Coaches gearing up for All-Star experience

Patrick Williams, Features Writer

Coaches love to talk hockey, managing players, and life.

Some of the AHL’s best bench talent will be in San Jose for the 2024 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Tech CU this Sunday and Monday. Each coach received an invitation to the event for having the best record in his respective division at the end of play on Dec. 31.

Atlantic Division: Todd Nelson – Hershey Bears
Having led the Bears to the AHL’s best record so far, the 54-year-old Nelson will become the first person ever to coach in four AHL All-Star events (2012, 2017, and 2023). Last season he won the Calder Cup for the second time as a head coach, adding another ring in addition to the ones he earned as a head coach with Grand Rapids in 2017, as an assistant with Chicago in 2008, and as a player with Portland in 1994. His 388 career regular-season wins in the AHL tie him for eighth place all-time.

North Division: Trent Vogelhuber – Cleveland Monsters
The youngest head coach currently in the AHL, the 35-year-old Vogelhuber will go to the AHL All-Star Classic for the first time. The Ohio native and one-time Columbus Blue Jackets draft pick played parts of seven AHL seasons and won the Calder Cup with the Monsters in 2016.

Central Division: Neil Graham – Texas Stars
Graham returns to the AHL All-Star Classic for the second year in a row. The 38-year-old took over as the team’s head coach Dec. 10, 2019, and led the Stars to the Central Division title last season.

Pacific Division: Trent Cull – Calgary Wranglers
The 50-year-old Cull returned to the AHL with the Wranglers after spending part of last season as an assistant coach with the Vancouver Canucks. Before that post, he spent five seasons as an AHL head coach leading that organization’s AHL affiliates in Utica and Abbotsford. He also worked as an assistant for eight seasons with Syracuse. A hard-nosed defenseman during his playing days, he played 435 AHL games. This is his first trip to the AHL All-Star Classic.

Each head coach spoke with and shared thoughts on a variety of issues and coaching philosophies.

Nelson on his second-half priorities
“Just more details and execution. Trying to be competitive every night.

“You look at the standings and where we’re at, we have a pretty good cushion, so it’s our job as a coaching staff to try to keep them hungry. And I think just managing the personnel because when we get healthy there will be good players that are sitting out. I think that’s going to be the toughest thing for us as a coaching staff.”

Nelson on his avoiding a Calder Cup hangover
“It’s about being a team in the room first.

“Any team that’s close together, they do well on the ice. I think we just grew as a group and started finding ourselves. We’re finding ways to win. That’s a sign of good character and leadership group.”

Vogelhuber on what he expects from his first AHL All-Star Classic
“Oh, I think it’ll be fun. I think any time you get the hockey community together in something like that, it’s a little more relaxed and you tend to get to know people more than when you cross paths in the midst of a season when you’re on the road.

“I’m just looking forward to getting to know some new people. For me, just being a young coach, I’m looking forward to talking to the other guys. Just bounce ideas off them. I’m just looking forward to being there soaking in the environment and enjoying the people that are there.”

Vogelhuber on having three players (Jake Christiansen, Trey Fix-Wolansky, and Jet Greaves) as part of the Cleveland contingent
“It’s just another representation of the group as a whole that they’ve done it the right way for the majority of the season here. It’s great for those three individuals. They deserve it.”

Vogelhuber on the culture that he has tried to instill in Cleveland as a head coach
“You cannot be outworked, but it also needs to be fun. You’re never going to be good at anything if you don’t love doing it.”

“I love being at the rink with our group. I love working hard, and I love pushing people to work hard. But that’s fun for me. Working hard and pushing yourself is fun, and pushing each other is fun. So, for me that’s the culture, a blend of nose-down, this is business, and we’re working, but that should be fun while we’re doing it. I love energy, enjoying a hard practice and getting after it with each other, and then you hoot and holler afterwards in the locker room. This is the best job in the world for these guys that they should enjoy every minute of it because it doesn’t last that long so we talk about that all the time.

“Beyond that, you have to have a winner’s mindset. And that’s not accepting anything else than your best and not accepting anything else than your teammates’ best. Consistency for young players is an issue. We’ve seen their best. Halfway through the year, I’ve seen every one of our players’ best, and I’ve seen our team play to our best. Now it’s demanding that all the time. The expectation to win is powerful, and the belief in yourself to do so is something that I talk a lot about. You should know that if you’re doing your job, you are pushing yourself, which pushes others that you can any night. Just establishing belief in that is half the battle, and a confident group can do a lot of good things.”

Graham on going to the AHL All-Star Classic for the first time last season
“I really wanted to go into it and soak in the experience.

“I thought one of the biggest takeaways for me was being able to attend the AHL Hall of Fame induction ceremony, and it was very humbling to see what players, GM’s, coaches, builders of the game have done for our league, the sacrifices their families have made, much like our families are currently doing for us. I found it very humbling.”

Graham on what players new to the AHL can learn about its history at the AHL Hall of Fame induction ceremony
“We talk about it with our group, and it’s important to recognize what other people have done for you on your own path. Obviously a lot of us think about our parents, our spouses, our children, loved ones. But when you also see what people have done to open doors in our sport, in our league, I think it allows you to recognize and appreciate how this path was carved.

“We’ve seen the players go from the American League to the NHL, and it’s a direct pipeline. But without the sacrifices of so many, it could have a much different landscape. All the people that have put in the hours in the work ahead of us are the reason why we’re in the second-best league in the world, and we’re able to develop our players, our coaches and all those things.”

Graham on helping this season’s young players adjust to the pro lifestyle off the ice
“We wanted to make sure we guided them without doing it for them because it’s important to learn how to stand on your own two feet. It can be a tough world out there.

“We can’t do everything for you, but we did our best to at least guide them in the correct direction and to work together, and I think that’s where you have to tip your hat to the young men. They took advice. They applied it. They worked in unison, a lot of these young guys, and it helped them at least get situated. There are still roadblocks and all of a sudden your first utility bill comes in. There are challenges with that. All these things add up.

“Our doors are always open, but we also want to make sure you’re learning how to do it for yourself so that potentially you can help the next first-year pro the next season. It’s all new, but new is a good thing because that’s what yields growth and we’re seeing a lot of growth from these guys both on and off the ice.”

Cull on coming to Calgary with a team that finished first overall in the 2022-23 regular season
“I inherited a staff that was all here and had been successful and done a lot of good things.

“I love coaching in the American Hockey League. You have a bunch of hungry hockey players that are so motivated to do well to try to get to the next level, and it’s been great. I missed being a head coach. To get the opportunity back, I’ve very much enjoyed it, relished the moment.”

Cull on what he brought back with him to the AHL from the NHL coaching world
“You know, I think it was really good for me as a coach to experience working with those players. I wish it was under [winning] circumstances. There’s a lot of things you learn and you go through.

“That was my first time being let go, so there’s a lot of soul-searching on things you can improve upon. It was an interesting time, but it was really good for me, and it got me to re-evaluate a lot of things.

“I was exposed to different things at the NHL level, so there’s things that I wanted to bring back if I had that opportunity, for sure. And for me, watching other people, how they were working, watching other things, it was a great time for me. I was hiding out at the rink in Utica watching hockey games in the American League, watching NHL games, so it was just a good opportunity for me to, I guess, grow and think of things differently, watch the game differently, talk to people.”

Cull on working with head coach Bruce Boudreau in Vancouver
“It was great. I mean, he was nothing but a gentleman. His experience, how he looked at the game, his numbers and how he was good with numbers, and how he could go into a dressing room. There were a lot of great things. I was fortunate.”