From Flint ... to first

The Hamilton Spectator - - Sports - TERI PECOSKIE

REGINA — Barely two years af­ter his first coach­ing gig in the On­tario Hockey League went up in smoke, John Gru­den finds him­self stand­ing in a dressing room in the bow­els of the Brandt Cen­tre get­ting ready for the open­ing game of the Me­mo­rial Cup.

That he is here so soon is an in­dis­putable sur­prise — to the Hamil­ton Bull­dogs bench boss in­cluded.

“I would be ly­ing if I said we thought it was go­ing to hap­pen in two years,” he said. “I want to thank Steve Staios for be­liev­ing in me and Michael And­lauer for giv­ing me the op­por­tu­nity, be­cause at first I’m sure it was like, ‘are you re­ally go­ing to hire this guy?’”

It was, ac­tu­ally, and Staios, the Bull­dogs GM, and And­lauer, the team owner, con­firm. And prob­a­bly for good rea­son.

When Gru­den ap­plied for the job a lit­tle more than 24 months ago, he had less than a sea­son be­hind an OHL bench un­der his belt and was out of work af­ter be­ing pub­licly axed — twice — by the out-of-con­trol owner of the Flint, Mich., Fire­birds. His only pre­vi­ous coach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was four years as an as­sis­tant with the U.S. Na­tional De­vel­op­ment Team Pro­gram and a hand­ful more at the helm of high school squads in his home state of Michigan.

In OHL cir­cles, he was largely un­known.

“We had a num­ber of un­be­liev­able can­di­dates for the head coach­ing job with longer and more pol­ished re­sumes,” Staios ad­mit­ted. “I went out on a limb. Even when I went to Michael and said this is the guy I want to hire, he said ‘re­ally?’ And then I ex­plained it to him.

“As a man­ager, some­times you make good de­ci­sions and some­times you make poor de­ci­sions. This was a home run.”

Gru­den, 47, didn’t prom­ise the world, just that he would bring a group of guys to­gether, make sure they play as a team and hold them ac­count­able to cer­tain stan­dards — some re­lated to hockey and some not. He also told Staios he was go­ing to make Hamil­ton proud of the Bull­dogs and their work. He would give the city a team they could “hang their hats on.”

Then he — along with his staff of Dave Mat­sos, Ron Wil­son and Vince Laise — went out and de­liv­ered.

Since the start of last sea­son, the youngest of the four Me­mo­rial Cup coaches has over­hauled Hamil­ton’s sys­tems, turned play­ers like Bran­don Saigeon, Ben Glea­son and Isaac Nurse into le­git­i­mate NHL prospects, and turned a play­off-miss­ing team into an OHL ti­tle­holder.

Still, he tends to shy away from ac­claim.

“I didn’t do it. The play­ers did it,” he said af­ter last Sun­day’s cham­pi­onship se­ries clinch­ing win.

They re­spect­fully dis­agree. “You have got to give a lot of credit to him and I know he will prob­a­bly say it was all us, but he pushed us hard,” said Ryan Moore, who also skated for the for­mer NHLer in Flint.

Ac­cord­ing to Moore, what sets Gru­den apart is his open­ness. He’s easy to talk to and he’s been through it. He’s played the game.

“When it’s time for busi­ness, he’s fo­cused, but there is that nice side of him that you can go and talk to him no mat­ter what,” he added. Team­mate Jack Han­ley backed that up.

“He’s a huge play­ers’ coach, so he un­der­stands us,” he said. “He takes in all of our in­for­ma­tion and if we think some­thing isn’t work­ing, he’ll take it into con­sid­er­a­tion.”

Saigeon, mean­while, de­scribed the team’s evo­lu­tion as “night and day” un­der the watch of Gru­den and his staff.

“When you have some­one who re­ally works with you, along with Laiser and Mat­sos, Ron­nie, every­body, when they ac­tu­ally go through the de­tails of the game, watch video, when they ac­tu­ally care about you and your suc­cess, it re­ally makes it a lot more fun and it makes it eas­ier to go out and do what they say,” he said.

Go­ing into Fri­day’s game against the host Regina Pats, Gru­den’s mes­sage to Saigeon and the oth­ers was a sim­ple one. It’s about us. We’re here for a rea­son. “We played a cer­tain way and it gave us a lot of suc­cess and now is not the time to rein­vent the wheel.”

He was also adamant that de­spite a rel­a­tively short re­cov­ery pe­riod, his Bull­dogs would be ready.

Un­like Hamil­ton, the Pats have had roughly six weeks to pre­pare for the opener (10 p.m. EST on Sport­snet and TSN 11:50) af­ter be­ing elim­i­nated by the Swift Cur­rent Bron­cos — the even­tual Western Hockey League cham­pi­ons — in the first round of the play­offs.

At a news con­fer­ence Wed­nes­day, Pats coach John Pad­dock said his team fol­lowed a de­tailed plan to pre­pare for the tour­na­ment. Like Gru­den, though, he said it comes down to how his team plays, and “we’re go­ing to play a cer­tain way.”

Notes: Not a sin­gle Bull­dogs player or coach was named to the OHL’s first, sec­ond or third al­ls­tar teams. The league re­leased the lineup, which was se­lected by its GMs, Thurs­day. The Soo Grey­hounds, who the Bull­dogs de­feated in the OHL cham­pi­onship, led the way with six rep­re­sen­ta­tives, in­clud­ing Mor­gan Frost, Boris Katchouk and coach Drew Ban­nis­ter.

GARY YOKOYAMA THE HAMIL­TON SPEC­TA­TOR

John Gru­den gets ready to cel­e­brate af­ter his team won the OHL Cham­pi­onship Sun­day.

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