Q&A: Kinnear Ensuring Proud On-Ice Product
Thunderbirds head coach building tough clubSep 7, 2016
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- Professional hockey in Springfield has started its latest chapter with the acquisition of the Florida Panthers’ American Hockey League affiliate, but this does not figure to be an on-ice team that experiences growing pains.
In 2015-16, the Panthers’ affiliate, then the Portland Pirates, reached the Calder Cup Playoffs for a second consecutive season, racking up 90 points and 41 victories. It was an extension of a Panthers’ franchise that made its biggest strides since their NHL inception in 1993. Despite a first-round playoff defeat, the farm system showed its capabilities for the Panthers, as five players who spent time on the AHL roster participated in the Stanley Cup playoff series against the New York Islanders.
The Thunderbirds’ debut season this October will also mark the first head coaching opportunity for longtime AHL assistant coach Geordie Kinnear. A rugged defenseman in his playing days, Kinnear racked up more than 1000 penalty minutes in the AHL in a professional career that spanned over 400 games with the Albany River Rats.
Since his playing career concluded in 2001, Kinnear has become an integral part of AHL coaching staffs in Albany and Charlotte, to the tune of 11 seasons on the bench at the AHL level. Six of Kinnear’s final seven seasons as an assistant resulted in winning records for his teams.
In the days leading up to the Thunderbirds’ inaugural season, “Voice of the Thunderbirds” Ryan Smith sat down with Kinnear to trace the head coach’s longstanding playing and coaching career at the American Hockey League level, the lessons he learned as an assistant coach in his previous stops, and what Springfield fans can expect out of their new club in the 2016-17 season.
SMITH: Growing up in Canada, how quickly did hockey become a part of your life?
KINNEAR: I grew up in a small little town, Delhi, Ontario. It was about 5,000 people, and that’s just what we did; we played hockey in the backyard, and obviously being from Canada, it’s an extreme passion. Canada’s very passionate about the sport, as I was and my family was. I didn’t really come from a hockey family, per se. My dad played, but just recreational and grew to love it. Every kid wants to play in the NHL. I didn’t really think at that time, being a young kid, that I was ever good enough to play. I just kind of focused year after year and that’s kind of my mentality. Things took a life of their own after that.
SMITH: Your AHL career overlapped the Springfield Indians’ transition to the Falcons, and when you were with Albany, you were a pretty frequent visitor to the Civic Center. What are some of your recollections of your playing days visiting Springfield?
KINNEAR: Being a young kid, coming from the Peterborough Petes in junior, I remember coming into (Springfield) in my first year of pro and it being a very, very tough place to play. Scott Daniels was here, John Stevens was part of the Indians at the that point, as was Rob Murray. It was that hard-nosed, competitive type of place to play. I remember definitely leaving here with a few bumps and bruises, and I always knew I was in for a tough game. I can appreciate the blue-collar town and what people have come to expect here. That’s the type of hockey we want to play; I’m a big believer that you’ve got to be tough to play at home, and I want to follow that – create our own identity, but follow in the footsteps of those players that played in the past for this organization that were tough to play against. That will be an expectation that we have for our team.
SMITH: You’ve had a career both as a player and as a coach at the AHL level. How did those experiences prepare you for this role now as a head coach in Springfield?
KINNEAR: Each year, you either get better or you get worse. You don’t stay the same, so I took the approach that I did as a young kid, you want to get better every day. You want to learn something from everybody. I was very, very fortunate in New Jersey. I spent a lot of times under Lou Lamiorello and the coaches I had through there: Jacques Lemaire, Pat Burns, Larry Robinson, John Cunniff among others. You pick up the little things along the way. There’s a big difference between winning and losing, and I think what New Jersey did at that point is they did the little things better than anybody else in winning three Stanley Cups. You go in your assistant coaching; you watch coaches out of Carolina. Peter Laviolette was there, Paul Maurice was there, and most recently, Bill Peters. You just take a little bit from each guy but you develop your own philosophy. That’s just what I’ve done all the way along. I never really went out looking for a head coaching job. I just put in my time, learned as much as I could, and when the opportunity came, I knew that I was ready for it.
