The Carolina Hurricanes’ new head coach was addressing the players assembled for training camp for the first time.
He eschewed the microphone that others used in making early camp announcements.
But you didn’t have to strain to hear Rod Brind’Amour. Maybe that’s because there was pin-drop silence as the veteran NHLer, two-time Frank J. Selke Trophy winner and Stanley Cup champion made his opening remarks.
“Welcome to the family,” he said. “Doesn’t matter how you got in the room, it’s up to you guys to prove you belong in the room and then that you deserve to stay in the room.”
The Hurricanes have been very good at one thing, Brind’Amour noted: giving their players lots of time off in the summer. Way too much time. As in nine consecutive long springs without a taste of playoff action.
“Enough,” Brind’Amour told the group. “That’s changing.”
After announcing that Justin Williams would don the captain’s “C” — the same designation Brind’Amour held from 2005 through January 2010 — Brind’Amour outlined how he hoped things were going to change for the beleaguered franchise.
Outside the arena, local residents were bracing for the onslaught of Hurricane Florence. Brind’Amour used the moment to put things in perfect context.
A category-five hurricane is a powerful force of nature obliterating all in its path. Brind’Amour wants his Hurricanes to adopt five categories to become such a force in the NHL.
It begins with being competitive, something the team hasn’t been for much of its nine-year absence from the playoffs. The players have to care more, care what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. And they have to care enough about the guy next to them to put in the work. Brind’Amour explained the tax every player has to pay and that teammates are acutely aware if not everyone is paying the same tax in terms of commitment and work ethic, willingness to going the extra mile.
Then, there has to be consistency. “It has to happen every day,” Brind’Amour said.
That leads the fourth category, a Hurricane culture, one that makes other teams fearful of stepping onto the same ice. “We’ve had it here before, and we’re going to get it back,” Brind’Amour said.
The fifth category? We could tell you, but we’d like to show you instead. It’s the picture of Brind’Amour holding the Stanley Cup over his head on a June night in 2006 in this very building.
It was a message that seemed to hit all the right notes. Honest but hopeful. And for a guy making his first formal address to his charges, not a shred of nervousness.
“No, I wasn’t nervous,” Brind’Amour said. “I was actually mad because I left out the important part. So when I got home I told my wife, I was like, ‘I can’t believe it, it was the end part I left out.’ But then she’s like, ‘Just use it later.’ … So maybe it was meant to be. But I wasn’t really nervous because I was prepared. I had all summer.”
So, about that mysterious missing ending? Any hints?
“I’ll tell you next time I see you,” Brind’Amour said with a laugh.
We’re sitting in the players’ lounge in the newly renovated Hurricanes dressing room at PNC Arena. It’s a Sunday afternoon early in training camp. Most of the players have slowly trickled out to face the weather. Even the popular ping pong table is silent.
There are lots of signs, cosmetic and otherwise, that things are different in Raleigh. New coaches’ office and players lounge. New coat of paint. New firebrand owner in Tom Dundon. New GM in Don Waddell and his hockey operations staff.
One thing, though, that has been constant for almost 19 years is the rookie head coach.
For almost 19 years, Brind’Amour has been an institution with this franchise.
He shakes his head in a kind of disbelief at the passage of so much time, especially after such an inauspicious start after the Hurricanes acquired Brind’Amour from Philadelphia for Keith Primeau in January 2000.
“Oh yeah. It was not a good moment for me,” Brind’Amour said. “I was in Pittsburgh because I was with the Flyers. Day of a game. There were some rumors going around. And then I got a call and it was (Carolina head coach) Paul Maurice. Picked up the phone at two in the afternoon. He said we got a flight for you at 4:30, and I was just like, ‘Oh, man.’
“At the time, you could fly — this was before 9/11 — you could fly without I.D. and I didn’t have my wallet with me because I was on a charter that was day in, day out. I never carried my stuff. I had no clothes. Nothing. And no money. And so I remember going, ‘What do I do?’ And they were like, ‘We’ll fly you into Raleigh, we got a game, then you can go back to Philly, get your stuff, come back.’ That was the plan. So I went to the airport. Came in, we played a game and they had the snowstorm of the century here that night and I got stranded at the hotel. So I was stuck in there for a week with one suit and no wallet, no money, nothing. I ended up bumming money off of the trainer and I said, ‘Look, I’ll pay you back’ and I did, of course, but I can’t eat, I got nothing. I’m like, ‘What am I doing here? ‘Honestly. It was a rough start, for sure.”
Even after Brind’Amour got his clothes and paid back the trainer, it still wasn’t a seamless transition.
“My first week here it was like, ‘Yeah, how can I get out of here?’”
