game losing streak.”
AP Sports Writers Will Graves in Pittsburgh, Rusty Miller in Columbus, Ohio, and Joseph G. White in Washington contributed to this report.