Stirling returns to his immediate roots

Originally Published: December 6, 2004
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: ESPN.com's Scott Burnside tracked down how all 30 coaches are biding their time during the lockout. Here's a look at the 15 coaches in the Eastern Conference. The Western Conference coaches will run on Tuesday.

The National Hockey League lockout has contained more than a little déjà vu for Steve Stirling.

Islanders coach Steve Stirling is keeping an eye on the Bridgeport Sound Tigers from high above.
After spending two seasons as coach of the New York Islanders' American Hockey League affiliate in Bridgeport, Conn., Stirling suddenly finds himself back where he came from on a regular basis.

Same arena. Same dressing rooms. Same off-ice officials. But instead of pacing behind the Sound Tigers bench, as he did from 2001-2003, Stirling works from a different vantage point. During most home games, Stirling, 55, can be found in the stands or in the press box with his walkie-talkie serving as the eyes in the sky for Greg Cronin and his staff.

"There's no question there's some déjà vu," he said. "It's really where I got, at the pro level, my experience. I go in there knowing it's in the best interests of the organization that I'm there helping out."

And when the Tigers load up their trusty motor coach and hit the road? Stirling usually stays behind.

"Mike (Milbury, Islanders general manager) figured I'd done my tour of duty riding buses," he said.

If Stirling's vantage point is different so, too, is his focus. Like any NHL coach, Stirling is watching closely the handful of AHL players who would likely have been playing for him at the NHL level -- or could be in the near future.

Stirling will often step onto the ice and work with a prospect on something Stirling noticed during the game. Sometimes the sessions are after regular practices or during morning skates. They've even taken place immediately after games. Stirling's kind of presence is seen as free help to minor league staffs, which are traditionally smaller than those in the NHL. Still, Stirling is sensitive to the Bridgeport coaching staff.

"The last thing I want to do is step on anyone's toes," Stirling said. "I've been there. I know what they have to do."

Steve Stirling's return to the AHL includes trips to the dressing room but no busses.
Another benefit of spending so much time in Bridgeport is its proximity to Danbury, where Stirling indulges in his two favorite things -- hockey and family. Stirling's eldest son, Todd, coaches the United Hockey League's Danbury Trashers, while his youngest son, Scott, mans the Trashers nets. Scott leads the league with 13 wins and was named the UHL goalie of the month after compiling a 6-1-1 record in November.

Stirling said it's difficult to separate the coach from the father when he's watching, especially when it comes to Todd, who has often sought his father's advice while making his way through the professional coaching ranks.

"I'm trying to be the helping hand when I see things without being too overbearing," Stirling said.

Bob Hartley, Atlanta Thrashers
In Bob Hartley's world, sod has replaced ice.

"I was able to work at my house and do stuff in my area that I didn't do since my windshield factory days," Hartley said.

A labor of love, Hartley has nearly finished a lakefront house about half an hour from his native Hawkesbury, Ontario, near the Quebec border. Hartley's mother, who currently resides in Sarnia, Ontario, will live in the house, which also will serve as a retreat for the extended Hartley clan.

"It's basically a family project. I did all my own landscaping, that was the plan for next spring," Hartley said.

Hartley left his factory job in 1987 to take his first coaching job with the local junior team, the Hawkesbury Hawks. One of Hartley's former players is now the coach of the team, so the work crew at the lake house included about half the current Hawks roster. Chores undertaken included laying 27,000 square feet of sod, two transport trucks worth of grass, 180 bushes and cement work.

"I'm going to have an easy spring," Hartley said. "I'll have lots of time to fish."

Away from the sod and rocks, Hartley has found time to work with youth hockey players and minor leaguers from Hawkesbury to Lachute, Quebec, to Mississippi to suburban Atlanta. He's also made multiple visits to the University of Miami (Ohio) where his son is the backup goaltender.

"Lives of the Lockout" will run periodically and profile people whose lives have been impacted by the NHL's work stoppage.
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"That's why every year I love running my hockey camp because I think it always brings me back to the roots of the game," he said. "I think it challenges me."

