Laviolette stepping into Brooks' shadow

Updated: August 16, 2005, 1:39 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's Note: This column was originally published on ESPN.com on April 28 before the start of the 2005 World Championships in Vienna, Austria. The United States made it to the quarterfinals, before a 3-2 shootout loss to the Czech Republic.

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- One of the favorite movies in the Laviolette house is "Miracle," the recounting of Team USA's gold medal victory at the 1980 Olympics. Naturally the Laviolette boys, ages 5 and 7, were excited to learn their father, Peter, was headed to Lake Placid to prepare for the 2005 World Championship.

"Right away they wanted to know if I was going to see coach Brooks. They know the whole story. They asked me if we were going to play the Russians," said Laviolette, who had to explain to his sons that the legendary coach had died in an accident in August 2003.

He didn't explain that he's on the verge of stepping into the man's shadow.

After leading the U.S. national team to the 2003 Deutschland Cup title, Laviolette guided Team USA to a surprise bronze medal finish at the 2004 World Championship, the United States' first medal in the event since 1996, and served as an assistant to Ron Wilson at the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.

Now, Laviolette is reprising his world championship role and, barring a complete collapse at the tournament, is a leading candidate to coach Team USA at the 2006 Winter Olympics, should the NHL be involved.

In little over a year, the 40-year-old native of Norwood, Mass., has become the preeminent U.S.-born coach.

A lack of Americans with experience coaching NHL players and handling high-profile international assignments contributed to Laviolette's quick ascendancy.

"At the highest level we have very few who have done it all," said Team USA assistant general manager Jim Johannson, who is also the senior director of hockey operations for USA Hockey.

While the primary career path taken by Canadian-born coaches often follows that of players -- from major junior to the professional ranks -- U.S.-born coaches tend to head for the college ranks and stay there, mostly because of the job stability and environment. As a result, there are few ideal candidates to coach Team USA in senior-level international events involving NHL players, and USA Hockey is left with either an international rookie or an NHL rookie behind the bench.

"I think when you choose college, you choose a way of life," said Laviolette who, along with his assistant John Tortorella, aspires to coach at the collegiate level someday.

San Jose Sharks coach Ron Wilson fills both bills but, after enjoying considerable success (the 1996 World Cup of Hockey) and disappointment (the 1998 Olympics and last summer's World Cup), might have run the course with the organization.

An Olympian in 1988 and 1994, Laviolette played 11 seasons of mostly minor pro hockey before turning to coaching. After stops in the ECHL and the American Hockey League, where he won the Calder Cup with the Providence Bruins in 1999, Laviolette broke into the NHL as an assistant coach in Boston in 2000. He was hired as coach of the New York Islanders in 2001, but was fired two years later despite leading the team to the playoffs for two straight seasons.

Without an NHL team to coach, Laviolette guided the U.S. men's national select team to a first-place finish at the Deutschland Cup in November of 2003. It was his first stint behind a Team USA bench and the country's first title at the tournament.

This year, USA Hockey turned the reins over to Colorado Avalanche assistant coach Tony Granato and Columbus Blue Jackets associate coach Dean Blais, who led Team USA to a second Deutschland Cup title. It was the first senior-level international coaching assignment for Granato, a 1988 Olympian. Blais, a two-time coach of the year and NCAA champion while at the University of North Dakota, had previously served on three world junior championship staffs and was an assistant coach at the 2000 worlds.

Laviolette didn't set out a course to become the next Brooks, whom he met just once at a USA Hockey function, or anyone else.

"I have never, ever mapped a route for myself," he said. "Since I left college in 1986, I've just been on the path and I'm just riding it to see where it goes."

The path led Laviolette back to the NHL the month after his Deutschland Cup victory.

"I liked his aggressive style," Carolina Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford, Laviolette's current boss, said. "I liked the fact that he was right on top of his players, pushing them to be successful."

Team USA forward Matt Cullen played for Laviolette at last year's world championship. Cullen's performance and his experience playing for Laviolette led to him signing with the Hurricanes.

"I really liked the way he coached and the style of hockey he played," Cullen said. "One of the things guys like about Peter is that he's honest. He tells you what he wants. If you're playing well you're going to get ice time, and if you're not playing well you're not going to play. And that's fair."

On the surface, the addition of Tortorella, the defending Stanley Cup champion coach, to the coaching staff might have created some friction. Both men are passionate, strong-willed and driven.

"I wouldn't have done it if Peter wasn't comfortable with it," Team USA GM Don Waddell said. "But Peter was very supportive of it. I think our coaching staff is very, very strong."

Tortorella said he jumped at the opportunity, his first experience working with USA Hockey.

"I don't think either one of us care about the titles," he said.

Tortorella and Laviolette both have stayed close to home during the lockout. Laviolette said he became a bit "house punchy" and admitted that when he and Tortorella began planning drills neither could remember exactly how they went.

The rust shouldn't last long.

"I wondered that," Laviolette said about his layoff from coaching. "But I think competition brings out the best in everybody. You are who you are and I don't think you forget that. You don't misplace how you got here."

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

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