by Ross Halvorson
Less than a year removed from a 19-year professional playing career, Tony Hrkac is back on the Milwaukee Admirals’ bench, this time as a coaches’ assistant.
The Thunder Bay, Ont., native spent five seasons throughout his playing career with the Admirals, including the last two. The 2003-04 season saw Hrkac lead the team in assists and points as well as play a major role in bringing Milwaukee its first Calder Cup.
Although his roles may have changed from the Admirals’ last championship, the rest of the team still sees Hrkac as the same guy.
“He used to give some good advice when he was playing and that’s what he’s still doing,” said Admirals left wing Simon Gamache, who played parts of two seasons with Hrkac.
It’s taken some fiddling for both the players and Hrkac to adjust into his new role behind the Milwaukee bench.
“We don’t hang out as much as we used to as teammates,” said Gamache. “He’s still one of the guys, but he’s also a coach so we respect that.”
In a year of transition for Hrkac, he finds himself facing new challenges being an advisor on a team rather than an advisee.
“Being a coach is more mentally challenging than being a player,” he said. “All you can do is prepare the players and make sure they’re ready when the time comes.”
Not being able to jump over the boards into the action has made coaching a more strenuous job for Hrkac, who observes every break-out play and centering pass with great discernment.
“You’re living and dying almost on every play [as a coach]. As a player you have a little more control and can fix a mistake you might make.”
For the first time in more than 20 years, Hrkac is the one watching the mistakes happen and hope the players he’s helped coach can correct them without him on the ice.
“Even as a coach you still want to be out there playing and competing every night,” said Hrkac. “But you get old and you’ve got to move on,” he added with a laugh.
Just as in his playing days, the results are the most rewarding part of coaching for Hrkac. As a player, he enjoyed the wins. As a coach, the wins are nice but seeing the players he coaches mature and expand their skills is the real prize.
“Seeing the team develop, and seeing them all of a sudden do something you taught them on the ice feels good,” said Hrkac. “It tells you they are listening, and they do respect your experience.”
While he’s gotten the players to buy into his philosophies as a coach, Hrkac has also gotten the support from a welcoming head coach in Milwaukee’s bench boss, Claude Noel.
“He’s smart as a coach and was smart as a player,” said Noel. “He really helps out with our players.”
According to Noel, Hrkac’s coaching career began even in the last few years of his playing days when, as an experienced veteran, he helped the younger players develop their games.
“He used to take pride in helping players when he played,” said Noel. “He does much the same thing now helping players on the ice, at practice and between periods,” he added.
Having Hrkac on the bench with Noel has given the coach more freedom to analyze his team’s play so he can communicate with the rest of his staff what needs to be assessed.
“I’ll just chirp down to him and tell him to tell [the players] about something so he lets them know what’s going on,” said Noel. “That enables me to just watch the game and focus on what needs fixing.”
There hasn’t been much to fix this postseason for the Admirals. The team is vying for its second Calder Cup in the last three seasons and with the coaching trifecta of Noel, assistant coach Todd Richards and Hrkac, the team seems to have the brain trust to spur Milwaukee to another championship.
“I’m enjoying coaching, and I’m enjoying learning,” he said. “Claude and Todd have really taught me a lot on the other side of the fence.”