“Everything I think the world should be, everything I think about the way people should act, the way people should treat other people, the way they should lead, this man does it.”
Tom Dundon obviously felt conviction in that statement when he introduced Rod Brind’Amour as the Hurricanes’ next head coach in 2018. But even he might have had a hard time imagining just how true his words would ring a little over three years later.
As the Hurricanes prepare to open their first round series against the Nashville Predators as division champions for the first time since 2006, there are a number of reasons the team has gone from perennial afterthoughts to bona fide Stanley Cup contenders in just three seasons.
But the man behind the bench is chief among them.
“His impact for this organization, for the team, for the individuals, it’s huge the work he puts in,” said Sebastian Aho. “The leadership, the whole culture is pretty much him. It’s been awesome having him as a coach for the past three years.”
The Hurricanes rolled through unprecedented circumstances and challenges in the 56-game season to secure their best regular season in franchise history, with their .714 point percentage easily topping the previous mark set by the 2005-06 team.
The season they had can’t all be attributed to Brind’Amour though. The Hurricanes had a deep, talented forward group augmented by a full season of Vincent Trocheck, a bounce-back from Nino Niederreiter and the emergence of Martin Necas.
But the team’s ability to simply roll with the punches and find ways to win comes from the culture Brind’Amour has instilled in them since day one.
“I think this has been a unique year, and I think we’ve been competitive in every single game except obviously the last one,” said Jordan Martinook. “To have that in your back pocket to know that we were in every single game and we could have been on the other side of the ones that we lost, it’s a big confidence builder. I think Roddy, his message is you’ve got to do it right 100% of the time. I think he really pushed us this year and obviously it was a ton of hockey. Everybody pushed each other and he was obviously the driving force behind all of it.”
While the Canes obviously rode their talent throughout the regular season, they definitely dealt with their fair share of adversity. They had to endure a 10-day pause when their season was just two games old with Jaccob Slavin, Jordan Staal, Jordan Martinook, Jesper Fast, Warren Foegele and Teuvo Teravainen all in the NHL’s COVID protocol.
When the team came back, it had to play its first three games - against the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars, without Teravainen, Foegele, Slavin, Martinook and Fast. It won all three, with the players pointing to the team’s overarching mentality of giving 100% effort on every shift and buying into the system to a man that starts from the top down with Brind’Amour as the reason the team was able to keep rolling despite the absences of key contributors.
“I don’t even think it’s just this year,” Foegele said. “The last three years, he’s been unbelievable. You can see how every single guy on this time rallies behind Rod, and it’s an absolute pleasure to play for him. We all respect him so much.”
And the adversity didn’t stop there. Teravainen, the Canes’ elite first-line playmaker and two-way forward, played just 21 of 56 games as he missed time due to both his stint on the COVID list and concussion symptoms. Petr Mrazek, one of the team’s top-two goalies and projected No. 1 going into the season, was rarely healthy. Trocheck missed time as well.
Despite all that, the Hurricanes won a division that included two other teams in the top eight of the overall league standings,the defending Stanley Cup Champion and runner up and were in contention for the Presidents’ Trophy until the final days of the season. Given that combined level of adversity and success, it’s easy to see why Brind’Amour is viewed as a Jack Adams Award front runner. While there are certainly other strong candidates, such as Joel Quenneville in Florida and Dean Evason in Minnesota, Brind’Amour is the logical choice. It’s a sentiment his players agree with.
“I think he should win it,” Trocheck said. “Obviously I have a little bit of bias. He’s a very, very big part of our success here. I think it would be a completely different story with someone else.”
As Foegele said, it’s not just this year. The Hurricanes were a team mired in a nine-season playoff drought and going nowhere fast. They completed a remarkable turnaround in year one, riding a red-hot second half to their first playoff appearance since 2009 and went on a run to the Eastern Conference Final. Brind’Amour should have at least been in the top three for the Jack Adams that year but wasn’t.
He’s now led the team to a third straight playoff appearance with an excellent chance to win its second Stanley Cup in franchise history. As mentioned before, Brind’Amour is not the only reason for the three-year turnaround. But, for those players who spent several playoff-less years in Raleigh, including Staal, the team’s longest-tenured player and current captain, the difference he’s made is obvious.
“I think he’s been an unbelievable coach since he started,” Staal said. “He’s been through a lot of challenges as well, from all the way up, since he’s been behind the bench. He’s just a very, very good person, a great coach, a great role model and all those things. Not only that, the details of coaching are there as well. He knows how to push guys. He understands the game. He’s played the game. He’s done all the things. He has the respect in the room. He’s got everything, and it showed this year, the way we played as a group for him, and you can tell. It’s pretty obvious. He’s been one of the biggest points of this team turning around.”
There were some, this writer among them, who were skeptical of the Hurricanes’ decision to make Brind’Amour their new head coach. He had never been a head coach at any level of professional hockey and sports history is littered with great former players who turned into terrible head coaches.
Did the franchise really want to risk souring a relationship with another on-ice icon after Ron Francis’ firing?
But here’s the thing: All of us should have known better. Anyone who followed the Hurricanes for any length of time should have known it was foolhardy to doubt Rod Brind’Amour, particularly in a position of leadership.
Everything that made Brind’Amour a great player and leader, all boiling down to that famous work ethic and competitive drive, has made him a great coach.
“It goes back to you get out what you put in,” said Hurricanes General Manager Don Waddell. “I think Rod gives everything possible to make sure everybody’s prepared, every last detail he looks at. He creates an environment where the players want to be in the locker room and the players want to practice hard for him. Most importantly, they want to play hard for him. They don’t want to disappoint him. I think it’s just his nature and the way he handles himself that everybody looks up to him. You don’t want to let him down. We’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to lose games, we’re going to give up bad goals, but the one thing Rod always preaches is ‘Let’s not get out-worked. Let’s make sure we’re the hardest-working team in the league. If we do that with the skill level we have, we’re going to have more success than we are failures.’”
The Hurricanes will certainly hope they have more successes than they do failures in the next two months. If they do, Brind’Amour could lift the Cup as a head coach 15 years after he did so as a player.
Regardless of what happens in the playoffs, Brind’Amour should be taking home at least one piece of hardware in the Jack Adams.
In order to take home the one trophy he truly has his eyes on, Brind’Amour will need to continue to push all the right buttons through the two-month grind known as the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and continue to get the consistent buy-in from everyone it will take to win it all. But as he’s shown for the past three years, questioning his ability to do so would be a fool’s errand.