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Rod Brind’Amour: Raleigh Around the Boss

Rod Brind’Amour approached the game with an unquestioned ferocity during his playing career. That passion still burns as a coach, but he’s not all fire and brimstone. He now seeks to join some legendary leaders in an exclusive club of double champions.
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The assistant coach of the under-10 AA Carolina Junior Hurricanes couldn’t be at practice one night recently because he was out of town on business. And business is really good these days. But he did manage to watch the workout on his laptop from his hotel room in Boston, took some notes and shot a text to head coach Cody Staves the next morning. “He told me, ‘I love the new drill you did,’ ” Staves said. “ ‘You might want to try it like this the next time.’ ”

If the guy sending that text is a Type-A megalomaniac who thinks his little Brayden is the second coming of Bobby Orr and believes his ability to sell software also makes him a hockey genius, well, that’s all kinds of youth-hockey hell right there. But suppose he’s the reigning Jack Adams Award winner who is coaching one of the best teams in the NHL and possesses the humility of an everyman trapped in the body of an Adonis. In that case, that means your trusty assistant coach is Brooks Brind’Amour’s dad. (Jade Williams’ dad is another assistant. You might have heard of her father, a chap named Justin.)

Twenty-two years, one Stanley Cup and two Selke Trophies after landing in Carolina, Rod Brind’Amour has the Hurricanes – both the junior version and the varsity team – in an excellent place. The Junior Hurricanes are off to something called the Squirt International in Fargo, N.D., at the end of February. And after the big team missed the playoffs nine straight years, the NHL Canes have found themselves in the post-season each of the past three seasons under Brind’Amour. While they’re not there yet, the Hurricanes feel as though they’re on the cusp of doing something special. Brind’Amour, meanwhile, isn’t about to start drinking sweet tea from a Mason jar – too much refined sugar – but he has become a bona fide Tar Heel, even marrying the daughter of a college basketball coach.

The on- and off-ice journeys for Brind’Amour have been filled with moments of triumph and soul-crushing craters. But there is no doubt he has discovered his identity and found his stride in both places. As a coach, he’s risen to the top of his craft and has the unconditional support of both the organization and its players. Personally, he’s absorbed some body blows, the most painful of which was a very public divorce from his former wife and the breakup of his family. Brind’Amour has since remarried the former Amy Biedenbach, who is Brooks’ mother and treats Brind’Amour’s other sons as though they’re her own. “Coming down here was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Brind’Amour said. “When it happened, it was the worst thing that ever happened to me. It’s crazy how life works, right?”

Yeah, it is. Brind’Amour was crushed when the Philadelphia Flyers traded him to Carolina during the 1999-2000 season. Three years later, he found himself stretching before a game in San Jose in the most miserable season of his career and seriously thinking he’d have to retire. Brind’Amour was separating from his wife and didn’t see how he’d be able to co-parent his two-, three- and four-year-old boys while continuing to play in the NHL. “I was stretching in the hallway and the referees were right across the way, and I was thinking, ‘Maybe I should be a ref,’ ” Brind’Amour said. “All I could think of was, ‘This isn’t working. I have to quit hockey because I may not see my kids.’ My parents are still together, and you just don’t get divorced. But I also knew I wasn’t being a good parent in this relationship. It was the toughest decision I’ve ever had to make.”

Not long after Brind’Amour arrived in Carolina, former NHLer Kevin Dineen introduced him to Wilson Hoyle III. Hoyle, a former placekicker for Wake Forest University who held the school’s scoring record for 16 years, runs a company called Captrust, the largest registered-advisory firm in the United States, with more than 1,000 employees, 60 locations and $390 billion in assets under advisement. An acquaintance grew into a friendship, then morphed into a brotherhood. When the schedule allows it, the two show up and work out together at the practice facility or the Hurricanes’ home, PNC Arena. They talk every day, and when Brind’Amour got married in 2010, Hoyle was his best man. Hoyle was there for Brind’Amour during the divorce and afterward. Now, they’re inseparable. “First of all, that guy is the greatest human being on the planet, and he happens to be my best friend,” said Brind’Amour of Hoyle. “I lucked out there.” To which Hoyle countered: “I’m a better person because of my relationship with Rod. When he walks into the room, he makes the room better. We always talk about this. In fact, we just talked about it this morning. Our approach to any challenge is not to have a pity party about it. First thing we do is pray about it. The second thing we do is go and work our asses off.”

