Five Questions: McLellan Reflects on Coaching Start
Todd McLellan played five NHL games, all with the New York Islanders, in a career shortened by injury. He scored a goal in his debut at New Jersey, dished out an assist in his second game against the New York Rangers, and was part of a victory -- his lone victory -- in his third game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
That was it.
McLellan's last NHL game as a player was April 3, 1988 at Boston. He went back to the American Hockey League the following season, suffered recurring shoulder injuries, retired and never played again in North America.
Seventeen years later he returned to the NHL as an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings. It took him three seasons of running the Red Wings power play to get noticed and hired by San Jose.
After retiring as a player, McLellan went on a coaching odyssey that took him to a foreign country, through the Western Hockey League, into the International Hockey League and eventually the American Hockey League. The path helped shape him into the coach he is today.
How did it happen?
Here are Five Questions With … Todd McLellan:
You played five NHL games and your career got cut short due to injuries. Do you have any regrets, any man-what-could-have-been feelings?
"That's a great question because I just relived that moment. I was in the minors in Springfield, Mass., and I remember driving away from the rink the day my career was over basically. I just went back to the Springfield arena this past September and I looked at the parking spot where I was parked. It was such a reflection time.
"Looking back and reflecting on it, all my buddies when I left Springfield that day -- all my friends and anybody I related with -- was playing hockey at a high level and making a good living at it, but I left there empty. Back then hockey players tended to want to become firemen or policemen; I went back to become a coach. It was a great time for me to become a coach. Not a lot of pro players were doing that. I got into it at a very young age when there weren't very many people doing it and that was a huge advantage for me. I see young coaches starting now at the age I started at the Midget AA or AAA level. I got to coach in Saskatchewan junior league at I think 24 years old and the Western Hockey League at 26. That doesn't happen very often now. So, I was fortunate that way now that I look back on it.
"But, back then, I felt lost. My world was the hockey world and I wasn't part of it anymore."
Is it true that you had to go to the Netherlands to become interested in coaching?
"I did. After my injury I went back to the University of Saskatchewan and started to study again. After one year there I wanted to play so bad I went to the Netherlands -- my injuries had healed enough that I could go there -- and played in the Dutch league. It was one of the best years I had in hockey. We won the championship and I met a lot of great people there, people that I still keep in touch with.
"But, that's where I got the coaching bug. Doug McKay, who was part of New Jersey's staff back then, came over right around Christmas or a little bit later -- we had a Dutch coach that was fired. My girlfriend who is my wife now, left to go back and Doug moved in. We used to sit up watching practice, watching video, talking hockey and scouting games, and that really got me into it. That excited me about the coaching world."
What did you gain and learn from your experience of winning the Calder Cup in 2003 with the Houston Aeros that you still utilize today?
"Just what it took to play until June -- the preparation and intensity it takes to get to June hockey. It's relentless. It doesn't end. You don't get that day break even between series. You're moving on and you're pushing and finding ways to win. The experience of playing that late and being rewarded for it, I think it teaches you how to win."
Since arriving in San Jose you have made the Stanley Cup Playoffs every year, including twice reaching the Western Conference Finals and twice getting eliminated in the first round. Have your teams performed below expectations based on the personnel you've had?
"Well, the answer to that would be yes and no for me. I've spent four years here now, going into year five, and I believe there are two years of, 'Yes, we should have gotten a lot more out of our team,' and there were two years where it was, 'Hey, we got a lot out of our team.'
"In Year 1 we won the Presidents' Trophy and were out in the first round against a very good Anaheim team. That was a disappointment. I feel we could have gotten more out of that group. And, last year was tough for us and I believe there was more for us there.
"The two years in between, we got to the final four and Chicago went on to win the Cup and Vancouver was eliminated in Game 7 of the Cup Final. We lost to both of those teams. Mike Babcock always says if you get to the final four you've done something, you've pushed your horses enough so they ran for you and something either went right or wrong.
"I can't blanket my four years here with one statement."
When the NHL returns, can you say with any certainty that the Sharks are still legitimate Stanley Cup contenders with the personnel you'll have coming back to San Jose?
"I think we have to come to the rink and prove to ourselves that we are first.
"I'd like to think we are. I believe we can be. But we're at a point where we need to look each other in the eye coming back from the lockout -- and we're going to have to decide if we are going to be a Cup contender. With the personnel and the type of game we want to play, I think we can be, but collectively we need to make that decision and make it quickly."
Author: Dan Rosen | NHL.com Senior Writer