Griffins coach Watson a hockey technician

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

by Mark Newman | AHL On The Beat

If you want to understand new Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Dan Watson, a little trip to the town of Glencoe, Ontario, might tell you all you need.

If you journeyed to the village, located in Middlesex County between Chatham and London, you might start with the story of Don Webster. Webster was the town barber for 75 years until he retired two years ago.

“He’s a local legend there,” Watson said of his 94-year-old grandfather. Webster began cutting hair with his father, who started Webster’s Barbershop in 1927.

“He had the same cash register, same chairs, practically the same spot for all those years,” said Watson.

Next door was a flower shop owned by Watson’s grandmother, mother and aunt.

“I had two older sisters and they worked there as well, so we could do the things that we wanted to do,” he recalled. “I didn’t work there, but I went on deliveries at times. The Christmas holidays were extremely busy, and so was Mother’s Day, and all of the major holidays. When I got older, I’d go for rides and carry some of the heavier flowers.”

Watson’s father, meanwhile, was a mechanic in Glencoe.

“If something was broken, he could fix it because that’s what he did – that’s what he did best,” said Watson, who never learned to turn a wrench like his father. “I learned a few things, mainly life lessons, but outside of that, I didn’t, because he did it all. My mom retired in March 2022, the same time as my grandfather, and my dad retired in September 2022.”

Everyone worked because Watson was showing promise as an athlete.

“Living in a small town, to have a team in any sport, all the kids had to play,” he said. “So all the boys my age, we played soccer and baseball. We were on the swim team and we played volleyball and basketball, too. And, of course, we played hockey, which was not cheap.”

It was in his early teens that Watson became serious about hockey.

“When I was 12 or 13, I started to play summer hockey,” he said. “You start going to all these tournaments and things like that, and that’s when it started to get real, when I saw how hard my parents worked to provide for us kids. And I think that’s sort of where I get my work ethic from, that commitment level, the dedication to get up and do your job the best that you can every day.”

He was invited to practice with the local junior B team in nearby Strathroy when he was about 14 or 15. At that early age, Watson said he was more worried about winning championships than what he might accomplish alone.

“When I got to Strathroy, it was ‘just be great’ and hopefully I might get the opportunity to play major junior, college, or whatever,” he said. “That’s kind of the mentality I took. My parents had never been through it and I didn’t know much about the OHL growing up.”

Watson became a defenseman almost from the start.

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

“I could skate and I was good positionally,” he said. “For some reason, even in soccer, I was a defender more than I was on the offense. I wasn’t someone who had to be the guy to score goals. I actually wanted to help and not let the other team score goals.

“To this day, if I’m watching a sport, I’m trying to figure out where every person has to be for their position, whether it’s football on TV or watching my daughter play volleyball. In hockey, I was the same way. I wanted to know where every forward needed to be, where every defenseman needed to be, and I just stuck with it.”

Watson was chosen by Sarnia in the seventh round of the Ontario Hockey League draft. From 1996 to 2000, he played for the Sarnia Sting, where Mark Hunter was his head coach for three full seasons. Watson learned a lot from Hunter, who played 12 NHL seasons with Montreal, St. Louis, Calgary, Hartford, and Washington.

“He was a demanding coach, but if you worked hard and competed, he left you alone. He didn’t care about anything else,” Watson said. “If you made a mistake because you were working hard, competing, he could live with it. But if you were lazy, not being a good teammate, not being a good person, that’s when he’d be in your face. I respected him a lot. I think I was a good player for him because of my work ethic, just that discipline of showing up every day and working hard.”

Watson was not even sure he would get the chance to play pro hockey.

“I started talking to Canadian college teams because I thought that would be the route. And then out of the blue, my agent called and said Columbus is going to offer you a three-year deal. I think I was the first free-agent defenseman that they signed out of college or junior and it was cool to get my start with a new franchise, a new team. I was there from the beginning.”

Watson spent most of his first three pro seasons in Syracuse, playing for Gary Agnew, who later became an NHL assistant coach with Columbus, St. Louis and Pittsburgh. Agnew is currently an associate coach with the AHL’s Abbotsford Canucks.

“He’s a very good technical coach who taught me a lot about the ins and outs, how to manage and talk to people,” Watson said. “I didn’t play every game – I was a guy in and out of the lineup at times – but the way he handled me showed me that he cared and that he wanted the best for me.”

After Syracuse, he would play only four more seasons, splitting his time between the AHL, ECHL and United Hockey League. Shoulder injuries would ultimately derail Watson’s playing career.

“I’m very proud of my playing career,” he said. “There’s no looking back saying, ‘What if I would have done this or that?’ I’m very proud that I made it to the American League because I wasn’t overly skilled, but I think I was a great teammate. I think I did my job to the best of my ability.”

“At some point, you understand that you’re not a prospect anymore. There are younger guys who can do what you do and because they’re younger, they’re going to get the opportunity. Then it becomes a situation where you do whatever you can to teach these young guys to be pros every day.”

