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The conversation that convinced Todd Reirden his hockey future was behind the bench

The conversation that convinced Todd Reirden his hockey future was behind the bench

In the fall of 2004, Todd Reirden had a conversation that would change the course of his hockey career.

Reirden’s first season with the Houston Aeros of the AHL was not going the way he had hoped. A three-inch tear in his oblique meant that not only could he not play, but he could not practice or skate. He could not do much in the way of physical activity for the next six weeks other than let the injury heal.

That’s when Houston head coach Todd McLellan called Reirden into his office.

“There was a couple different conversations where we talked about leadership and the role that I was going to have on the team and where he was going to put me in the locker room and how he was going to utilize me as an extension of the coaching staff and that's what good leaders and captains or assistant captains of the team do,” Reirden said. “At the time, I really hadn't connected the dots on where he was going with it.”

This conversation, however, was different.

McLellan asked Reirden to look at video and help out the coaching staff develop the players. What had only previously been hinted at was suddenly coming into focus for Reirden. He, a player, was being asked to take on more of a coaching role with the team.

“He was still a player,” McLellan said. “We’re probably pushing him out of a player position and into a coaching spot.”

“I guess at that point I probably should have stopped playing hockey,” Reirden said. “Once a coach tells you that, it’s maybe a good time to start thinking about being a coach.”

Things had not come easy for Reirden over the course of his playing career. For every star NHL player like an Alex Ovechkin or a Nicklas Backstrom, there are several more player like Reirden who have to claw their way from the bottom all the way up just for a chance to reach the NHL. Once they get there, their career at the highest level is brief and over before most players may realize it.

Reirden climbed the ladder playing in the ECHL, AHL and IHL all before he finally got an opportunity to play in the NHL with the Edmonton Oilers. Reirden career saw him play for Edmonton, St. Louis, Atlanta and finally Phoenix.

The 2004-05 lockout came at the wrong time for Reirden who was at the tail-end of his NHL career, though he had not yet realized it. After playing in only seven games for the Phoenix Coyotes the year before, a 33-year-old Reirden signed with the Minnesota Wild and was sent to the AHL during the lockout.

While Reirden was hoping to make it back to the NHL, McLellan had planned for Reirden to stay and had pushed the organization to sign him.

“A lot of the American League teams, International League teams didn't want to have players like myself there because all they were doing was blocking development of young players,” Reirden said. ‘[McLellan] felt the value of having someone like myself around to be able to just serve as a role model in terms of character in terms of how hard I worked on the ice, off the ice.”

But it went beyond just being a role model or an on-ice leader.

Once Reirden joined the team, McLellan saw the way Reirden understood the game and the way he communicated with other players. He saw coaching potential in Reirden and decided that his true value was not on the blue line as a defenseman, but as an extension of the coaching staff.

“There are some great instinctive players that are hall of famers that might not be real good coaches because they might not be able to get their point across or have the necessary explanation technique,” McLellan said, “Where there’s some others -- and often they’re grinders that have to rely on hockey IQ and the ability to share thoughts and ideas and poke and prod -- that end up being good coaches.”

At first, Reirden helped with video. The team did not have a video coach so Reirden would help cut video and watch with the team and players. Reirden focused primarily on helping the younger players.

“You could tell he loved the game,” said former teammate, Matt Foy, who was 21 years old during his season with Reirden. “He was a leader, but he had fun with it. He was an easy guy to talk to, very easy player to talk to. Loved yapping guys, telling them different stories and stuff. He was almost like a big brother at that time to me.”

“He wasn't one of those hard veterans who would lean on you and expect you to do something that you're not capable of doing. He was really, really supportive and a friend.”

After a while, Reirden’s role on the team began to grow.

“Eventually [McLellan] started bouncing things off me,” Reirden said. “I think he also learned and grew a little bit himself because he would ask me things. What do you think I should say to the players today? How did that come across, that meeting? That's how it started with him was simple questions like that where he was getting a pulse of the room through me and trusted that what he said stayed between he and I.

“I started then to read off of him and when I saw something that maybe he didn't ask me about, I would come to him and say I think this would have been the time where you could be a little firmer on the team. Right now, the guys are uptight a little bit, maybe if you could interject something different, a different sort of meeting today that would come at things from a different angle. He took what I said to heart and it was, I think, a really good working relationship between an older veteran player and a young, up-and-coming coach.”

But eventually, injuries heal and Reirden was back on the ice. Suddenly the extension of the coaching staff had to suit up with his teammates again. Eventually, Reirden had to go back into the locker room, a sacred place among hockey teams where what is said among teammates stays among teammates and he still had to be accepted as a member of the team.

