CALGARY — In order to rise to the top of the coaching ladder, three longtime NHL assistants are dropping a couple of rungs first.
Almost half the teams in the Western Hockey League will start this season with new coaches, with Tim Hunter, Bob Woods and Jamie Kompon coming directly from the NHL.
Hunter, an assistant coach last season with the Washington Capitals, is the new head coach and general manager of the Moose Jaw Warriors. Woods has taken on both roles with the Saskatoon Blades after spending last year as an assistant with Anaheim.
Kompon, who won a Stanley Cup with Chicago in 2013 and the Los Angeles Kings in 2012, is coach-GM of the Portland Winterhawks.
What brings these men to major junior hockey is the belief the WHL can be a springboard to a job as an NHL head coach.
Mike Johnston, Kompon’s predecessor in Portland, went directly to head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins this season after six years with the Winterhawks.
“I’ve been an assistant and worn many hats in the NHL for 17 years,” Kompon says. “You kind of get to that stage where ’am I ever going to get out of that or is this my peak? Have I maxed out as an assistant?’
“Wanting to be that head coach and running my own team and being able to run my own bench, that’s why I feel this is a great opportunity for me.”
Hunter won a Stanley Cup as a player with the Calgary Flames in 1989. He’s been an NHL assistant coach for 14 seasons with Washington, Toronto and San Jose.
“As an assistant coach in the NHL, I’ve applied for a number of jobs that were head coaching opportunities,” Hunter says. “I keep getting the stumbling block that I don’t have enough coaching experience. I never ran my own team.
“For me, I felt if I ever wanted to finish out my dream and be a head coach at the highest level — I was very fortunate to play at the highest level, so now I want to coach at the highest level as a head coach — I thought I’d have to take a step back and become a head coach at the WHL level. I thought it gave me the best opportunity to become an NHL head coach.”
The 2014-15 season opens Friday with seven games. Four of the WHL’s 22 clubs will start the season ranked in the Canadian Hockey League’s top 10: Brandon Wheat Kings (third); Kelowna Rockets (fifth); Calgary Hitmen (seventh); Portland Winterhawks (10th).
The other teams who made coaching changes were Regina (John Paddock); Edmonton (Steve Hamilton); Kamloops (Don Hay); Kelowna (Dan Lambert); Vancouver (Troy Ward); Calgary (Mark French); and Tri-City (Mike Williamson).
Paddock is a former head coach of the NHL’s Ottawa Senators and Winnipeg Jets, while Hay has coached the Calgary Flames and Arizona Coyotes in the past.
After 10 years with the WHL’s Vancouver Giants, Hay returns to Kamloops where he coached the Blazers to Memorial Cups in 1994 and 1995.
The CHL — to which the WHL belongs — touts itself as the No. 1 development league for the NHL. The NHL pays the major junior leagues development money based on drafted players. The WHL sent 129 players to NHL rookie camps last week.
WHL owners want coaches with NHL experience because they know what needs to be done to get junior players to the NHL.
“We have the opportunity because we’ve been at this level, to help these kids as well and show them what we’ve learned to help them reach their goals,” Woods says.
“If you can pass along some advice and little things for these guys to help them get there, if we see these guys go on and make the NHL, then it’s a reward for us too.”
Woods was an assistant coach to Bruce Boudreau in Washington for three seasons before following Boudreau to Anaheim for the last two.
It may seem like Woods, Hunter and Kompon are taking a few steps down the career ladder, but WHL teams now model their operations on those of the NHL, if on a smaller scale. Running a successful WHL team checks off a box when applying to the NHL.
“Everything we have done from playing rules to regulations has mirrored the NHL experience and we want to provide our players with a similar type of experience,” WHL commissioner Ron Robison says.
“Whether we’re talking about systems played on the ice and how competitive the teams are, the video, the technology used to support our teams, our training facilities that are available for our players, it’s all-NHL like in every which way. The gap has closed considerably over the years in terms of the type of experience.”
“You can coach at the junior level but be only a step away from an NHL opportunity because of the likeness of the two.”
The WHL has adopted for the NHL’s playoff format for this season. Players to watch include Giants winger Tyler Benson, the first pick in the WHL’s 2013 draft, and Kelowna Rockets centre Nick Merkley, who won the league’s rookie award last season.
Led by forwards Nic Petan and Oliver Bjorkstrand and goaltender Brendan Burke, the Winterhawks are expected to be contenders again under Kompon.
Victoria Royals forward Tyler Soy and Seattle Thunderbirds forward Matt Barzal were impact players for Canada’s under-18 this summer.
Five-star hotels and first-class flights aren’t generally part of the WHL experience, so Hunter, Woods and Kompon face lifestyle adjustments.
Hunter can remember riding the bus as a player the WHL’s Seattle Breakers in the 1970s. Transportation has come a long way since then.
“The buses are sure a lot better now than when I played in the WHL,” he says. “Wi-Fi, plug-ins for your laptop, lots of leg room. They’re a lot more comfortable in the heating department as well.”