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Inside Rod Brind’Amour’s First Season as Hurricanes Coach: Part 1

The franchise legend took on a new challenge this season, and sat down with Canes Country for an exclusive interview that looks both back and forward.

Jamie Kellner

Thirteen months ago, Rod Brind’Amour walked into a press conference, sat at a table atop a dais flanked by the owner and general manager, and started taking questions in a position he had never been in before: head coach of a professional hockey team.

But to Brind’Amour, the Carolina Hurricanes aren’t just any hockey team. For nearly two decades, Brind’Amour and the Hurricanes have been nearly synonymous. His number hangs in the PNC Arena rafters. You can scarcely turn around anywhere in the arena without seeing an image of him hoisting the Stanley Cup. For better or worse, the Hurricanes are his team, more than just about anyone else.

And so began a fascinating experiment: could the man who captained the team to a championship get that same team back to those heights again, this time in a role he’d never taken on before? What had he learned from previous regimes? Could he learn on the job, for lack of a better phrase, while raising expectations around him at the same time?

Canes Country recently sat down with Brind’Amour for an in-depth conversation about his first year as head coach. Over the next three days, you’ll see what he had to say about the Hurricanes’ cultural shift, the players he thought took a step forward this season, how high the ceiling was and will be, and much more. Today, we begin with the first part of three, which starts well before a head-coaching career had ever entered Brind’Amour’s mind.

Canes Country: When you talked about deciding to take this job, you talked to Justin [Williams]. I want to go back before that, to when you first decided to apply for it. What made you decide that coaching was something you wanted to do considering you’d never done it before?

Rod Brind’Amour: I stopped playing, then took a year when Jimmy [Rutherford] was here and I kind of said “what am I going to do?” He gave me the “take a year before you get into stuff.” I didn’t - I came down right away and said “no, I need to do something.” So I started going down to Charlotte and was kind of in development. I could tell I wanted to get more involved, and really wanted to get into the management side of things. I’d been doing the player thing for so long, I wanted to go upstairs. That’s really where, I feel, everything has to happen. You’ve got to get the players.

Anyway, that morphed into Jimmy grabbing me one day when I was in Charlotte and he goes “I need you to coach.” Now, at the time, he meant assistant coach, one way to pull me in. Halfway through that first year is when we made the change and brought in Kirk Muller. I was down at a game in Charlotte, Milwaukee was playing, Jim shows up and I was like “what are you doing here?” I was oblivious, [but] he was interviewing Kirk for the job. Kirk comes in, takes over, and Jimmy says “I want you to help him,” more on a full time basis, and I didn’t want to get involved much at that time.

So this is all kind of leading into the coaching thing. They made a nice deal for me. I was coaching my son then, Skyler, and [they said] “you could do the home games, come to practices, don’t have to travel.”

CC: That was the time you were the eye in the sky, right?

RBA: Yeah, I did that for a while. So that was really good, except what I realized is when you’re that guy, your input is limited. You’re working with players, which is great, doing faceoffs, stuff that matters, but you’re not putting a stamp on what you want to do. You want to get more involved. So I took it on full time when Bill [Peters] came in, but then same thing. Four years of it, and you’re an assistant. You’re not getting to say what you want, nothing that you want to do is happening. You’re taking someone else’s words and trying to do it.

So it really came up, the job opens up, Bill decides to leave, and I’m sitting there going “OK, you’re either going to keep doing this, or it’s time to put your name in the hat and see if they’ll consider you to take the job.” Again, I’m getting older, you’re not going to do this forever. To me, it’s the old saying, get on with it, or get off it. So that led me to call Don [Waddell] and say “hey, give me a crack at this.”

CC: You have said before how important this organization and this area is to you. Obviously that played into this decision, but if there were other jobs open, would you have considered going to one of those?

