After 32 years, a well-deserved call-up for Agnew

Photo: Scott Paulus

📝 by Jason Karnosky | AHL On The Beat

In the top development hockey league in the world there are few constants.

For the Milwaukee Admirals, Doug Agnew was one of those constants.

The team’s long-time athletic trainer played a big role in a successful American Hockey League franchise during his 32 years in Milwaukee. The Admirals missed the postseason just three times, and his career spanned the time from when the team played in the International Hockey League (IHL), through the team’s mid-2000’s AHL glory years, and on to a prolonged run of winning squads during the 2010’s.

This past offseason, when time finally came for Agnew to make a dream come true and work full-time in the National Hockey League with the Nashville Predators, it was something he could not pass up.

“I had been in Milwaukee for so long, but working in the NHL was something that I had always dreamed of and I was getting to the age where I didn’t think it was going to happen,” said Agnew, who recently surpassed the 2,500 professional game mark as a trainer. “I hesitated a little bit about moving up because I had everything just clicking in Milwaukee. But when an opportunity comes to work in the NHL you have to take it.”

Agnew, a Nelson, B.C., native, always enjoyed his time living and working in the Cream City. He raised a family in Milwaukee while assisting countless players move on to NHL success. This summer the time was right for Agnew to join those players in the NHL full-time.

“He’s one of the foundations of our organization,” Predators assistant general manager and Admirals GM Scott Nichol said. “When you think of the Milwaukee Admirals, you always think of Dougie because he did everything for the team. He’s very personable and very professional, but also served as a mentor. He’s been a father figure and a voice of reason for [countless] players.”

Talented future NHL’ers like Tony Hrkac, Ronnie Stern, Kimmo Timonen, Ryan Suter, Filip Forsberg, Ryan Ellis and Viktor Arvidsson all spent time working with Agnew in Milwaukee, and appreciated his professionalism and his jack of all trades talents as a trainer.

“Some of the guys that came into Milwaukee, like Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne, and Roman Josi, it was cool to see them early on their careers,” Agnew said. “Those guys were good back then, and now they’ve become even better in the NHL. It is impressive to watch just how good all of these guys are up close.”

Despite all of his success in Milwaukee, Agnew always aspired to work in the NHL. Predators assistant general manager and director of hockey operations Brian Poile made the decision to bring Agnew up to Nashville due to several factors: The Predators were familiar with Agnew from all of his years helping the squad during the preseason and playoffs, they knew of his terrific long-time work with the organization’s prospects, and then during the 2020-21 pandemic year with Milwaukee sitting out, Agnew spent a full season in the Music City working alongside Nashville’s training staff.

Therefore, it was a natural thing for the Predators to bring Agnew into the fold on a permanent basis.

“We all knew how valuable Dougie was because he already had relationships with many of our players,” Nichol said. “Having someone in that kind of position who is familiar to your guys is a really good thing because it’s a hard grind in the NHL and AHL. Promoting him was the right thing to do, and this summer was the right time. The only hesitancy Doug had was due to the fact that he loved Milwaukee. But he’s fit in great with our staff up here.”

For long-time Admirals player and assistant coach Scott Ford, Agnew’s promotion was long overdue.

“Doug’s been a phenomenal trainer for our organization,” said Ford, who is now in his 12th season with the Admirals. “He’s very familiar with our players and is someone you can always trust. He’s consistently there for the team, and not just for injuries. He takes care of the guys in a lot of different ways. Here in Milwaukee he’s definitely been missed, but we were pumped for him to get called up to Nashville.”

Much like when a top prospect leaves Milwaukee, Agnew’s departure impacted the Admirals. The team is still in good hands as far as its current training staff, but there is a void without him around, especially considering that Agnew has been a part of Milwaukee’s professional hockey franchise dating back to 1989.

At that time the Admirals were affiliated with the NHL’s up-and-coming Vancouver Canucks. It was a couple of famed NHL executives working in Vancouver — general manager Pat Quinn and assistant GM Brian Burke — who hired Agnew for the Admirals.

“I started working in Victoria, British Columbia, in the Western Hockey League,” Agnew said. “I told my wife Melanie to just give me five years to see if it is goes anywhere. I sort of trained with Brian O’Neill in Victoria, who could fix just about anything, and I learned a lot just from watching him. He and his son Pat recommended me to the Canucks organization, and then I got a call from the legendary Pat Quinn. I had a meeting with him and Brian Burke, who asked if I wanted the job.”

Milwaukee’s Vancouver affiliation ended in 1993, just one year before the Canucks made a fabled run to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final. However, Agnew stayed on with the Admirals.

When the Predators joined the NHL as an expansion team in 1998, the new franchise added the Admirals as their top development affiliate, a relationship that continues to this day.

Agnew was on the bench in 2004 when Milwaukee captured the Calder Cup, and on the same bench two years later when the Admirals came just two wins short of a second crown.

“The year we won the title was amazing, and we had such good teams during that stretch of the 2000’s,” Agnew recalled.

Ford was a bit of a professional journeyman prior to his time in Milwaukee, but like Agnew he found a home in the city with the Admirals. The Fort St. John, B.C., native came to appreciate the trainer right away.

“Doug’s been there for a lot of AHL’ers and NHL’ers over the years, and he’s certainly appreciated by our organization,” said Ford, who joined the Admirals in 2008. “Over the years in Milwaukee he’s taught me a lot, and listened to me a lot. I would love to be a fly on the wall in the training rooms over the years and hear the conversations he’s had with a lot of our players. There are just so many stories he could tell, hockey-related and otherwise.”

Agnew continued with Admirals throughout the 2010’s, as the Predators rose to their highest point of success as an organization. With Milwaukee, Agnew worked directly with 18 of the 25 players who were on the Nashville squad that reached the Stanley Cup Final in the spring of 2017.

That included a young Kevin Fiala, the current Minnesota Wild star who came to Milwaukee in 2015 as a talented 18-year-old prospect from Switzerland.

“I remember one time that Kevin Fiala needed some succors over his eyebrow, and he had never had stitches before that point,” said Agnew. “He was kind of scared of getting them, and I had to talk him through it. After it was done he ran to the mirror to take a look at it, and then he started to take his stuff off. Kevin didn’t know he could go back and play, but when I told him that he could he got really excited. He went charging back out and played a whale of game after that.”

On Nashville’s current roster, at least 12 players are familiar with Agnew from time spent together in Milwaukee. Most of the others knew him from time spent together during the pre- and postseasons, and during last year’s pandemic season.

“There have been so many players I’ve worked with and helped over the years,” Agnew said. “It was fun to see to guys mature and develop into professionals, and for me I’m kind of a proud father when I see guys move on to the NHL and have success. It is very rewarding because you know you played at least a small role in that success and in that development.”

For the Predators, they are thrilled to have Agnew be a part of their squad. Certainly, Nichol knows what a valuable role Agnew’s playing for the organization now, and for many years prior.

“It is a really good medical team that we have in Nashville, but head trainer Kevin Morley leans on Dougie a lot,” Nichol said. “For me I just like the way that he’s really calm and knows the game really well. He’s a little bit old-school in the way that he doesn’t go over to a player and make a big deal about them being down right away. He’s usually lets a kid look around and see that if no one is helping them, maybe they should get up and skate to bench. Dougie’s always there waiting for them with a little smirk on his face.”