And Brind’Amour pauses with a smile as he recalls those first weeks and months in Raleigh.
“You know what? Honestly. Yes and no on that. The other part I couldn’t believe how well they treated me right off the bat,” he said. “I really felt like they wanted me here, and then I didn’t play well at all. I was terrible. And I think I put so much pressure on myself to be good and it went the opposite way.”
Battling injury, Brind’Amour had four goals in 33 games for the Hurricanes. One of the game’s great two-way centers was minus-12 through the end of the 1999-00 season. Carolina missed the playoffs.
“Everybody here, and I mean from management to everything they were like, ‘Don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine.’ That’s always meant something to me,” Brind’Amour said. “They believed in me when I wasn’t so good. So, anyway, it’s home now, too.”
Even if it took some time for Brind’Amour to get over the shock of being traded to Carolina, he soon became a vital piece in the Hurricanes’ machinery.
“It was really the deal that won the Stanley Cup for us,” said Jim Rutherford, the longtime Hartford and Carolina GM now in Pittsburgh, who orchestrated the franchise-altering move to acquire Brind’Amour.
He helped the Hurricanes to a first-ever trip to the Stanley Cup final in 2002 when they were beaten in five games by a star-laden Detroit Red Wings team. After the 2004-05 lockout, the Hurricanes emerged as a fast, talented squad that finished one point behind Ottawa for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.
But in the first round of the playoffs, it felt as though all of that regular season success was going to be for naught, as Carolina fell behind Montreal 2-0. Trailing 1-0 in the third period of Game 3 and in danger of falling virtually out of the series, it was Brind’Amour who tied the game as the Canes went on to win four straight against Montreal.
Former teammate and longtime analyst Bret Hedican recalls talking with Brind’Amour between the second and third periods of that pivotal game.
“Roddy and I had a conversation about how the defense kept standing up at the blueline,” Hedican recalled. Brind’Amour told Hedican that he was going to win the draw back to him and that Hedican should throw the puck behind Brind’Amour, who was going to blow past the defense.
“It was like in slow motion,” Hedican recalled as the play worked to perfection with Brind’Amour poking the puck past Montreal netminder Cristobal Huet to tie the game.
Carolina won 2-1 in overtime, arguably the tipping point in the team’s run to its only Cup.
Then there was the 2006 final. The Hurricanes had blown a 3-1 series lead, including a rather disheartening loss in Game 6 that sent the series back in Raleigh.
“Everybody was a little shook, I think,” said Kevyn Adams, a Hurricane for both trips to the final.
There was a sense of being rushed with having to deal with the media and then jump on a charter for the long flight back East. But Brind’Amour spoke up.
“What he said that day was basically we wouldn’t want it any other way,” Adams said. “We get to go home and win the Stanley Cup at home. He just kind of laid it out.
“He might have talked for two minutes. But I think it changed the mindset for our team.”
Two nights later, that moment came, as Adams recalled watching Brind’Amour on the ice waiting to hold the Cup for the first time in his career.
“Just him almost that stomping of his feet, that pure emotion,” Adams said of the moment that still gives him goosebumps.
Brind’Amour didn’t set out to be any old coach. In fact, he didn’t necessarily set out to be a coach at all, but if there was one place he wanted to do the job it was in Raleigh.
“That’s the thing, it’s a little different,” he said. “It means more to me because I didn’t envision being a coach, like I’m going to coach and then get fired and then coach somewhere else. Like when I played, I was going to play for 20 years. I don’t sit there and go, ‘I’m going to coach for 20 years now.’ If that happens — it could happen — but that’s not what I’m here for. I took the job because it was open and I want to hopefully get us back on the map as an organization, and it means something to me when I see the crest. I want it to get important again.”
Maybe it’s the perfect fit for a team that has searched so long for any kind of fit.
“Well, we’ll see. I mean, I think it does. I’m hoping it does,” Brind’Amour said.
“It slipped away here these last eight or nine years, like really bad. Frustrating for me, frustrating for everybody, but just frustrating to see it. Why? Why are we just coming in thinking we should be average? Everyone says, ‘Oh, you want to win.’ If you don’t expect it, you have no chance. You have zero chance. This league’s too hard.”
Over the first days of camp, Brind’Amour appeared tireless. He went from meetings to on-ice sessions to video sessions with a second group of players. During the video sessions he would use a hockey stick to make quick points on things like neutral zone formations, forechecking and power play philosophy, tapping the stick on a giant fold-down screen. Then he would quickly diagram drills for the next session, adding an element from the previous day’s drills, building layer by layer.
When you win, the expectations are here – Brind’Amour explains by raising his hand to eye level — but the Hurricanes are here – and he lowers his hand.