“It was something where I wanted to help [my teammates],” Reirden said, “But I also wanted to still be a player so to be able to combine that player-coach type of role, not that I was every listed as that by any means, but I think that's how some of my teammates felt about me so I wanted them to still have trust that we could still talk about things that they knew weren't going to necessarily get back to the head coach but they could still open up to me. So it was a fine line I think that I had to go through there.”

“He was more of a player than he was a coach in my eyes,” Foy said. “It's not like I'd watch what I'd say around Todd because he'd go rat me out to the coach. He was a friend. I don't think any of us looked on him as like oh, we've got to watch what we say. He was more of our teammate.”

Reirden helped the Aeros improve by 12 wins and 18 points in the 2004-05 season. The season ended in disappointment as Houston was eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, but more importantly for Reirden, it completely changed the trajectory of his career. Though he could not bring himself to quit playing just yet, he knew his future in hockey was behind the bench.

“Once I got over the fact of when someone's telling you that you're not maybe as good a player as you may have thought you were at that time,” Reirden said, “It was actually a great transition into helping me understand the next phase of my life and how I could use this game that's been amazing to myself and my family and allowed us so many amazing experiences and opportunities to how I could possibly continue working in the game of hockey.”

Reirden got his first official coaching job in 2007 when he was hired as an assistant coach at his alma mater Bowling Green State University. Just as he did as a player, Reirden climbed the ranks to the NHL. He started as an assistant in college, became an assistant in the AHL for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and took over as head coach when Dan Bylsma was promoted to be the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. In 2010, Bylsma added Reirden to his staff in the NHL and was hired by the Caps in 2014 where he helped lead the team to its first Stanley Cup in 2018 and is now the head coach.

“He understood the time that it was going to take daily, monthly, yearly to climb the ladder and he was willing to stick it out,” McLellan said. “There’s not many former players that are willing to do that. Give him credit.”

As a coach, Reirden is known for his ability to communicate with players and help each one with a specific, individual development plan. He credits the lessons he learned in Houston for getting him this far and specifically, one conversation in particular for starting his coaching career.

“Every day is a chance for me to grow and get better and get used to responsibilities as a head coach,” Reirden said. “So it's been a lot of fun and definitely a challenge, but something I love and wouldn't trade places with anybody in the world for.”

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'That’s what we need to move forward': John Carlson proud of youth hockey players for defending teammate from racist comments

'That’s what we need to move forward': John Carlson proud of youth hockey players for defending teammate from racist comments

WASHINGTON – Divyne Apollon II entered the Capitals locker room and a smile instantly creased his face. 
 
A hockey dressing room is no strange place to Divyne, a 13-year-old who plays travel hockey for the Metro Maple Leafs. He’s played the sport since he was eight. But this was different for the eighth grader from Maryland.  
 
Two weeks after one of the lowest moments of his life, when an opposing team from the Philadelphia area made repeated racial taunts at Divyne, the only African-American player on the Maple Leafs, during a Jan. 3 game, he was suddenly among his heroes. 
 
Washington defenseman John Carlson read about what Divyne endured and he and teammate Devante Smith-Pelly invited the Maple Leafs to Monday’s game against the St. Louis Blues at Capital One Arena.  
 
It was a small gesture to a group of young teens forced to deal with a world that can be cruel, unwelcoming. The Maple Leafs were so outraged by the derisive words hurled at Divyne during that game that they fought back physically. It led to his suspension from the tournament before the adults figured out what had sparked the fight. 
 
“By doing what you did, you were standing up for each other, standing up for yourselves. That’s what we need to move forward,” Carlson told the Maple Leafs in the locker room after the game. “That’s important. That’s a good message to send everyone. And you guys are just kids, but you made things right.”
 
For Smith-Pelly, the incident comes as no surprise. Just last February during a Capitals game in Chicago a fan yelled at him to go back to playing basketball. There is no escape from racism even at the NHL level. It is something African American and African Canadian players learn to deal with playing hockey growing up.  
 
“I don’t want to say move on from it,” Carlson said. “But just keep being yourselves because I know me and [Smith-Pelly] and everyone around the city was not very happy to hear what happened, felt terrible about it. We just wanted to show our appreciation to you guys and thank you.”
  
Divyne and his teammates got to sit in section 225 to watch the Capitals’ 4-1 loss to St. Louis and were on the glass for an up close view of warm-ups before the game. Afterward they were ushered into the locker room and chatted with Carlson and Smith-Pelly, but also Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby, among others. 
 
The Maple Leafs stared in wonder at the familiar nameplates above the lockers most fans never get to see. There was Tom Wilson and T.J. Oshie’s stalls. Brooks Orpik stopped by to say hello and so did Jakub Vrana and Madison Bowey, another African Canadian who grew up in Winnipeg and dealt with the same taunts.  
 
The kids who tried to hurt Divyne with racist insults, who tried to make it clear that he didn’t belong on the ice, didn’t have the effect they intended. They galvanized a team and a community instead.  
 
