A Tale of Two Coaches
For a team to win the Stanley Cup, its players must buy into one system, one goal and be like-minded in their efforts. That is not to say that individuality is not welcome in the equation. On the contrary, a team comprised of players who have vastly differing skill sets and backgrounds is one that will be able to adapt to the many challenges on the road to a championship.
The same can be said for a coaching staff. A staff made up of coaches with different backgrounds means they’ve each had different experiences. Different experiences mean different skills have been developed. Different skills mean different ways to win hockey games. In Pascal Vincent and Charlie Huddy, the Winnipeg Jets have two assistant coaches who are unified in their goal of winning hockey games, but whose backgrounds could not be more different.
For his part, Huddy draws from the experiences of his lengthy pro hockey career to be an effective coach. Huddy was a steady NHL blue-liner who played 1017 games in the NHL. Winnipeg hockey fans will remember him best for his days with the Edmonton Oilers. It was there that Huddy won five Stanley Cups, and in 1982-83 he finished the season with the best plus/minus rating in the league.
“We were a high-scoring team,” says Huddy. “I was paired with Paul Coffey, and we played a lot with Wayne Gretzky’s line, so there were lots of goals. But I really took pride in not being on the ice for goals against. If you are not on the ice for a lot of goals against, you are probably helping your team win.”
Huddy took his defensively reliable approach to Los Angeles, St. Louis, Buffalo and Rochester of the American Hockey League before his playing career came to a close. In his last year in Rochester, Huddy was presented with an opportunity that would steer him in a new career direction.
“In my last season in 1996-97 I was a player-assistant coach in Rochester under (head coach) John Tortorella,” says Huddy. “I played some games, and some games I was behind the bench learning about the coaching part of it to see if I had an interest in it, which it turns out I did.”
The following season Huddy made his professional coaching debut with the ECHL’s Huntington Blizzard. Head coaches in the East Coast league do not have the staff at their disposal that NHL head coaches do, usually resulting in a steep learning curve.
“When you’re in the East Coast League you are kind of by yourself,” says Huddy. “I was in charge of everything from payroll to salaries, dealing with players, lining up busses and hotels. I really enjoyed it, and learned a lot.”
Huddy then made the jump up to the NHL as an assistant coach with the New York Rangers where he was reunited with several ex-teammates in players Wayne Gretzky, Esa Tikkanen, Jeff Beukeboom and Adam Graves as well as coaches Keith Acton and Craig MacTavish. The head coach of the Rangers was John Muckler, who coached Huddy when they were both with the Oilers.
“It was exciting to get the opportunity to learn as a coach from John Muckler after playing for him for so many years,” says Huddy. “It gave me a whole new perspective on how he does things. In those two years in New York I learned a lot about using video, how to do pre-scouting on upcoming opponents. John taught me a lot.”
Huddy went on to be an assistant coach with the first NHL team he suited up for, standing behind the Oilers bench for eight years before taking on the same role with the Dallas Stars for two more years ending in the spring of 2011. It was at this point that Huddy called newly-appointed Winnipeg Jets head coach Claude Noel about coming on board as an assistant coach with the Jets.
“I knew that with Kevin Cheveldayoff, Craig Heisinger and Claude Noel in the picture, things would be run well,” says Huddy. “Especially when I looked at the roster, with the defence (that the Jets have), I was hoping to get an opportunity to work with these guys.”
At the same time that Huddy was hoisting his fifth Stanley Cup with the Oilers in the spring of 1990, Pascal Vincent was finishing up his second year of junior in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League with the St. Jean Lynx. Vincent capped his junior career in 1991-92 by making it to the Memorial Cup as a member of the Verdun College Francais.
Vincent made a one-year foray into professional hockey the following season, suiting up for the Knoxville Cherokees of the ECHL before calling it a playing career and turning his attention toward school. However, hockey kept calling to him, literally.
“I decided to attend university, but after a year I got a call from the St. Jean Lynx who wanted me to become an assistant coach,” says Vincent. “So I went there for a year, but the team was sold and relocated to Rimouski.”
Vincent, who had ultimately planned to become a doctor, went back to university only to be called once again. This time it was the Laval AAA midget team looking for a head coach.
“It was a big choice,” says Vincent. “I had a good conversation about it with my parents. I told them ‘when I’m away from the rink, I feel like I am not in the right place.’”
Vincent took the job – which also included being the Director of Minor Hockey in his hometown of Laval - and remained there until 1999 when he became the assistant coach of the QMJHL’s Cape Breton Screaming Eagles. A month into the season, the 27-year old Vincent took over as the head coach, and two years later he also took on the role of general manager.
“To be honest, I never really wanted to be the GM,” says Vincent. “The owner just gave me the title. It was nice because I had a great staff helping me and I learned a lot, but I wanted to be a coach one hundred percent of the time, and often my assistants would be coaching while I had to take care of the general manager duties.”
Interestingly, the reluctant GM went on to win the 2007 Maurice Filion trophy – awarded to the QMJHL’s top general manager. One year later, Vincent captured the Ron Lapointe trophy as the league’s top coach.
“(Winning those awards) is a team thing,” says Vincent. “It’s the people you work with helping you out, it’s the players believing in your guidance and performing on the ice. I was lucky to have a great ownership group who supported everything we did as coaches.”
Vincent spent a total of nine seasons with Cape Breton before becoming the head coach and general manager of the Montreal Juniors, also of the QMJHL. In 12 seasons as a head coach in the QMJHL – and as GM for 10 of those – Vincent’s teams had only two losing seasons.
Vincent’s track record piqued the interest of the Winnipeg Jets, and head coach Claude Noel made a phone call to the long-time junior head coach, asking if he’d be interested in making the jump to the NHL.
“I’ll always be thankful to Claude, and of course Chevy and Zinger,” says Vincent. “It showed they are open-minded to hire me from junior. I think they saw that I am loyal and hardworking, and I am grateful to get the chance.
Vincent’s fellow assistant coach is also grateful for the chance to ply his trade in Winnipeg.
“I just love being in the game, and being around the players,” says Huddy. “I think that’s why I’ve been in the system for so long, because I love being in that environment. It is great to help players, and see their careers move forward.”