Mike Sullivan, Boston Bruins
While dozens of NHL players have found work in lower leagues, Boston Bruins coach Mike Sullivan has made a similar move, patrolling the bench of the Bay State Breakers of the Eastern Hockey Federation. Among Sullivan's players, his 10-year-old son Matt.

"I've really immersed myself in the entire program," said Sullivan, whose two daughters also play in the youth league.

Though he grew up in the Boston area, Sullivan went straight from Boston University to the professional ranks, and straight from being a player to being a coach, bypassing an important part of the game.

"I've really never had the opportunity to get involved on that grassroots level," said Sullivan, who estimates he's at the local rink five nights a week. "Without a doubt you learn something regardless of what level you get involved in. I think it's a great opportunity for anyone at the high levels of the game. There are a lot of well-intentioned people trying to do the right thing for kids."

When he's not with the Breakers, Sullivan is working on an Internet-based coaching company called FlexxCOACH, a project he started while he was playing that offers a coaching template for youth coaches in a variety of sports including hockey.

Lindy Ruff, Buffalo Sabres
Sunflower seeds. That's what Lindy Ruff will remember most from the NHL lockout.

"You gently spit them into an empty coffee cup," he explained. "It keeps you busy."

The Buffalo Sabres coach devours a bag of the stuff each day he makes the 64.2-mile drive from Buffalo, N.Y., to Rochester, N.Y., home of the Sabres' AHL affiliate, the Americans. While Ruff didn't bank on becoming a commuter, the lockout has enabled him to devote more time to teaching and getting to know his young players on a more personal level, a luxury enjoyed mostly by assistant coaches in the NHL. The undertaking has been easier given that Americans head coach Randy Cunneyworth is a former teammate of Ruff's.

"I told him, I'm not here making lineup decisions, who's in tonight, who's not, that's your job," Ruff said. "It's nice because I don't have to be the heavy. I can just work with the players. They have everything to gain and nothing to lose."

You gently spit them into an empty coffee cup. It keeps you busy.
Buffalo coach Lindy Ruff on sunflower seeds
Away from the game, Ruff has been active with a host of events in the Buffalo area.

"I've been the honorary chairman for about 10 different events," he said.

With four children ranging in age from 10 (twins) to 15, Ruff challenges Anaheim Mighty Ducks coach Mike Babcock's claim of being the king of the carpool.

"If he's the king, I'm the joker," said Ruff, whose list of destinations include swimming pools, horse riding facilities, hockey rinks and dance classes. "Maybe we should compare schedules."

Peter Laviolette, Carolina Hurricanes
For Peter Laviolette, this lockout is about paying back a debt of gratitude to his family. With three children under the age of 6 and a history of moving from team to team en route to becoming a National Hockey League head coach, Laviolette's focus has been narrow and clearly defined.

"There was a long battle to get to that point (an NHL coaching job). My wife and I would tell you it wasn't easy," said Laviolette, who celebrates his 40th birthday on Dec. 7. "You spend X-amount of years doing that and it beats you down a little bit."

Although both he and his wife, Kristen, a former Delta employee whom he met at the airport while traveling with the Providence Bruins, are from neighboring towns in Massachusetts, they have settled in Raleigh, N.C., and are reluctant to move the kids out of school again.

"We've put the kids through enough already. There was no need to add to that. This is our home," said Laviolette, who is on the ice several times a week with his young boys. "For those things I'm grateful."

Still, there is for Laviolette a feeling of being in suspended animation. After being let go by the New York Islanders following the 2002-03 season the two-time U.S. Olympian was hired last January by the Carolina Hurricanes, whose season ended without a playoff berth in early April.

"I feel like I've worked two months in the last two years," he joked. "The same routine that grinds you down in order to be successful as a coach is the same routine we're all longing for right now."

Jacques Martin, Florida Panthers
If life is about timing, Jacques Martin might just be on the right karmic schedule. Although he was introduced as head coach of the Florida Panthers in late May, the longtime Ottawa Senators bench boss held off buying a home in Florida. As a result, he likely saved himself the cost of cleaning up from the almost weekly hurricanes that battered the state in August and September. He also has enjoyed the convenience of scouting the Panthers' prospects playing junior or in the AHL while staying in his longtime Ottawa home.