SMITH: You also had a chance at the AHL level to work alongside coaches like (Florida Panthers GM) Tom Rowe. Were there any particular things you took from head coaches as good lessons for yourself as you were building your own coaching resume?
KINNEAR: The expectations (Rowe) had set (to his team). He held people to those standards, and he taught me a lot about managing people, both on the ice and off the ice. He took me to the next level, without question. It’s about raising expectations and meeting those standards. I definitely learned a lot from him.
SMITH: Your playing style was no-nonsense, tough, aggressive. You mentioned how you think toughness is something a team needs to have. As a coach, what kind of on-ice identity or image do you want your team to take on?
KINNEAR: Competition is going to be the main ingredient. When I say toughness, it’s not the fighting, it’s playing through people by finishing your body checks, being physical, playing fast, being on top of people quickly to take away their time and space. There’s many ways, and everyone’s going to be tough in their own right. I will tell you, and I’ve told many people this, we’ll put a product on the ice that (Springfield) will be proud of. We’ll be very competitive people, and those are the type of players that will be playing in Springfield’s uniform.
SMITH: Having played as a defenseman, would you say you have a more defensive-minded style as a coach?
KINNEAR: We talk about playing defense, but for me, the best defense is when you have the puck. We’re going to be a puck possession team. It’s physically nearly impossible for the other team to score when you have the puck. The game has changed; you can’t just try to be a defensive team. There’s too much skill out there to allow them to have the puck. There will be an emphasis on being a great defender, but we also want to have a strong offensive attack and play with the puck and make teams defend in their end. That will be the identity; you can’t just be a great defensive team and expect to win. You’ve got to have that puck.
SMITH: The Panthers are coming off a franchise record-high number of wins and points in a season. Their organizational depth means there will be some pretty talented players that spill down into your lap in Springfield. How do you assess the depth and work the balance of guys getting promoted and sent down throughout a year?
KINNEAR: We’re all about opportunity. Our staff’s job, with myself, Doug Janik, Mike Ryan, and (goaltending coach) Leo Luongo, is to get the guys prepared for when they get that opportunity (to play in the NHL), and to be 100 percent ready. The ultimate goal is to help Florida win at that level, so if they need a body to go and fill for a game, those guys have to be ready to win that game or week or whatever amount of time they’re asked to be up there. You want people down here to be pushing for jobs up there. It’s just a healthy organization, and that’s the competitive people we talk about. We want that competitive organization where we’re all pushing each other to get better. For me, it’s always about the next man up. As a coach, I can’t focus on what I don’t have, so if somebody’s playing here one night and Florida takes him, it’s next man up and what is he going to bring to us? I can’t focus on, ‘oh, we just lost the best player’ at that time. It’s about the guy that’s going into the lineup and getting him to be the best version of himself. That will be a focus. Being in the American Hockey League as an assistant coach, you realize over time that (the roster) is going to change on a daily basis, but it’s a next man up making the best of an opportunity.
SMITH: On a more personal level, you now have your first head coaching opportunity with a Florida franchise that is on the rise. For you, what’s the most exciting part of taking on this challenge?
KINNEAR: It’s funny, to be quite honest, I don’t think about myself a lot in this on a personal level. For me, it’s about the team. It’s about Doug Janik, Mike Ryan, Leo Luongo, (general manager) Eric Joyce, and all of us working together to a common goal, and obviously that’s the Calder Cup and the Stanley Cup. It’s about the whole team aspect, for me. I’m just excited to work with these guys and help the organization take that next step.
SMITH: Eight or nine months from now, when we sit down and we look back on the season, other than the obvious goal of winning a Calder Cup, what would be your definition of a successful opening year for the Thunderbirds?
KINNEAR: That we got better every single day. If I can look back and say every day we got better as a group, as a coaching staff, as an organization, then we will hold our heads high, for sure.
Springfield Thunderbirds fans are encouraged to visit www.SpringfieldThunderbirds.com to learn more about Thunderbirds Season Ticket Memberships. Packages start at $12 per game and feature the most benefits, including an exclusive commemorative jersey. For more information, fans may call the Thunderbirds ticket office at (413) 739-GOAL (4625).
(Photo Courtesy Charlotte Checkers)