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Arny’s Army finds success under rookie coach

by Jen Sharpe || AHL On The Beat Archive

Through the summer and into September, hockey clubs from Vancouver to Vienna add new names and numbers to their rosters in an attempt to build a perfect line, team, and season. For the past three seasons in Manitoba, the summer shuffle has involved more than finding the right men to play for the team but also the right man to guide it.

For the third straight season, the Manitoba Moose set sail with a new head coach at the helm in 2006-07, and for the third straight season, the club improved on the previous season’s point total and progressed past the first round of the Calder Cup Playoffs.

Led by rookie head coach Scott Arniel, the current edition of the Manitoba Moose suffered growing pains in the first few months of the season but has since developed into a prime contender in the Calder Cup race. Setting new standards for penalty killing, consecutive home wins, and victories at the MTS Centre, the 06-07 Moose squad finished atop the North Division standings and, more recently, advanced to the North Division Final after defeating the Grand Rapids Griffins in seven games in the first round of the postseason.

Adjusting to call-ups and injuries, capitalizing on wins, and learning from mistakes is something that defined the Moose organization this season, both on the ice, behind the bench, and in the locker room. According to Arniel, the learning curve continues into the post-season.

“My playoff experience is only as a player or as an assistant coach,” Arniel said, “so being a head coach, every day is a challenge and every day I have to learn on the job. And it’s much like the season, the 80 games: you learn as you go.”

The fifth head coach in the Moose franchise’s 11-year history, Arniel was named to the position July 5, 2006, after former coach Alain Vigneault was promoted to bench boss of the Vancouver Canucks. Arniel has a long hockey history in Manitoba: drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in 1981, the Kingston, Ont., native played with the Jets from 1981-86 and returned to Manitoba a decade later to play three seasons with the Moose from 1996-99. Arniel retired from pro hockey in 1999 and assumed the position of Moose assistant coach from 2000-02 before spending four seasons as assistant coach of the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres.

But knowing the city and sport doesn’t secure a successful coaching season, and Arniel is the first to admit the transition from NHL assistant coach to AHL head coach was challenging.

“The first month, I wasn’t 100% sure of our players and personnel and how everybody played,” Arniel said. “Brad (Berry, Moose assistant coach) and I talked. We knew we had lots of injuries, a lot of key players out of our lineup. We knew that we were going to get better once the Canucks got healthy and once we got healthy, and that we would both be teams that are tough to play against.

“Really, that’s what it came down to,” he said. “It got into the end of November, the first of December, and we started to finally get some cohesiveness with our defensemen and our forward lines playing together. That kind of settles you back in. You worry and you panic a little bit at times, and you get frustrated, but that’s all part of coaching. That’s why it’s 80 games and things can change like they did. It dramatically changed in the second half.”

Call it getting comfortable or starting to click, but the Manitoba Moose headed into this season’s playoffs on a roll. With a record of 28-10-2-1 since the start of the New Year – including an 18-game stretch in February and March with only one loss – the Moose wasted no time clinching home-ice advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs.

Was Arniel expecting the season to play out as it did? No, but that’s not to say he wasn’t hoping for the best.

“Obviously, I’m really glad the way the year went,” he says. “When it comes to numbers – the 102 points and 45 wins – I didn’t put any numbers down. It was about being competitive; it was about being good and one of the top teams in our division.

“As the year went on, our expectations rose higher and higher as a group. We demanded a little more of each other and of ourselves.”

Although his team continues to focus on advancing through the playoffs, Arniel has an eye on next season’s Moose squad and the components the Canucks could potentially provide.

“The Canucks, they’ve got some really good talent. From the affiliation side of things, I really like the players, the youth, and the speed and skill that are coming. When you mix that in with some of our veterans that are here this year and coming back next year, that’s really exciting for me.

“Hopefully with great success through these playoffs, we’ll build towards more excitement next year,” he adds. “I know we’ve got a really good fan base here and they continue to help that grow.”