The Panthers, whose front-office remodeling efforts included hiring Martin's longtime friend Mike Keenan, have no pro scouts, so much of those duties have fallen to Martin. He spent two weeks in Europe, a trip that allowed Martin his only off time, a couple of free days sight-seeing in Helsinki, Finland, and Prague, Czech Republic.

Chief among Martin's priorities has been familiarizing himself with their talented cast of young players and working with San Antonio Rampage coach Steve Ludzik, the former head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, to ensure they're following Martin's preferred system. To assist in building a consistent hockey product, Martin's assistant Guy Charron, hired away from Montreal, will stay with the AHL team until the NHL starts up.

"It's important for him to know my philosophy and try and operate the same way," said Martin, who has visited San Antonio and traveled with the team for a week.

Still, if timing is indeed everything, perhaps the news that Martin will return to Florida shortly to begin looking for a home might signal better days ahead for the game.

"I was really looking forward to my new challenge and was excited about it," Martin said. "But you don't control the fact the NHL is not going, so you make the best of what is presented."

Claude Julien, Montreal Canadiens
If coaching turns out to be a dead-end job for Claude Julien, the Montreal Canadiens coach can use his experience during the lockout to forge a career as a public speaker.

Julien has crisscrossed Quebec doing clinics and speaking to minor hockey coaches. He also has been part of a provincial initiative sponsored in part by the Habs called "Learn, Respect and Fun," which has seen 20,000 Quebec minor hockey players sign a contract with Montreal general manager Bob Gainey to embrace those qualities in minor hockey.

Julien also has been a guest speaker at club-sponsored breakfast meetings with local business leaders and will be among the management team that will help fill the gap left by the absence of players as the Canadiens' embark on their 40th annual hospital visits during the holiday period.

Pat Burns, New Jersey Devils
Whatever trials and tribulations faced by other NHL coaches, they pale in comparison to Pat Burns' fight against colon cancer.

Pat Burns' future as Devils coach will be determined once he finishes cancer treatments.
"I'm still not out of the woods. I've been going through the process of chemotherapy and that's very difficult," Burns told NHL.com in late October. "Anybody who has been through this knows and if you haven't, you just don't know. It is very physically and emotionally draining. The ups and downs of this sickness are amazing.

Burns announced he had cancer after the Devils were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last spring. Since then, Burns told NHL.com, he has received phone calls from every NHL coach and GM, 3,000 e-mails from fans and hundreds of cards wishing him well.

"He's progressing on schedule and doing very well," Devils general manager Lou Lamoriello told the New York Daily News recently. "His spirits are very good, his constitution is very strong and he just knows he has to be patient."

It's unknown whether Burns would be able to coach if the NHL season resumes in the New Year.

Tom Renney, New York Rangers
When Tom Renney does the math, he comes to the total of four -- as in the number of days of the past 67 that he's enjoyed the comfort of his Calgary bed.

"That was basically getting laundry done and changing the binder," said Renney, who has spent the vast majority of the lockout scouting and helping the Rangers' scouting staff prepare for the next draft ... whenever it is.

"It's disappointing. I don't think it's frustrating," he said. "Especially in New York, with our philosophical change, everyone's ready to go."

Renney officially was appointed as the Rangers coach in July after serving in an interim capacity after general manager Glen Sather stepped down with 20 games left last season. But the longtime evaluator of talent at both the NHL and international levels still holds the title of vice president of player development, so he's re-focused on those duties, which have taken him all over the hockey map. Kelowna, Vancouver, Portland, Seattle, New York, Hartford, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Ontario, the Maritimes. The only person busier than Renney is his travel consultant.

Renney did take advantage of one of his brief stops at home to take his two 16-year-old daughters to 6:30 a.m. hockey practice.

"It's the first time I've done anything along those lines in quite some time," he said.

Bryan Murray, Ottawa Senators
For Bryan Murray, the NHL lockout has shattered the old myth that you can't go home again.

