Todd Reirden was never supposed to make it as a hockey player.
In 1990, Jerry York, then the coach of Bowling Green State University, saw a slow, lanky freshman for whom he didn’t have any scholarship money. He didn’t think Reirden was going to be a college hockey player, much less a professional one.
But perhaps what Reirden lacked in natural talent he made up for in stubbornness.
“Many people along the way have said, ‘You can’t do it; you’re not good enough,’ ” said Reirden’s father, Dave. “He simply would not give up.”
What transformed Reirden from that unremarkable freshman to an NHL defenseman who played in nearly 200 games and shared the ice with Hall of Famer Chris Pronger are the same qualities that the Washington Capitals hope will make him a good coach. After Barry Trotz’s sudden resignation June 18, the Capitals on Friday promoted Reirden, the top assistant on his staff for the past four years. For the 47-year-old’s first head coaching gig, he inherits a Stanley Cup-winning roster that has just two seasons left with franchise pillars Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom under contract together.
Reirden took a patient route as a player, working his way up through the minor leagues with an attention to detail that gave him an edge. He followed the same path as a coach, becoming known for his ability to bring out the best in defensemen through diligence and preparation. The Capitals are hopeful he can translate that defensive developmental knack to the roster as a whole as their top players take up a higher percentage of the salary cap and the team is forced to lean on cheaper young talent.
What Reirden lacks in head-coaching experience, he makes up for in his personal journey.
“He had to prove everyone wrong the whole way,” Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Dan Bylsma said. “That’s a little bit of how he got into coaching as well.”
As a coach known for crafting step-by-step plans to help his players improve, Reirden was his own first project.
Bylsma was two years ahead of Reirden when they played together at Bowling Green, and his first impression was similar to York’s: “If you have highlights and clips of Todd, he’s not the most fluid of skaters,” Bylsma said with a chuckle. But by the end of his sophomore season, Reirden had earned some scholarship money.
“He just willed himself to be a player,” York said. “It was just remarkable what he did in the offseason, gaining weight and strengthening his body. The work ethic was very impressive for me. I thought he could be a player for us, but I never thought he could be a real player.”
When Reirden left Bowling Green, he toiled in the minor leagues for four years, playing for eight teams across three leagues. Even if Dave Reirden had wanted to talk his son out of what seemed to be an exhausting pursuit of his dream, he knew he wouldn’t have listened.
His break came in the 1998-99 season, when he made his NHL debut and played in 17 games for the Edmonton Oilers. The following year, he joined the St. Louis Blues and played 56 games as part of a rotation of blue-liners beside Pronger in his prime; Pronger won the Hart and Norris trophies that year, the awards recognizing the NHL’s MVP and top defenseman. Pronger’s older brother, Sean, had been teammates with Reirden at Bowling Green, so he was familiar with his new teammate. “I think there was a, ‘Wow, this guy has already made it?’ ” Pronger said.
Reirden was known as “Stretch” for his 6-foot-5 frame, and what he lacked in speed he made up for with a heavy slap shot. In pregame warmups, he often stood four feet in front of the net and hammered shots at the boards and glass in an effort to break them.
“He was able to break the glass once or twice, which unfortunately delayed the game a little bit,” Pronger said. “After that, we had to have a little talk about it. I told him it was a practice ritual only.”
He played in St. Louis for one more season before joining the Atlanta Thrashers and then landing in the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ system. He was in his early 30s, back in the American Hockey League and well aware that his playing days were limited. To keep from having a bad attitude, Reirden embraced a big-brother role, working with younger defensemen who were just beginning their pro careers. He started to talk with Brad Shaw, then his coach with the Cincinnati Mighty Ducks, about a future in coaching.
“You could tell he thought the game,” said Shaw, now an assistant with the Columbus Blue Jackets. “I think it shows up in his coaching now and how meticulous he is and how well he plans and how prepared he is. I think he treated the game fairly similar as a player. He didn’t have the fastest feet, so he had to play smart and be good positionally and be a step ahead mentally if he could.”
