A rookie all over again

Brendan McCarthy
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John Slaney — File photo

A lot of years of have passed — two decades worth of them — since John Slaney started in pro hockey, but time has been kind to the kid from Merrymeeting Road.

He doesn’t look much different than he did at the start of the millenium, when he was winning back-to-back Eddie Shore Awards as the American Hockey League’s top defenceman. There’s not a grey hair on the still-moppish 39-year-old head, his suit hangs well on him and he could easily be mistaken for the one of the much-younger hockey players gathered in the lobby of the St. John’s Delta waiting for him to hand out their hotel-room card keys.

He’s feeling good these days too, although he laughs and says he’ll look and feel that much better in a couple of hours after a haircut from his sister Cathy and the Jiggs dinner his mom is cooking up for him and Mike Minard.

Slaney is back in St. John’s with an AHL team like he has many times before, only this time, it isn’t as a player. And while close inspection — the small wrinkle here, the little scar there — might reveal this is no longer the face once found behind the caged helmet of a world junior hero, and that the birthdate on his passport and pictures of his nine-year-old son and four-year-old daughter in wallet indicate that (can we really be saying it?) middle age is approaching, you can forgive him for feeling a little like a rookie.

“It’s new. It’s challenging. It’s exciting,” said Slaney about his job as the first-year assistant coach for the Portland Pirates, who play the St. John’s IceCaps tonight and tomorrow at Mile One Centre.

“I had 20 years as a player. Does every player miss playing? No question, and I do. But there comes a time when you have to say enough is enough and you have to move on in life.

“I came to that time and I knew it. I knew it was time for something else.”

The time was last year, when he was playing for Plzen in the Czech league. It was his fourth season in Europe and he had an inkling that it would be his last as a player. The inkling that became a clear and undeniable message when a broken jaw and severe concussion basically ended his campaign.

The “something else” was coaching, which is really not a surprise. Slaney had long indicated an interest in that line of hockey work, going back to his six-plus years in the Flyers’ organization where he was a stalwart with the AHL’s Philadelphia Phantoms.

“So much of it when I was playing for six or seven years with Philadelphia, was getting young d-men ready to play,” he said.

“But there is so much that’s different as a coach. You have to be able tell these guys the right thing and you have to know when it’s the right time to tell it. You have to have answers.

“And I have to be able to translate, I think is the right way to say it, to translate things that had become instinct to me as a player.

“I don’t want to say I’m on the other side (of the game). I’m still on the bench, just behind it. I’m teaching, but I’m learning, too.”

On discovering the AHL would be returning to St. John’s, Slaney made inquiries about possibly working for the then-nameless team. When nothing came of that line, he found his job the old-fashioned way, by beating on doors, or at least the hockey equivalent. A day after returning to North America from Europe, he headed to the NHL draft in Minneapolis and made the rounds and made his coaching candidacy known.

It eventually landed him work with the Pirates, the new AHL farm team of the Phoenix Coyotes.

In the who-you-know world of hockey, one might think it was because Slaney had once played for the Coyotes, but that was 14 years and several organizational shake-ups ago. One might think it was because he once played for Pirates, but that was 17 years ago and his Portland stay amounted to just 37 games. Nope, Slaney is employed because of reputation and promise, which is probably another reason he is happy.

His wife Brenda and children are happy, too. They’re living during the hockey season in Cape Elizabeth, Me., south of Portland, just three-and-a-half hours away from the family’s permanent home in New Jersey and four-and-a-half from Brenda’s home town of Albany, N.Y.

“Tyler is so happy he can play hockey on a team where they speak English and my daughter Julia is excited because this will be her first Christmas in North America. And both her and my wife love Halloween, which is coming up, and that’s exciting for them because in Europe, Halloween is not a big deal over there,” said Slaney.

“They’re just happy.”

And so you’re reminded the kid from Merrymeeting Road is a Dad and husband, which is so much more than being a first-round draft pick, or an AHL record-holder or someone who managed to get into nearly 270 games in an era of the NHL that was — everyone agrees — not best-suited to his skill set.

It’s also so much more than being the assistant coach of the Portland Pirates, although that position now sits a solid third in the pecking order of jobs, after father and hubby.

“I haven’t been at it long, but I can honestly say that so far, it has been everything I thought it would be, that I hoped it would be,” he said.

“Like I said before. It’s challenging, especially because the game is way above what it was even four or five years ago. There’s been some catching up.

“There’s a lot more skill in the game. It’s quicker.

“It’s the kind of game I would have liked to play 20 years ago.”

If there is a little wistfulness in his last sentence, it’s fleeting.

“No,” he answers when asked if he dwells much on the what-may-have-been. “That was 20 years ago, right? 

“Like I said before, you move on and to do that, you have to look ahead, not behind you.”

bmcc@thetelegram.com

Organizations: American Hockey League, Portland Pirates, NHL

Geographic location: Europe, Jiggs, North America Plzen Portland Philadelphia Minneapolis Cape Elizabeth, Me. New Jersey Albany, N.Y.

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  • Steve Brown
    October 25, 2011 - 14:26

    Enjoyed reading the article; it's great to have another local connection to pro hockey. Hopefully, some day he can possibly get the opportunity to stand behind the bench of the Ice Caps. Or perhaps, when his "paying" career is over he can return home and lend his vast knowledge to the local minor hockey scene. Best of luck to John and family in the future.