“Well I guess they’re probably crying at home right now because they didn’t get to meet Ovechkin,” Divyne said.
 
Ovechkin handed Divyne one of his personal sticks. So did Smith-Pelly and Carlson. Braden Holtby gave him a goalie stick, but Divyne gave that one to Maple Leafs goalie Alex Auchincloss. He’s a goalie, too, and Holtby is his favorite player. Auchincloss wouldn’t let anyone touch that keepsake. The rest of the team got to take pictures with players, including selfies, and had them sign autographs. 
 
“At first it was really bad, but then it turned into some big movement, so people realize that it’s not OK to make fun of people and to treat everybody the way you wanted to be treated,” Maple Leafs forward Sam Abramson, 13, said. “Because he’s my teammate and you’ve got to stand up for your teammates.”
 
Divyne admitted the media coverage was becoming overwhelming. But the support he and his family have received from the Maple Leafs and the travel hockey community in Odenton, Md., where the team is based at Piney Orchard Ice Arena, has been overwhelming, too. 
 
One of the team moms, Tammi Lynch, created a logo in the aftermath of the incident: The word ‘racism” in a circle with a hockey stick serving as the slash mark through it. Divyne Apollon I, Divyne’s father, wore a t-shirt with the logo in the Caps locker room after the game. The players wore a version of the logo taped to their equipment in the aftermath of the Jan. 3 game. 
 
“You’d think that you wouldn’t have to deal with that these days, but it’s obviously still present,” Carlson said. “Hopefully this great story about the team standing up for each other - and how Divyne stood up for himself - is a good step forward and shows some people the real way to act and how to love each other.”

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Power play shows signs of life, but Capitals still sing the blues vs. St. Louis

Power play shows signs of life, but Capitals still sing the blues vs. St. Louis

WASHINGTON – Just 11 days after the Capitals suffered an ugly loss in St. Louis, they fell victim to the Blues yet again, this time in Washington. The Caps fell Monday to the Blues 4-1 as St. Louis took control thanks to a three-goal second period and never looked back.

This marks the first three-game win streak all season for the Blues. Washington, meanwhile, will need to recover quickly with as they have a Tuesday date in Nashville against the Predators.

Here are five reasons Washington lost on Monday.

Five minutes in the second period

The Caps actually held a 1-0 lead at the end of the first. Alex Ovechkin had scored from the office on the power play so Washington must have been feeling pretty good heading into the middle frame. The game quickly turned, however, as the Blues tallied three goals over the course of an early five-minute stretch that completely turned the game on its head.

At 3:18 into the period, Ivan Barbashev made it 1-1. Less than two minutes later, Vince Dunn gave St. Louis the lead. At the eight minute mark, David Perron delivered the knockout punch to make it 3-1.

From that point on the Blue were in complete control and had a number of high-danger opportunities. The score could easily have been a lot worse than 3-1 by the end of the second.

A rough shift for John Carlson

St. Louis’ first goal came on a shift Carlson would like to forget. With the puck on his stick, he carried the puck into the neutral zone up the right side. Facing no pressure, he attempted a cross-ice stretch pass that resulted in a neutral zone turnover. As the team recovered and dropped back to set up the defense, Carlson went behind the net to retrieve the puck and completely whiffed on it. The puck ended up on the stick of Ivan Barbashev who jammed it through a very loose reverse-VH that Pheonix Copley was playing against the post.

A crazy bounce

The Blues took a 2-1 lead thanks to a Vince Dunn goal, but he was not the last player to touch that puck. In fact, he has not one of the last two players to touch the puck.

Dmitry Orlov managed to get his stick in front of Dunn just as he shot the puck for the block. The puck was headed far wide of the net, but then took a second deflection off the gut of Nicklas Backstrom knocked on net and through Copley.

Heading in the wrong direction

The Caps got caught puck watching on the third goal. Both Orlov and Matt Niskanen collapsed on the left corner to pressure Ryan O’Reilly who chipped the puck back. Everyone in red evidently thought the puck was headed out of the zone. Not only were four of Washington’s players caught on the left side of the ice, all five of the team’s players was skating forward. When Dunn got the puck, he fired a quick cross-ice backhander that connected with David Perron.

While everyone was headed out of the zone, Perron was headed in the opposite direction and easily got behind the defense thanks to the pass from Dunn. After a quick deke, he roofed a backhander past Copley for the knockout punch.

A delay of game

A two-goal deficit heading into the third period against St. Louis, a team Ovechkin has feasted on over the years, hardly seems insurmountable. It proved to be, however, when Ovechkin was called midway through the third for delay of game as he sent the puck out of the ice. Less than one minute later, Vladimir Tarasenko took advantage as he netted the power play goal. That goal erased any possible doubt as to the game's outcome.

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