By Aaron Cheris | AHL On The Beat Archive
Rick Kowalsky is a hockey lifer. Like most young Canadian boys, he was on the ice as soon as he could move on his own two feet. Four decades later, Kowalsky still loves the game, and is passing on his knowledge to the next generation of Devils.
“Back in the 70s, growing up in small town Canada, that’s what you did. You played hockey,” he said.
Kowalsky played from that early age and soon found himself making a career out of it, even after suffering through the disappointment of rooting for the Maple Leafs as a youngster.
“I had a lot of tough times cheering for the Leafs,” Kowalsky said. “The Canadiens probably would have been a better choice, but the Leafs were on every Saturday night in my house.”
At 21, Kowalsky turned pro after four years at the junior level. For more than a decade, he bounced between the American Hockey League and East Coast Hockey League, playing nearly every role a player could fit in.
Early in his career, Kowalsky recalls being used mainly as a fourth line penalty killer that had to earn tough ice time. Toward the end of his career in the ECHL, he became one of the league’s top scorers. Playing different roles helped Kowalksy learn the game from different perspectives; a quality he said helped him become a good coach.
“That helped me as a coach, because I’ve been that role player, the extra forward at times, and understand how the position and the mentality of those players,” he said. “I’ve also been a guy that’s been relied on to score and expected to produce offensively. It helps me understand the positions of the guys, especially from a top six forward to a bottom six forward.”
Kowalsky’s coaching career started immediately after his playing career ended. In his final season as a player, Kowalsky led the Trenton Titans to a Kelly Cup victory. Naturally, he didn’t want to leave the game.
“I always liked the x’s and o’s. I was a student of the game. I never just went through practice just to get through it. I was trying to get better and I always understood. That’s certainly what led me to coaching.”
Without even coaching a game, Kowalsky went directly to the AHL as an assistant with the Norfolk Admirals. After just one season there, he went back to Trenton as the head coach, and would remain there for four more seasons.
When the Devils relocated their AHL affiliate to Albany in 2010, Kowalksy was named the first head coach in Albany Devils history, and he’s held the position ever since.
Right now, the Devils are red-hot this season, sitting second in the Eastern Conference with 82 points and the playoffs approaching.
Kowalsky said this current Devils team is the best one he’s ever coached, and the contributions are coming from everywhere.
“We’re certainly more skilled when you look at the players that have come through here,” Kowalsky said. “This is the largest number of young players we’ve had come in and really have an impact on our success.”
One of those youngsters, Matt Lorito, is navigating through the ups and downs of the pro game under Kowalsky’s watch.
“He’s one of the smarter coaches I’ve had,” said Lorito, an Ivy League graduate. “I think he’s definitely a player’s coach for sure. He’s been great for me and the way he works for the younger guys has been good.”
Kowalsky’s current captain, Rod Pelley, agrees with his younger teammate’s assessment.
“He’s a players’ coach,” Pelley said. “He lets the players play the game and use their creativity. In my opinion, he’s become a top coach in this league and in my personal opinion ready for the next level.”
Over time, Kowalsky has had to change his coaching style to adapt to a new generation of players, and it is something he said he would need to keep improving.
“I think it’s a little bit of old and new. I’m demanding and hard when I have to be,” Kowalsky said of his style. “I demand that guys play as a team. They want to be a hard team to play against. That’s something that I certainly demand and expect out of my teams.”
Kowalsky’s current squad has been tough to play against, and it may only get tougher. If the New Jersey Devils don’t make the NHL playoffs, many players may be loaned to Albany for a Calder Cup run.
“It can give us an exceptional amount of depth from top to bottom,” he said. “The message being consistent is what’s being said in New Jersey is being said here and vise versa.” Kowalsky never made it to the NHL as a player, and he is hopeful that chance could come in the future. But for now, he is focused on the job at hand.
“Is my goal to coach in the NHL? No question,” he said. “But I’m really excited about the new chapter with this group.”