RBA: Right around that time, what really made me decide was that at some point I’ve got to either stop coaching or go for it, meaning be a head coach. You can’t keep being an assistant. That was clear to me, for me. I was not happy - not unhappy, but I just needed more. I didn’t want to regret not trying.

So what’s interesting is that there was a college hockey job that I had a lot of interest in. It’s funny how things work out. I actually got calls from alumni saying “you’ve got to apply.” They wanted me to take this job, a lot of people. So I called, and they wouldn’t take my call. They said it’s because I hadn’t finished my degree. So I thought “what does that have to do with coaching? I have a coaching degree. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve been playing, I’ve been coaching, isn’t that what you’re hiring a guy to do?” It was really weird to me.

I actually had thought about leaving to do more. I felt like being an assistant - I’d done that, and it was time to do more. Nobody was going to give me a head coaching job in the NHL, I didn’t think, just because I’d never done it - meaning somewhere else. I didn’t want to coach in the NHL somewhere else. I wanted to be here or nowhere. So that’s why I said, if I go to another level, kids are kind of where I feel I have the most impact. So I actually looked into it, that got shot down, so I said (shrugs) “OK.”

That was before this job opened up, actually.

CC: So, earlier in the summer?

RBA: Yeah, it was the end of the year.

CC: Right after the season ended.

RBA: Yeah. So this opened up and I thought “I’ve got to try.” This is different to me. It’s a job, yes, and I can’t tell you that I wouldn’t take [an NHL] job somewhere else. It’s just never entered my mind. I want to make it work here. It means too much. My family’s from here, my kids - this is where I want to be.

I was part of something special a long time ago here that it was great. We didn’t win a ton, but we could have. We had that group, in my opinion, that went on a run for 7-8 years with a good group. There were a lot of reasons why we didn’t make it - mostly injuries, in my opinion, why that team we were a part of didn’t do better for longer. But everything was right down here. We were dialed in.

In those seven years I was a part of it as an assistant coach, I’m watching us go “what are we doing here?” Even in management, in my opinion, we were not shooting for the stars. We were trying to be mediocre, and I couldn’t believe it. Tom [Dundon], I’ve got to give him tons of credit, he thinks kind of the way I was: “what are we doing here? Are we trying to be average?” No, we’re going to try to be the best we can. I think that partially clicked with him and me. I think we felt the same. And that’s part of why they hired me.

CC: A lot of the scuttlebutt around the job when it opened up was that Tom had this collaborative process that he wanted to go through, where you’re involved, Don’s involved, Eric [Tulsky]’s involved, everybody kind of gets to say their piece. That’s kind of unusual for a coach. There are so many coaches - you played for a few of them - who say “I want to coach the team, what you guys do is your business, just give me the guys you want me to coach.” Was that a change for you?

RBA: Yeah, it was a change, because for the seven years that I had been here before nobody asked me my opinion. When they did, and I gave it, it got shot down. Which is fine - listen, there’s a hierarchy of things. But it was very strange, because a lot of things I as suggesting, I look back on now and I’m like “well, if we’d have drafted that guy, if we’d have done this, where would we be?”

It’s a total change now with Tom. He came in and he does want everyone’s opinion. I just talked to him before I was in here - I was talking to him for 20 minutes, and you can’t get off the phone with him. It’s unbelievable.

But I’ve never been around a guy who works as hard as Tom does with hockey. It’s crazy, the stuff he talks about with teams, he knows all their players, he knows their contract status, he knows who could maybe help us. Sometimes he’s way off - and I’ll tell him - but sometimes he makes me go “oh man, that could be a good addition.” But he talks to everybody. Everyone on our staff, he’ll call and say “what do you think about these guys?”

Why wouldn’t you? If we have coaches that watch players as much as we do, why wouldn’t you be coming down here and going “what do you think about these guys?” It just makes sense.

Coming up tomorrow: what does being relevant exactly mean, and why is it so important to the Hurricanes’ success? Plus, who made the biggest strides this season?