Back when he was a scrappy fourth-line player in the rugged NHL of the early 1990s, Jeff Daniels had to fight for every minute of playing time. Now, as a coach, Daniels finds himself fighting for another shot behind the bench.
For seventeen seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes organization, Jeff Daniels served as a player, scout, assistant coach, and, most recently, minor league affiliate head coach. On April 30th, General Manager Ron Francis announced Daniels’ contract expiring in June would not be renewed. Still adjusting to the current situation, Daniels has no hard feelings on the matter simply stating the organization is "looking for a fresh start."
"At the end of the day it’s a part of the business," Daniels said. "Not too many coaches leave on their own terms."
Like many other "good Canadian boys," as Don Cherry might say, Daniels had a pair of skates on his feet as soon as he could walk. In the city of Oshawa, Ontario -- 45 minutes outside of Toronto -- is where Daniels honed his craft and is home to the junior hockey club, Oshawa Generals, of the Ontario Hockey League.
"You hoped one day you’d get the chance to play for the Generals," Daniels said eloquently. "You didn’t think so much about playing in the NHL." In 1984 Daniels played his first season as a General.
It wasn’t until Daniels played junior hockey that he processed the next step-- getting drafted. In June of 1986 at the Montreal Forum, Daniels was selected in the 6th round, 109th overall to the Pittsburgh Penguins. After two years of playing with the Generals, getting scouted, and talking with teams, his NHL career was on the verge of beginning.
Daniels made his NHL debut in 1990-91 playing in 11 games. In 1991-92, Daniels was awarded a Stanley Cup ring while only playing two games for the Penguins that season. One season later, on November 3, 1993 he tallied his first goal against the New York Islanders. Once Daniels stepped out of the penalty box he was fed the puck, saw the opportunity to drive wide of the net, and put the puck past Islanders Goaltender Mark Fitzpatrick on a backhand shot.
Ten years later, Daniels hung up his skates retiring as a Hurricane and became part of player development for the franchise soon after. Working with player development was short lived as General Manager at the time, Jim Rutherford, asked Daniels to join the coaching staff as an assistant alongside head coach Peter Laviolette and assistant coach Kevin McCarthy.
His time as an assistant coach for the Hurricanes came with a role to help relate the message to the players and the player’s message back to Laviolette along with pre-game video and working with penalty kill unit. "Peter and Kevin McCarthy were very good about giving me responsibility and letting me grow," he said.
One season after being named assistant coach- the season after the lockout - he had another Stanley Cup to add to his resume.
As a player, Daniels played fourth-line minutes – the grinding and checking line. "I was a fourth line role player who came to camp every year trying to make the team," he said. "I know that nothing was ever given to me."
Daniels, who played 500-plus AHL and IHL games, used his experience as a way to relate to and motivate his players. "You don’t have to be a big goal scorer to get to the next level," he would say. "Know your role, play your role, and be great at it so when you get to the next level, you can do the same thing."
A coach must be able to motivate, teach, and get players to buy in to what they’re selling. It also comes with a different view of the game along with discovering new aspects as well, something Daniels didn’t realize until stepping behind the bench.
"As a player you think you have the game figured out pretty good until you get on the other side of it," he stated. "You realize there’s a lot of hard work that goes into coaching and you’re still learning a lot."
Being a coach comes with an identity of its own as well. "I had some coaches that were hard-core yellers and screamers and some guys were laid back," Daniels said.
Throughout the course of his career, his experiences with different teams and coaches helped him figure out what he found appealing while also making sure he established a coaching style of his own. "At the end of the day you have to be your own person and true to your personality," he said. "I had to do what was right for me and what fit me."
What appeared to work for Daniels, who took the Checkers to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2010-2011, was giving his players the confidence level they needed to excel. Part of being a minor leaguer includes making mistakes, learning from them, and not dwelling on them. Daniels found himself telling players in a sense of self doubt, "Hey, you’re a good player, don’t stop believing in yourself."
Daniels also put emphasis on how much consistency plays a vital part in securing a spot in the NHL. "They don’t look at one shift," he said. "You’ve got to be on top of your game every single night to give yourself a chance to get up to the next level."
In his first five seasons as a head coach at the AHL level, Daniels posted an above .500 record. With that came the conclusion that his players were buying in.
"Your players are the ones going out and doing the work," he said. "They’re going out, paying the price and, as a coach, you want to make sure you’re putting them in a position to succeed and are willing to work for it as a result."
However, for a team to fully buy in, it takes more than Daniels alone to make it happen. "Getting guys to buy in takes good leadership," he said. "Sometimes the older guys are like third coaches. They’re in the locker room all the time with the team and they can translate that message to the players."
One of the biggest challenges Daniels faced as an AHL head coach and general manager was the uncertainty of what his lineup would be as the NHL club would pull up the shining AHL projects when needed.
"As much as you plan going into the weekend, all it takes is one phone call to change everything," Daniels stated. "They’re most likely taking your best player."
What also made the scenario difficult is not having the depth to replace those players. However, Daniels thought his crew did well finding players to fill those voids over the years.
His success as a head coach has given him the opportunity to interview for the head coach position for the Hurricanes as well as working with young talent of the organization coaching in the Traverse City Tournament. Traverse City, Michigan hosts an annual tournament showcasing young stars from select NHL teams. Daniels and the Hurricanes have had five appearances in the tournament and won it in 2009. Players since have included Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask, Jeff Skinner, Haydn Fleury, and Sergey Tolchinski.
"Traverse City is great because you have [players] against players their same age," Daniels said. "You kind of see what makes them special and you just hope they grow to that at the next level."
Daniels has kept a notebook of drills in his possession from his early playing days as a Pittsburgh Penguin and Muskegon Lumberjack. It wasn’t until later in his career that he wondered what the next step was, but he knew coaching was always a possibility.
"In all sports you retire fairly early in life, so later in my career I started realizing I wanted to stay in the game," he said. "Hockey was definitely where I wanted to be."
As the tenure of being head coach for the Charlotte Checkers comes to a close, Daniels isn’t shutting the door on the opportunity of being an AHL or NHL coach elsewhere. Although the immediate future isn’t exactly clear for Daniels, leaving the game of hockey isn’t an option.
"I know I want to stay in hockey, it’s what I’ve done all my life," he said. "I’ve enjoyed coaching, I don’t want to close that door. We’ll see what the future holds."