by Joe Dominey || AHL On The Beat Archive
After almost a decade of competition behind the bench, Greg Ireland and Ray Edwards finally got the opportunity to partner up and the results were immediate for the San Antonio Rampage.
Coaches, general managers and broadcasters constantly talk about chemistry and its importance in building a team. Hockey teams are made up of many different parts, personalities and talents. Variables such as injuries, call-ups and personalities can affect attitude, performance and results. Good coaches understand how to form a concoction that will allow a team to react to all situations in a positive manner.
Ireland, the head coach of the Rampage, and Edwards, the assistant coach, have formed a partnership that helps guide the team both on and off the ice. Their core values featuring hard work, accountability and teamwork have been part of their makeup for as long as they have been involved in coaching, even back when they were coaching and recruiting against each other.
Ireland played college hockey, then transitioned into coaching pro hockey in the ECHL with the Dayton Bombers in the 1998-99 season. Edwards played junior hockey, then played professionally before becoming an assistant and eventual head coach with the Huntington Blizzard in the ECHL in that same season.
With two fiery, intense coaches at the helms of teams that played in the same division, a rivalry was born based on mutual respect.
“I think the first time we met was at the ECHL coaches meetings,” said Edwards. “The first season we were rivals. We’re both pretty intense guys. I always had a lot of respect for Greg’s teams because they played hard and were well prepared. If you didn’t go into Dayton ready top go, you weren’t going to win.”
Ireland also remembers some of the details about their first encounter because Edwards’s character was immediately apparent.
“Ray had a player on his team who was looking for a change of scenery because the top six forwards on his team were already well established. Ray pretty much gave him to me for a song and a dance because he wanted to help this guy,” said Ireland. “I had a lot of respect for Ray because that is tough to do inside your own division and he was doing the right thing for the player to help him advance his career.”
The competition wasn’t just on the ice as both Ireland and Edwards had to compete off the ice to fill their rosters.
“We were both looking for the same type of player, and also we were both from Ontario so often times we were recruiting the same guys,” said Ireland. “We both had a lot of call-ups because we were in places where players were accessible to AHL and IHL teams.”
Both Ireland and Edwards worked for similar organizations in Dayton and Huntington and faced the same types of hardships and limitations when it came to recruiting players. Going through the same things helped heighten the rivalry between the coaches.
“Neither one of us had one of the premier [ECHL cities] to recruit to, but we were close to a lot of AHL cities,” recalled Edwards. “Our ownerships were similar in the fact that they were cognizant of the dollar. Both of us had to recruit hard, go young and develop players. He would win a couple of recruiting battles then I would win a couple of recruiting battles.”
Ireland’s hard work and dedication landed him a promotion to an assistant position in Grand Rapids in the AHL and then eventually the head coaching job with the Griffins. Edwards went a different route, moving to the Central Hockey League to guide San Angelo and New Mexico, leading both franchises to division titles and playoff berths in all three seasons that he coached.
After struggling for several years the Phoenix Coyotes looked to change the culture of their top affiliate in San Antonio and hired Ireland in the summer of 2007 to lead the turnaround. One of Ireland’s number one priorities was to find someone who shared his beliefs in how a team should act and also interact.
“Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, assistant general manager Brad Treliving and I each had some names that we thought would be good assistant coaches,” remembered Ireland. “Both Brad and I had Ray’s name on our lists because both of us had a comfort level and knew him.”
Edwards knew Treliving from his days in the CHL, where Treliving served as league president. When Treliving was hired as the assistant GM of the Coyotes they talked about the job in San Antonio.
“When I was first contacted about the assistant coaching job in San Antonio, they hadn’t yet hired a head coach. Brad explained that a lot depended on who the head guy would be,” said Edwards. “It was exciting that Greg thought enough of me to put me on the short list of candidates. Right from day one it seemed like a good fit because we had a history.”
During the interview process the conversations between the two would stretch for hours, something they wouldn’t realize until they looked at the clock. These conversations allowed Ireland to feel confident that he had his guy.
“I knew Ray had a good strong work ethic and a great hockey background,” said Ireland. “He was helping out in Milwaukee at times in the AHL and I would run into him through our travels. When the opportunity came to hire an assistant it was a natural fit for us.”
One of the reasons the partnership was so comfortable between Ireland and Edwards was because they shared many of the same beliefs.
“Our philosophies are real close and because of that everything sort of fell into place,” said Edwards. “Greg and I both have the same base and the same structure of core values that include work ethic, wanting good people around and doing the right thing.”
The results of this paring was the Rampage recording a franchise best 42-28-3-7 record in 2007-08 and making its second trip to the Calder Cup Playoffs.
As the head coach, Ireland is ultimately responsible for everything the Rampage does, but he knows that one man can’t possibly handle everything.
“I really believe in surrounding yourself with the best people and letting them do their job,” said Ireland. “Give them responsibility and the team will have success. You have to be willing to relinquish some of the reins. You have to want to have great people around.”
At times during the 2007-08 season, Edwards would give the pre-game talk to the players or handle the special teams meeting. This shared responsibility was one of the reasons that things worked so well between Ireland and Edwards.
“Greg wanted someone he could rely on, not a yes man,” explained Edwards. “I take pride in the fact that we have great debates and great banter about different things. It’s always respectful and it’s helpful. That’s the way we push each other. We toss new ideas on the table and see if they fit.”
By sharing a common belief and goal, this coaching tandem makes the whole of the Rampage better than just the sum of its parts.
“I firmly believe we’re a team,” concluded Ireland. “If you aren’t giving people an opportunity, they aren’t going to grow. They aren’t going to find out what they do well. The fact that Ray had such great success before meant I had no problem giving him those opportunities, because we are a team and we are a partnership.”