In Long Beach (ECHL), Watson was fortunate to play for Malcolm Cameron.

“During my injuries, he allowed me to jump behind the bench with him, to help lead the defensemen. At times, we did video together. I was out on the ice with him for practice. He kind of steered me into coaching, even though I didn’t know I wanted to be a coach yet.

“I appreciated him doing that because a lot of coaches would be like, ‘Just sit in the stands, show up, get your therapy, and go home.’ He cared enough to allow me to do more. He was a big believer in showing up and doing your best every day.”

After deciding to retire in 2007, Watson was at a crossroads, but his future path was clear.

“I remember my exit meeting [with ECHL Toledo],” he said. “Nick Vitucci was my head coach, and he said, ‘Do you want to be an assistant coach? There’s a new team coming here in two years and I want you on my bench.’ And right from that day, I was like, ‘I’m in.’”

He spent the next two seasons preparing for the transition. “I went to a ton of coaches’ clinics, and former NHL’er Mike Wilson owned a place in the Cleveland area that was called Puckmasters. It was on synthetic ice, and it was all individual skills or small group training,” Watson said.

“That time in skills development I thought would help prepare me to become a good assistant coach, knowing that the work would be part of my future job. I worked with Mike as his head coach, teaching kids hopefully to play good hockey.”

It was in Cleveland, where Watson and his family still live, that he played for Roy Sommer, the legendary AHL head coach who retired after last season as the league’s all-time leader in wins (828) and games coached (1,814) in addition to helping develop more than 150 NHL players.

Photo: Nicolas Carrillo

“He liked to be around the guys, to be part of the dressing room atmosphere. He wanted to make sure that it was a team. And he let the guys play. He wasn’t a stickler for X’s and O’s, in terms of you have to be here when the puck’s here or there. For him, it was all about reading the play. Be your own player,” Watson said.

“He was a good players coach and he showed me things that have stuck with me today.”

Having played for nine teams during his pro career, Watson learned the value of developing a good coach-player relationship.

“To be a players’ coach, you have to understand each individual, so that’s where you start,” he said. “How do these individuals fit into a group? I want to care about each guy personally so they can be successful on and off the ice. Once a player understands that you have their backs – that you really do have their personal interests at heart – that’s when we start to talk about going through the wall and playing hard for their coach.”

In 2014, Watson was up for Toledo’s head coaching position, but the job went to Derek Lalonde – who is now head coach of the Detroit Red Wings. Lalonde kept Watson on his staff.

“For Derek to want to hire me, that was a big decision,” Watson said. “I thought I was 100 percent ready (to be a head coach). So I wasn’t sure coming back was a good idea. But learning from Derek for two years made me a better coach.”

When Lalonde left to become the head coach of the AHL’s Iowa Wild in 2016, Watson was ready and his record in Toledo underscores his success. During his six years as a head coach, Watson’s teams posted a 272-112-22-13 (.691) ledger. The Walleye never missed the playoffs during his tenure in Toledo, reaching the Kelly Cup Finals twice (2019 and 2022).

“I think the more people you can learn under, the better coach you’ll become because you can take bits and pieces and parts and kind of mold yourself to how you want to be,” he said.

Now Watson, 44, is the 12th head coach in Griffins history.

He shared his passion and enthusiasm for the job during his interview with the Red Wings, spending 2-1/2 hours on a Zoom call with Steve Yzerman, assistant general managers Shawn Horcoff and Kris Draper, and assistant director of player development Dan Cleary. There were several individual phone calls as well.

“It was a lengthy process, but it was a great process, to be honest. I did a lot of talking. I answered a lot of questions. They learned a lot about me, but I think at the end of the day, I know what they want and what they expect.”

Watson is eager to rebuild the winning environment that has distinguished the Red Wings-Griffins affiliation for many years.

“Listen, hockey is a fun game. It should be fun every time you come to the rink, and winning makes everything that much more fun. You can see the teams that have success, and how much fun they’re having. But there’s a lot of work that goes into it as well.

“For us, it’s about playing important games. It’s wanting to play in pressure situations. That’s what grows you as a person. That’s what grows you as a hockey player. And we want all our young guys to go through that this year. Success builds your resume and adds to your character.”

Watson is eager to make a positive impression. He is looking forward to further developing those personal relationships that have earned him a reputation as the kind of coach that players will play their hardest for.

“For me, it’s dealing with them as people first, players second,” he said. “I will be working with guys who are on that cusp of making the NHL and I want to help them get there. I want them to know that I have their interests at heart.

“I think if you have a ‘people first’ mentality, you’re managing people, not a hockey team. That’s the culture I want to build here, and you do that by showing that you care about them first. That’s just understanding your players as individuals.

“We’re going to celebrate when guys get called up and I want the other guys to feel like they’re next. I’m excited about helping all of our guys reach their full potential, first as people and then as players.

“If we manage that, our room is going to be an unbelievable place to be.”