Murray accepted the Senators' head coaching job last June in part to return to his love of coaching and in part to return to his roots. The lockout has delayed the coaching part of that equation but has allowed him to more fully revisit his past. After graduating from McGill University in Montreal, Murray worked as a school teacher in his hometown of Shawville, Quebec, located 45 minutes northwest of Ottawa. During the lockout, he took in the Shawville Fair where he met up with former students, now grown with children of their own.

"They had 60,000 people there in three days," Murray said. "It's the first time I've been there in 25 years. It was really a chance to meet and see a lot of people I hadn't seen in a long time."

The longer the lockout has dragged on, Murray said, the more difficult it's been. Moving into a new home in Ottawa and helping out with friends coaching minor and junior hockey teams in the area occupied his time in the early going, but as time has passed it seems to have slowed down for the veteran manager and coach.

"I think I saw three movies last week. I never go to movies," Murray said. "And I've read a couple of books."

Murray also has helped his mother celebrate her 85th birthday and was preparing to put the local media through their paces at a media training camp.

Still, even the thought of putting the local scribes in their places didn't satisfy Murray's desire to put his own players through their paces for the first time.

Ken Hitchcock, Philadelphia Flyers
Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock hasn't been idly passing the time during the lockout.

"Where do I start?" said Hitchcock. "It's not been dull."

Coaching is coaching no matter what level you're at and there's an awful lot of good coaches out there. I've learned that I'm one of the lucky ones.
Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock
From visiting hospitals and doing community work for the Flyers, to holding coaching clinics at every rung of the hockey ladder and seemingly in every corner of the continent, to speaking engagements with groups that include the FBI, Hitchcock has been a veritable dervish of activity.

"The humbling part has been realizing how hard coaches work at every level. Holy smokes these guys wear a lot of hats," Hitchcock said. "Coaching is coaching no matter what level you're at and there's an awful lot of good coaches out there. I've learned that I'm one of the lucky ones.

"I've gotten a new enthusiasm for teaching because I've had to go back and do it."

Between the 82 games of a regular season, travel and practices, coaches seldom get to know the community they live in. During the offseason, they often retreat to permanent homes or vacation cottages. With the lockout in effect, Hitchcock has found hockey rinks he didn't know existed, hospitals he had heard about but couldn't locate and people he never would have met -- all in the Philadelphia area.

Hitchcock has embraced the sudden transformation from professional hockey coach to everyday Joe.

"The challenge for all of us (coaches) is can we have a different life," he said. "For most of us it's unnerving to do something different so it was scary at the start."

"Different" means lining up at security rather than being whisked to a separate gate at the airport, finding your own way to the rink or to the hospital and doing five or six different things in one day.

"You say, boy, this is how the rest of the world lives," Hitchcock said. "When we get back to work there's going to be a lot of humble people, grateful for the way we live."

Eddie Olczyk, Pittsburgh Penguins
While Eddie Olczyk was growing up playing hockey in the Chicago area, his dad was up at 5 a.m. every day running grocery stores. Despite his dad's demanding schedule, whenever Olczyk looked up in the stands during one of his games he'd see his dad. Now Olczyk's the man in the stands for his four children, ages 8 to 15, three of whom are boys knee-deep in youth hockey in Pittsburgh.

"The three boys play on four different teams," said Olczyk, who helps out with the coaching duties on three of the four teams. "Our only free night is probably every other Monday."

He also has managed another rare treat, his daughter's midday choir performance.

"It's important for them to see you there," Olczyk said.

The veteran NHLer who is coming off his rookie season as a head coach said his two oldest boys, a senior in high school and high school freshman, have a sense of what a treat it is to have dad around.

"They know what's going on and why I'm not working and what's really at stake for the game," Olczyk said. "Sometimes I find out stuff from them with the Internet and everything."

Youth hockey tournaments keep the family on the road pretty much every weekend, although Olczyk recently flew to Winnipeg to help honor the closing of the historic Winnipeg Arena. A member of the Jets during their final season in the NHL (1995-96), Olczyk recalled the temperature was minus-40 for 17 straight days that season.

"But the people were at the other extreme, so warm," he said. "I was really honored and humbled to be invited. It was a tremendous 48 hours."

