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