Pray? That’s interesting, but while Brind’Amour is an open book on most things in his life, his faith is personal to him, and it’s going to stay that way. But it’s a big part of his moral compass, which is, in turn, a massive factor in Brind’Amour, both the person and the coach. Even though Brind’Amour looks as though he could still play and still feels more like a player than a coach, he’s developed into an incredible bench boss. There are times when the Hurricanes peel back a layer of the onion and post video of Brind’Amour’s post-game speeches to his team on social media. And they’re something to see. He’s pacing around the room like an expectant father, pointing at players and making everyone feel important. Last year during the playoffs, the team even sang Happy Birthday to Brind’Amour’s father after a win. Imagine John Tortorella’s or Ken Hitchcock’s team doing something like that. This season, when Div. II North Carolina State asked him to give the lineup, he ended up giving a speech that prompted the school to tweet out, “We’ve run out of walls to run through.”

The way his friend Hoyle sees it, Brind’Amour’s success comes from a unique combination of toughness and humility. In the end, athletes need two things from their coach to succeed: equal amounts of encouragement and accountability. Brind’Amour has become a master of giving out just enough of the former and expecting more of the latter than has been asked of them before. You have to remember Brind’Amour was part of that nine-year playoff drought, an assistant coach for the final seven years of it. He served first under Paul Maurice, then Kirk Muller, then Bill Peters. But current assistant coach Jeff Daniels said when Brind’Amour showed up for his first day of camp as the head coach in 2018, there was no ambiguity around what he expected of the team.

Brind’Amour made it clear expectations had been far too low in recent years and that not buying into his desire to play the game fast and hard would not be acceptable. The Hurricanes went on to post what was then their second-best season in franchise history before eventually being swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final. “That was really easy, actually,” said Brind’Amour of changing the culture in the dressing room. “I thought all along that we didn’t have the bar set high enough. It was really easy for me to say, ‘The bar is on the floor. We’ve just got to raise it.’ I thought it was really easy, an obvious thing. I’ve been here a long time, and I saw for a long stretch that we had no chance. You have to change the expectation level, but the funny thing is, it wasn’t that much. Suddenly, you’re knocking on the door, which is where we think we are. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting there.”

The Hurricanes are indeed getting there. They were the second-best team in the NHL in terms of points percentage as of mid-February, with very few burps or hiccups along the way. If they play the second half of the season anywhere near as well as they did the first, the Canes are a shoo-in to improve on the best regular season they’ve ever had. As it turns out, that best-ever campaign happens to have been last season, under Brind’Amour. There have been more than a few changes to the lineup in Brind’Amour’s almost four seasons in charge, but Jordan Staal is still there. Sebastian Aho spent a couple of seasons gaining Brind’Amour’s trust before moving from the wing to become one of the league’s elite two-way centermen. Jaccob Slavin has developed into a shutdown defenseman who plays the game so well and so cleanly that he became just the second defenseman in 67 years to win the Lady Byng Trophy. No one would be surprised if the ‘Bunch of Jerks’ rode a Storm Surge all the way to a Stanley Cup this season. If that happens, Brind’Amour will become the first person since Toe Blake to both play for and coach the same team to a Stanley Cup and only the third man in NHL history, after Blake and Hap Day, to serve as both a captain and coach of the same Stanley Cup-winning franchise.

Back to the toughness and humility thing. Somehow, Brind’Amour manages to pull it off where other coaches fail. Everyone who knows Brind’Amour can attest to his passion for winning, but he manages to combine it with an ability to treat people the right way. And that’s not always easy. Ian Cole, who signed with the Hurricanes as a UFA last summer, said on an off-day, he took his father for a tour of the Wake Competition Center, which is the Hurricanes’ practice rink. It turns out Brind’Amour was in his office watching a tape of his son, Skyler, an Edmonton Oilers draft pick in his junior season at Quinnipiac. Brind’Amour poked his head out of the office and had a long conversation with Cole’s father that left the elder Cole raving about the coach. It might not seem difficult to most people to be both singularly focused on winning and have a compassionate side, but it’s not as easy as it looks, judging by the way some coaches and athletes treat people.