“So we have to figure out how to get to that level and then it actually snowballs to where it’s just normal,” he said. “Your weight room is full every day because that’s the norm. It’s not like you have to pull guys in here. From where it was to where we’ve been the last few years, we got guys doing their own thing. Intentions are all right but they don’t know. So we got to figure out, you’ve got to at least try to be your best. So that’s the message. It’s easy to talk about; we’ll see if we can get it done.”
The funny thing is that at one point before the team won the Stanley Cup, Brind’Amour was not in a great place on or off the ice, so early on he contemplated coaching.
“I had a couple of revelations when I was playing. I remember almost quitting hockey in San Jose,” he recalled. “We had a game there and I was going through some tough times away from the game and I was just like, ‘it’s not working out.’ This was before we won the Cup. What can I do? I was like, ‘OK, what do I do with the rest of my life?’ And I’m like, ‘I should coach. I should get into coaching.’ I remember sitting there stretching before the game. These guys don’t have it that hard. I was going through what they did. I didn’t know what they did, but I was thinking, ‘how hard is it? I know the game. Pass pucks around. Put some good drills. Whatever.’”
He laughs again at his naiveté. When he retired, though, he started coaching his son Skyler, one of his four children.
“Loved it, loved it, loved it,” he said of coaching his eldest son who is now playing in the British Columbia Junior Hockey League and will attend Quinnipiac College next year.
That bled seamlessly into part-time coaching with the Hurricanes, then, when Skyler moved on, to a full-time assistant role. Now the room is his and the ease with which he has assumed control is on display, whether it’s on the ice, with players one-on-one or with the media.
No longer is he relating the message established by another head coach, the message is his and he’s free to deliver it in the manner he sees fit.
“I enjoy working with the players more than ever now that I can actually go up to a guy and not worry about am I saying the right thing versus the coach’s message? What he wanted,” Brind’Amour said. “That was really hard for me. To sit on my hands and kind of just this is how we got to do it because that’s how they want to do it. Not that they were right or wrong or anything, but now I don’t have to worry about that. I can go up to anyone anytime. If it’s a defenseman, if it’s a forward or goalie, I’m not intruding. I really enjoy it so far. We’ll see. We haven’t really started.”
Can he do it?
Can he do what Maurice, Kirk Muller and Bill Peters could not do for nine straight years and get this team into the postseason and then do it consistently?
Had Rutherford stayed in Carolina before moving on to Pittsburgh, Brind’Amour would have been his guy behind the bench.
“It was Rod Brind’Amour’s determination that made him and made that team Stanley Cup champions. He’s one of the great leaders in the game,” Rutherford said. “If I’d have stayed with the Hurricanes longer, he would have been my choice for the next coach at that time.
Adams said there isn’t a player he played alongside in his hockey career whom he respects more than Brind’Amour and that there’s no reason he can’t enjoy the same respect and success as a coach.
“He’ll never say something he doesn’t believe,” Adams said. “I think he’s someone that he’s extremely smart and he will not get fooled. If people are trying to cut corners or trying to do things, he’s going to see it.”
The Xs and Os are something most, if not all, NHL coaches understand, but it’s the intangibles that separate the winners from the rest of the pack.
“He’s pure. He’s honest. He just gets it,” Adams said. “I just think he’s going to be ready.”
“I love Rod. I think you couldn’t find anyone that doesn’t like that guy,” said current Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin. “I mean, I think he’s just one of the most genuine guys you can find. As a coach, obviously as an assistant he didn’t have as much reins as he probably would have liked, but he was being respectful of the head coach. That’s just how Rod is.
“He is who he is. I don’t think his role’s going to change. He’s still going to be one of the hardest working guys in the locker room. He’s still going to have respect for everybody around him. But I do think he’s going to bring a mentality that wants more from everybody all the time, which is good, which is what we need.”
Brind’Amour recalls offering advice to former teammates and colleagues who were entering the coaching world and how that advice came back to him the exact same way: Be yourself. And while there’s a sense of purpose, a sense of, heck we’ll say it, destiny, about this new role, Brind’Amour is also someone very much grounded in reality.
“I’m very realistic. I come in with my eyes wide open. I get how this works. Come on. There’s a reason they stick coaches names on the doors with magnets. It’s coming off, right?” Brind’Amour said. “But my goal is to make this as long a run as I can and, at the end of the day when I at least walk out the door at some point, we’re back up here competing where we need to compete. … Whether you’re the head coach or the assistant, I feel like, for me, if you’re the assistant you’re taking the crap anyway for the head guy’s stuff if it doesn’t work, so you might as well be the head guy.”
(Top photo: Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)