BY MIKE MASTOVICH
No coach? No worries. No affiliates? No problem. Johnstown Chiefs General Manager Bill Bredin is about as upbeat as one in his position possibly could be with a little more than a month until the team begins its 22nd ECHL training camp.
Bredin knows he and majority owner Neil Smith must find a head coach – and must do so rather quickly.
“I want to have a contract signed with an official start date of Sept. 1 and have him here in Johnstown on Sept. 15,” Bredin said Wednesday. “That would be the ideal scenario for me.”
The fact that former coach Ian Herbers had already received commitments from
23 players to skate with the Chiefs has provided at least some leeway. The Chiefs announced Wednesday they had re-signed 6-foot-4 defenseman David Schulz for a second season. A steady defender who has grit and the ability to score points, Schulz joined previously signed players Matt Robinson, Sean Berkstresser, Ryan Menei, Mike Knight, Greg Gallagher and Kyle Bushee.
Herbers earned a promotion as an assistant coach of the AHL’s Milwaukee Admirals on Aug. 3.
Since then, the Chiefs’ two-year affiliation with the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and AHL affiliate Lake Erie Monsters lapsed. Colorado instead signed with Charlotte.
This week, the NHL’s Columbus Blue Jackets and their AHL affiliate in Syracuse opted to sign an ECHL agreement with Gwinnett after a season with the Chiefs.
“Both organizations were pleased with our relationship from a hockey operation standpoint,” Bredin said.
The GM didn’t elaborate, but speculation surrounding the Chiefs’ apparent financial difficulties indicated that the monetary obligations the ECHL team had to its now former NHL affiliates was yet another hurdle. NHL parent clubs usually receive financial compensation as part of the affiliation agreement.
When Columbus hooked up with Gwinnett, a story in The Columbus Dispatch closed with this line, “Two potential reasons for the change: the Jackets like Gladiators coach Jeff Pyle and the Georgia-based franchise is financially sound.”
Right now, the Chiefs are having difficulty competing in either of those areas.
Bredin hopes to change that by hiring a new coach.
“Age is not a factor. If I could pull an ‘Ian’ I would,” Bredin said, referring to the Chiefs’ hiring of a then mostly unknown Herbers in 2007. “It has to be somebody that knows the league in terms of player personnel; somebody who is familiar with the PHPA (Professional Hockey Players Association). It has to be somebody who knows the administrative side of the league, managing the salary cap and handling immigration. Those are all part of the coach’s responsibility. We want somebody who we feel is a good candidate to coach the core of guys we have under contract right now. I think Ian built a team that can skate, put a lot of pressure on the other team and play a real aggressive puck-possession style of play. That’s critical.”
And there is more to the job description.
“What’s unique to the coaching position of the Johnstown Chiefs is it has to be somebody who can handle community and media relations and interact with our fans, our fan club, our corporate partners,” Bredin added. “It has to be a pretty dynamic individual. In addition to that it would ideally be somebody who has strong contacts in the college game as it relates to recruiting and has contacts with agents so that we can continue with our philosophy of pushing players up the ranks. It’s a pretty comprehensive job.”
Bredin realizes he’s asking a lot but he said circumstances have left him with some solid options even though September is only a few days away.
“It’s late in the game but believe it or not there are many good candidates still out there,” he said. “There has been contraction of a number of teams in this league and there has been some tightening of budgets across professional hockey that has eliminated a number of second coaching positions in the American League.”
The odds are that the Chiefs will remain an independent for the first time since the disastrous 1995-96 season. After coach Eddie Johnstone was fired during that offseason, multiple coaching candidates turned down Chiefs offers during the summer. The team hired Nick Fotiu late in July, leaving him little opportunity to recruit. Fotiu brought in mostly veterans who were past their ECHL prime and the team missed the playoffs, starting a string of four straight years without a postseason trip.
“If the reality is that we have to compete as an independent we have confidence we can be competitive,” Bredin said. “There are pros and cons that come with being affiliated. If you look at the model created by Atlantic City a few years back they won a Kelly Cup without an affiliate. It’s entirely possible to win without an affiliate. Both teams (Colorado and Columbus) have stated that they were happy with our organization from a hockey standpoint. We understand the decisions that Colorado and Columbus made were in the best interest of their organizations. We have no hard feelings. We enjoyed our time as partners. We’re now focusing on the future. We honestly believe we can be competitive without an affiliate.”
Bredin also said new Cambria County War Memorial Arena management group SMG has been working with the team to coordinate some promotions.
“There are rumors out in the community that people are worried that we don’t have any players because we don’t have a coach,” Bredin said. “That’s simply not the case. I like our team. We’re watching the calendar and the clock tick. We’re getting closer and closer. We’re getting excited. I think good times are ahead.”