For his part, Hoyle sees it all the time in the business world. He protects the investments of 3,500 companies, universities and professional athletes, and he is around high-performing people all the time. “Typically, they are self-absorbed a--holes,” Hoyle said. “Their single-mindedness makes them self-absorbed or selfish. What makes Rod so unique is he is focused and disciplined, but that combination of toughness and humility make him the furthest thing from being a selfish jerk. He’s a servant-leader, literally. When it comes to getting the most out of his players, he’s like, ‘How can I serve them?’ And it’s real.”

After the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, Hoyle remembers Brind’Amour leaving the party early with the Stanley Cup in tow. They drove Brind’Amour’s father to the airport, then went back to his house to watch a continuous loop of SportsCenter and eat cereal until the sun came up. Don’t tell Mark Messier or Alex Ovechkin about that one. “It has to be the most boring night in the history of the Cup,” Hoyle said.

But Brind’Amour wanted to have it waiting in Skyler’s room when his son woke up the next morning because he couldn’t stay up until the end of the game. No party, no jumping into the pool with it at somebody’s mansion. Just two friends eating cereal and watching SportsCenter with the Cup on a coffee table nearby.

Things have not changed much for Brind’Amour since winning the Cup as a player. He still rarely drinks alcohol. He is still in the weight room almost every day, although he stopped bench pressing about five years before his playing career ended because it was murder on his shoulders. He still puts in the time, doing a lot of cardio and core work, with some weights sprinkled in there. He hasn’t changed his eating habits since his playing days, which accounts for the two whole pounds he’s gained since retiring more than a decade ago. “It used to be that if I had a flight at seven, I’d get up at five so I could get my workout in,” Brind’Amour said. “But now, I usually bag it for the day. Or I’ll work out when I get there or that’s my day off.” Slacker.

The ability to extract every ounce he had as a player allows him to expect the same of the guys who play for him. As Daniels said, Brind’Amour will never expect anything out of anyone that he would not have expected out of himself when he played. When you see Brind’Amour walking around the room pointing and encouraging, that’s not an act for the cameras. It works for him, where it might seem inauthentic from others. And you get the sense that if a player can’t play for Brind’Amour, it might be time for him to look at himself and what he’s not doing right. The message that resonated with the likes of a younger Aho or Teuvo Teravainen or Brett Pesce is just as readily accepted by grizzled veterans. “I’m a prime example of it,” said Derek Stepan, a 31-year-old who signed a one-year deal with the Hurricanes to be their fourth-line center this season. “I came in this summer, and fairly quickly, I was able to understand his ability to do all this,” Stepan said. “The way he communicates with the players, that’s special. And that’s something that I bought into early on in the year. His ability to motivate me at this stage of my career and also motivate a Seth Jarvis, who’s playing his first game…to be able to squeeze every ounce out of every player, that’s what makes a coach special.”

Between events during the all-star weekend in Vegas, Brind’Amour watched as Brooks’ team played a weekend series in Charleston, S.C., and watched Skyler’s games against Union and RPI. That’s before taking the red-eye back to Raleigh right after coaching the Metropolitan Division to a win in the final and the $1-million prize payout. He wanted to get home to spend some time with his kids before leaving the next day for a three-day road trip. That trip also prevented him from being behind the bench for his duties with the under-10 Junior Hurricanes – duties including breaking down video for the kids for Wednesday night practice. Nothing elaborate, but when they can see a clip of Andrei Svechnikov not doing a fly-by on the forecheck, well, maybe they’ll do the same. “I love it,” he said. “I wouldn’t be there if my son wasn’t there, but I’m there. I might as well help out. What am I going to do, stand on the sidelines?”

Nobody would expect Rod Brind’Amour to do that. He hasn’t done anything like that since he first stepped on the ice as an NHL rookie with the St. Louis Blues more than three decades ago. And he’s not about to start now. 

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