Reirden and Shaw stayed in touch, and they spoke last summer. Reirden had been a finalist for the Calgary Flames’ coaching vacancy in 2016, but Washington didn’t permit him to interview elsewhere during the 2017 offseason. Trotz was entering the last year of his contract, and his future with the Capitals was uncertain. Reirden had an additional year left on his deal, making him the presumptive in-house replacement if something went awry during the season or after it.
Just as Reirden paid his dues as a player, he had done the same as a coach, and perhaps he sensed he was close to breaking through.
“He was looking at some head-coaching opportunities, and we touched base a little bit,” Shaw said. “Sometimes you just have to be a little more patient than you like, but most times, it happens for a reason.”
After playing seven games with the Phoenix Coyotes in 2003-04, Reirden finished his playing days in Europe, in part because he thought it would be fun, but he also wanted to learn about how the game was taught and played there. He was thinking ahead for his next move: returning to Bowling Green as an assistant in 2007. A year later, Bylsma asked Reirden to be an assistant on his staff with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ AHL affiliate.
It was then that he started working with 25-year-old Deryk Engelland, a kindred spirit of sorts. Engelland had spent the previous five years bouncing around, from the ECHL to the AHL and back.
“We had similar stories, a background of making it later,” Engelland said. “I owe a lot to him. He took me under his wing, and I don’t want to say I was a project, but he really wanted to see me succeed and get to the next level. I still remember conversations with him saying: ‘I’m going to get you one [NHL] game. Just one game. That’s all we need to get.’ That came true, and he never stopped helping me along the way.”
Engelland has now played in 548 NHL games, skating more than 20 minutes per game as an alternate captain for the Vegas Golden Knights this past season. Everything leading up to that arguably started with Reirden spending five minutes after every practice with Engelland on skating drills, and while Engelland acknowledged he probably didn’t get any faster, just the perception that he was working on it helped.
Reirden typically would meet with a defenseman to go over video of his shifts every five to seven games if things were going well. If they weren’t, he would back off to avoid overwhelming the player with information. If a blue-liner was struggling and Reirden needed to build him up, he did it through ice time and assignments in games, sheltering him at first before gradually removing the training wheels. With modern hockey coaching heavy on systems and playing within the team structure, Reirden also was mindful of developing individual skill.
“His attention to detail on stick positioning or something, it’s a finer thing, and it seems like a little thing, but it really becomes a big deal,” said New Jersey Devils Coach John Hynes, who coached with Reirden at Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. “Whether it’s through video or practices or communicating with guys not only why it’s important but how they can do a better job with it — he stays on those details, which is I think why he’s able to help players improve because the small things usually make a big difference.”
Reirden got his first taste of the head coach’s role when Bylsma was promoted to coach the Penguins in 2009, winning the Stanley Cup that season. Reirden took over in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton for the rest of the season and then handled 2009-10. The next year, he joined Bylsma’s staff in Pittsburgh, primarily working with the defensemen and the power play. Four seasons later, after the Penguins dismissed Bylsma, Reirden took the same role under Trotz in Washington.
Bylsma said he appreciated how excited Reirden would get on the bench to see a defenseman break up an odd-man rush or execute a breakout. Former Capitals blue-liner Karl Alzner, now with Montreal, said Reirden would jot down notes or recording during team meetings.
“It was just things that you wouldn’t really expect,” Alzner said. “You know, it’s hockey, and people are like, ‘Either you got it, or you don’t got it.’ He was always working to get more, and it was so impressive to me. It showed whenever he did pre-scouts or he was trying to teach us something. It was like: ‘Holy smokes. I never even thought about it that way, but now I’m going to.’ ”
Alzner often wondered what Reirden would be like as an NHL head coach, especially the more his name came up as a candidate. He either fell short, or the timing wasn’t right. Some teams wanted more experience, so Reirden was passed over.
On Friday afternoon, just hours before his promotion with Washington, Reirden walked alongside the team’s practice rink, donning a Capitals pullover and slacks in a change from the red windbreaker suits and baseball cap he typically wears around the building. He had texted his father the night before that a deal was essentially done. Dave Reirden knew from experience that it would happen for his son eventually.
“You couldn’t worry about it, because he was just committed,” he said. “The more people that said no, the harder he worked.”
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