John Tortorella, Tampa Bay Lightning
John Tortorella made an impression on the hockey world with his outwardly emotional leadership of the Lightning en route to their first-ever Stanley Cup championship, yet the candid and engaging Boston native has been strangely silent during the lockout. He has spoken publicly only once, when approached by Tampa reporters at a charity event.

He told the team's beat writers he has devoted his time to speaking engagements for a variety of charities, most notably a local child abuse council, a pediatric cancer foundation and Athletes Against Alzheimer's. His services can be had for a fee, a fee that is then ploughed back into the Tampa community.

"This is what it's all about. I think I've probably talked to 25 or 30 organizations this summer," Tortorella told reporters. If he's not watching videotape: "I've been out in the community. That's been a lot of fun because you can see how jacked up the community is. It's not the Tampa Bay Lightning winning the Stanley Cup, it's the community winning the Stanley Cup and I've witnessed that firsthand."

Tortorella, who also made a brief appearance at an impromptu championship ring ceremony for Lightning players, also has been a fixture at his son's junior varsity high school football practices and games and his daughter's soccer matches.

He told local reporters he gets together with his staff, including equipment managers and trainers every Wednesday for golf and lunch.

Pat Quinn, Toronto Maple Leafs
With 492 games behind the bench, Pat Quinn is second to only Punch Imlach and his 760 games among longest serving coaches in Toronto Maple Leafs history. He seems to have embraced his role as an ambassador for the team, working with kids as young as 10 years of age and maintaining a high profile with a wide range of charities connected to the Leafs or public events sponsored by the team.

Recently Quinn, 61, helped launch a fund-raising drive at St. Joseph's Hospital in Hamilton, Ontario, the hospital where he was born.

"This is something like retirement," Quinn told The Toronto Star at the launch of the fund-raising campaign. "And I'm not ready for that yet."

Of course in Toronto, not even the cloak of anonymity provided by the lockout can protect Quinn from the glare of controversy. Recent reports indicate Quinn is due an extra $500,000 payment if his contract, worth between $1.6 and $2 million, isn't extended by January 15, 2005. There are other reports that Quinn will be asked to take a pay cut, due in part to him giving up his dual title as coach and general manager when John Ferguson Jr. was hired as general manager prior to last season. It's believed Quinn's $2 million salary is tops in the league.

Ferguson Jr. wouldn't comment on the deadline or Quinn's status, although it's widely accepted Quinn would like to remain in Toronto often joking, "what else would I do with my time?"

Hockey is a huge part of our social lives. She misses having a team to cheer for.
Washington Coach Glen Hanlon on his wife's coping
"Every smart coach has a clause of that nature to protect himself," Quinn told The Globe and Mail. "When it comes time to talk I'll definitely be interested."

Glen Hanlon, Washington Capitals
No one wants the NHL lockout to go on indefinitely. But let's be honest, of all the NHL teams, Glen Hanlon's inexperienced Washington Capitals may have the most to gain from a prolonged hiatus. Hanlon took over as the Caps' coach last December just before the team began divesting itself of virtually every veteran player on the roster.

"I don't want to say it's beneficial to us. It's not helpful to anyone," Hanlon said recently from Calgary where he was getting to know some of the team's three first-round draft picks that play in the Western Hockey League.

But the opportunity for players who may soon be thrust into NHL roles -- whether they're ready or not -- to play together at the AHL level for 40 or 45 games is a big help.

"We're just so young," said Hanlon.

If the NHL season started tomorrow, Hanlon said they would have seven or eight players who finished last season in the NHL under contract. That means it's up to Hanlon to try to ensure young players with the team's AHL affiliate in Portland, along with a handful of top junior picks, are establishing good work habits.

"There's a lot of teaching that needs to be done," the former NHL netminder said.

Hanlon also has spent considerable time helping Navy's hockey team in nearby Annapolis, Md. It's been refreshing to be in a dressing room where no one harbors dreams of playing in the NHL, "and yet they still mourn their losses," the perpetually upbeat Hanlon said.

As for the home front, Hanlon said his wife misses the game, as well -- and not just because its return would mean Hanlon is less underfoot.

"Hockey is a huge part of our social lives," Hanlon said. "She misses having a team to cheer for."

Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.