Son of Irish immigrants, McCambridge not shy of hard work on the farm

Robin Short
Published on January 28, 2012
St. John's IceCaps coach Keith McCambridge looks on at a practice. -Telegram photo

ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. - Do a You Tube search on Keith McCambridge and you might be surprised to see video not of the tall, stoic, corporate St. John's IceCaps rookie coach, but of a defenceman kicking around the minors for years, throwing a few haymakers in a good ol' minor league scrap.

What a contrast to the Keith McCambridge St. John's hockey fans have come to watch behind the IceCaps' bench, the relative unknown until last summer, when he got the job; the coach who's had the new American Hockey League team at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings this season.

A coach who's proven to be good enough to guide the East against the West in the AHL's All-Star Classic this weekend here on the Jersey shore.

Some will say McCambridge doesn't have an overactive funny bone. That he looks, 24/7, like a man being audited.

They may be half-correct. In fact, McCambridge does enjoy a chuckle every now and again, like when it's suggested he drove the Zamboni during his jack-of-all-trades days coaching in the ECHL.

However, people are right to maintain this hockey lifer is all business, serious and professional - with a capital 'P.'

"My dad was a hard worker," McCambridge says. "He came over from Northern Ireland to work in the mine and it's that work ethic which was instilled in me.

"Professionalism, that was his makeup also. And coaches that I played for and worked with - Davis Payne, Claude Noel, Scott Arniel ...all of them. They were real pros. Players read off the head coach and if you're on the bench and you're not professional, losing your composure with referees, against the opposition, that rolls down into your team.

"I'm a firm believer that you set a standard for your team in how you present yourself. That is how the team is going to present itself. And you have to be professional, always."

McCambridge grew up in Thompson, Man., playing hockey like most boys. He wasn't a skillful player, but rather one who made the most of his abilities, working like a dog.

He was good enough to play four years of junior hockey in the Western league, good enough to be drafted by the NHL's Calgary Flames.

But that would be the closest McCambridge would get to the big league. For the next 11 winters, he would carve out a living in the minors, in the American league to the old International Hockey League and, finally, the ECHL, where he'd get his start in coaching.

McCambridge was a defenceman, typically the No. 4 or 5 guy, certainly not your power play quarterback. During those 11 seasons, McCambridge managed 63 career points.

No, he was your prototypical stay-at-home defenceman - and big and tough.

"He was quiet, pretty easy-going," says Dennis Bonvie, the Chicago Blackhawks scout who played with McCambridge in Providence, R.I., when the latter captained the Bruins.

"But he was tough. Oh yeah, big and strong and tough. He had a big right hand that could hurt."

Hurting is something Bonvie knows all too well. He put a lot of hurt on a lot of people, retiring as the AHL's all-time penalty king.

"I can't say he was looking to get into coaching, because I didn't know at the time. But I knew he was a leader, not rah-rah or anything, but someone who was quiet and went about his business. I suppose looking back you could tell he was looking at coaching by the way he presented himself."

There we go again - the way he presents himself.

McCambridge relates his family history, how Paul and Bernadette McCambridge emigrated to Manitoba from Belfast. Paul worked long, hard hours in the mines for Inco, before eventually starting his own construction company. Worked hard right to the end, which came on July 26 last summer, when he died suddenly at age 65.

You know what they say about the apple not falling far from the tree ...

"I'm not afraid to put in the long hours," coach McCambridge says. "I'm not afraid to make sure every stone is turned over the make sure there are no questions, no grey areas, that the homework is done and you're not going to be studder-stepped."

McCambridge tries to take his mind off the game every now and then, with a workout or a run or escaping with a movie or maybe a good book (he just finished "The Essential Wooden," a story about UCLA legend John Wooden, and "The Junction Boys," about Bear Bryant's football team at Texas A&M).

"But it's a struggle to turn it off," he says. "I don't think it's healthy to stare at a wall and think about one-two-twos, or the trap, the forecheck and the power play breakout. But it happens.

"I am who I am. That's my makeup. If I'm fired, it's not going to be from a lack of effort. You prepare your team the best you can every day, you stay three or four steps ahead of where the next questions are coming, where the next change in the game is going to be. You try to think three or four steps ahead of where you're going."

McCambridge got his first taste of coaching as a player-assistant with the Alaska Aces of the ECHL in 2003-04. He felt he could have played a few more years in the AHL, but knew he wanted to coach, and along came the Alaska offer.

The Aces were coached by Payne, who would later go on to coach the St. Louis Blues until he was fired this season, and McCambridge didn't know him from a hole in the head.

Payne heard of McCambridge from P-Bruins CEO Jeff Fear. There was something about the player Payne liked, and could relate to.

"I'm not grey. I'm black and white and he was black and white," McCambridge said of Payne.

"He was, 'This is what I can do for you, and this is where I see this going.'"

McCambridge spent three years as a player-assistant, another year as a full-time assistant coach, eventually taking over the top post when Payne joined the AHL's Peoria Rivermen.

"That league is such good training ground for coaches because you wear so many different hats," he says.

"You're sitting there before the game and not only are you thinking about your lineup, you're wondering, Did I activate John Smith off the IR? OK, he's activated. Did I adjust my salary cap to meet the weekly salary cap?

"Oh, I got to talk to this player to recruit him for next year. And a guy's fridge broke down and I got to have that looked at.

No down time

"There's no down time. I remember the year we went to the final (2008-09), and the last month we're in the playoffs I'm thinking I'm losing a month here of recruiting time.

"After my first year, I recall going back to Winnipeg for vacation and I made 350 phone calls in July. My phone bill was $1,700. If you miss a call from a guy who you're trying to get for next year, he calls the next coach and he's gone."

After six years in Alaska, McCambridge was interviewed for the assistant's job with the AHL's Manitoba Moose. McCambridge knew Moose GM Craig Heisinger, when Heisinger was Manitoba's trainer and McCambridge used to skate in Winnipeg during the summers.

"I didn't know if he'd get the job," Heisinger said, "but I knew he was worth the interview.

"Of the four guys we interviewed, he was probably fourth on the list. But when it was over, he was the last guy standing. He's very mature for his age, he knows what he likes, not scared to keep learning. He never thinks he's too smart for anything.

"He's a calm guy, with a calm demeanour. He never gets wound up about officiating. His teams just play, and play hard."

"From what I understand," said Bonvie, in St. John's recently on a scouting trip, "he's not a yeller or a screamer, and I can see that. He has his way of doing things and if you're not going to do it, well, you're out of here."

In Manitoba, McCambridge was assistant to Arniel and Noel with the Moose until things changed this past summer. That's when Winnipeg finally landed an NHL team, and the Moose were relocated to St. John's.

McCambridge was interviewed for the St. John's job, but the truth is there wasn't really much of a competition.

Given the IceCaps' place in the standings, it's not a stretch to believe McCambridge is now on the NHL radar, another smart, young - he turns 37 Wednesday - coach on the way up, much along the lines of Guy Boucher, Glen Gulutzan and Mike Yeo.

For now, he's satisfied to be in the AHL - studying, learning, striving to prove himself.

"This is where want to be," he says. "I want to be a head coach in the National league so this was the next step. This is a must on my résumé."

Robin Short is The Telegram's Sports Editor. He can be reached by email