by Alan Fuehring | AHL On The Beat
As a player, if Matt Carkner saw a hit he didn’t like on the ice, he’d be the first guy to go over and stand behind his teammate.
He knows that’s not a reality now that he’s an assistant coach for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers, but those protective instincts are hard to turn off.
“When I see a dirty hit these days, I throw my imaginary gloves up in the air,” Carkner joked.
If he’s feeling that on the inside, he tries to not let it show on the outside. It’s head coach Brent Thompson’s job to dictate the emotion of the game, so Carkner keeps his cool, part of the adjustment for a former player in his first year behind the bench.
“It’s a little different from what I thought it would be,” Carkner said. “There’s a lot more that goes into coaching than players think. They think there’s nothing to it, but there’s a lot of work, a lot of prep, and a lot of knowledge in the office here.”
Carkner is handling analytics, video prep, doing individual work with players, and is providing support on the defensive side: d-zone, penalty kill, etc. He spent last season getting his feet wet as a first-year coach who watched games from the press box as the “eye in the sky” for Thompson and fellow assistant coach Eric Boguniecki.
On the bench he’s in players’ ears, but the majority of Carkner’s responsibilities come postgame and during practices. He spends up to three hours reviewing video and tagging chances after games, which makes for exhausting three-in-three weekend sets, especially when the team is traveling.
“We go over the systems and I’ll go over individual skills with them, what they’re doing wrong, what they’re doing right on the ice, stick position,” Carkner said.
But his focus doesn’t just stay on the X’s and O’s. The 37-year-old also manages team dinners on the road, planning visits to some of his favorite spots like Tournedos Steakhouse in Rochester and Number 5 in Binghamton.
Carkner played 237 games in the NHL with New York Islanders, Ottawa Senators and a single game – his NHL debut – with the San Jose Sharks. He spent the final two seasons of his playing career with the Sounds Tigers, though those seasons were marred by injury and limited him to 60 games.
As much as it hurt to not be on the ice, he enjoyed watching from above and guiding the young defensemen on the start of their pro journeys. That’s when it dawned on him that there was a life in hockey after being a player.
“If you can’t play, you want to stay involved in the game,” Carkner said. “It’s just fun to play hockey and to prepare and do all of those things. To be a part of it as a coach is different, but it’s the closest thing to playing, that’s for sure.”
Thompson wasn’t surprised that Carkner made the jump after spending the better part of four years with him in the NHL and AHL.
“The years with me you could always see him around the coach’s room, sniffing around what he could do,” Thompson said. “When you’re a captain it’s kind of a progression into coaching because you’re kind of a leader, he was a leader with us that last year he didn’t play a lot due to injury and morphed into his role.”
Carkner isn’t far removed from actually playing for the Sound Tigers, so he’s played with some of the guys he’s now coaching, like team captain Ben Holmstrom and defenseman Kyle Burroughs. As the second assistant he usually gets to play the good cop and acts as someone for younger players to lean on, but part of being a coach is holding players accountable, even with guys he has a previous relationship with.
“There’s points where you need to walk that line and he walks it pretty well,” Burroughs said. “He’s happy-go-lucky and keeps things light and knows how to break that clipboard if he needs to. He knows how if he has to say something to the guys, he knows when.”
“They call me, well I can’t say it, but they call me a different name than Carks now,” Carkner joked. “I haven’t changed too much. I’m still a pretty good guy. I’m the second assistant coach so I have that easy job to be friendly with the players and make them feel good and kind of laugh and keep the mood light.”
It’s hard to replace the feeling of contributing on the ice, but seeing the players he’s coaching have success is a different kind of rewarding, like watching defenseman Sebastian Aho earn his first recall and score his first NHL goal.
“I was just kind of rooting him on the couch with the family at home and when he put that puck in it was definitely a gratifying feeling and I was so excited for him,” Carkner said. “It’s a thrill of a lifetime for a player to score his first NHL goal and I got that same kind of feeling I did when I was in the game, so that was definitely my first moment of feeling really happy for a player who was reaching his goals.”
Carkner’s only getting started behind the bench, but he’s settling in. The first game felt like walking into a new world; figuring out how much to talk, when to talk, or even what to do with his hands was all new. But a half season in he feels like he’s getting the hang of it.
“First season behind the bench as a full-time coach has been fun,” Carkner said. “And it’s been a learning experience from Thommer and Bogey, they’ve been great in helping me develop as a coach and guiding me in the right direction.”