‘It’s a privilege’: Love excited to lead Heat

Photo: Jack Lima

📝 by Patrick Williams

Life is a little more back to normal for the Stockton Heat this season.

No more temporary set-up at the Scotiabank Saddledome, the home of the parent Calgary Flames. No more all-Canadian schedule of opponents. No more jetting from province to province.

But there is one significant change for the Heat.

Popular head coach Cail McLean earned an offseason promotion to the Calgary bench as an assistant coach after three seasons leading the Heat. In came Mitch Love from the Western Hockey League. Calgary management also shuffled the Stockton coaching staff, bringing in long-time coach Don Nachbaur as an assistant.

So far, so good for the Heat (1-0-1-0), who picked up three of four points from a two-game home set with the Tucson Roadrunners on opening weekend. They will face a pair of road games this weekend, starting Friday against the San Diego Gulls followed by the first meeting of the season with the rival Bakersfield Condors a night later.

The well-liked and highly respected McLean’s departure surely is difficult for the Heat, but Love brings plenty of his own credentials. Before turning to coaching, the former grinder managed to notch six pro seasons, five of them in the AHL.

“I took a lot of pride in being a guy who was very competitive. A very good teammate, extremely hard worker,” Love recounted from his playing days.

“It’s a privilege any time you can become a head coach. It’s an unbelievable opportunity.”

Hired by Calgary for the Stockton vacancy on July 12, the 37-year-old Love is on the coaching fast track following three seasons with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, where he fashioned a 95-44-12-4 record. Before that stint, Love put in seven WHL seasons with the Everett Silvertips as an assistant coach, four of them spent with former NHL and AHL head coach Kevin Constantine. Love also earned a role as an assistant coach at the IIHF World Junior Championship in 2020 and 2021 with Team Canada.

“I reached out to [Flames assistant general manager] Brad Pascall and the Flames when I saw that Cail McLean got the well-deserved promotion up to Darryl Sutter’s staff in Calgary and just expressed my interest in the position. To be frank with you, I didn’t really know where it was all going to go. I’m sure there were a lot of quality candidates that applied for a position like this.”

So Pascall and Love, who knew each a bit from past dealings, got to talking.

“When I really got through this process, dug in with Brad, and had Zoom calls, I felt like there was a really good connection there,” Love said. “I think both of our personalities blend well together. I’m really looking forward to working with Brad.”

With 10 years behind benches in the WHL and with Team Canada, Love had plenty of lessons learned since he ended his playing career.

“[I learned] just how important it is to have the coach-and-player relationship, the communication that goes into it, just really getting a good understanding what makes players tick and how they operate. We’ve all heard over the years how the game’s evolved, the players have evolved, in terms of the communication.

“I take a lot of pride in that. I take a lot of pride in getting to know my players, not just on the hockey side, but a personal side, get a better understanding of their upbringing, their family dynamic.”

Still, those six pro seasons also made Love very aware that the pro game is a different dynamic for coaches, especially in the NHL’s top development league.

“This is going to be a different beast … junior kids don’t necessarily have families with them or kids,” Love continued. “So I’ll be learning that as I go. But I’m really excited about that and getting a chance to work with all the Flames prospects.

“I think any good coach evolves as the game evolves, not only with just the way the game’s played nowadays, but how the players operate and tick. ‘How do we get the most out of them? How do we get their best development through our relationships with them?’

“So I think whether you’re 50 years old, 30 years old, and you’re coaching at this level, you’re always constantly learning to motivate your players to play the game the right way. And I just try to be myself, to be honest with you.

“I have experience as a player. I wasn’t a very good player when I played, so I understand the hard work that goes into trying to elevate your play. And then as a coach, I just want to make sure that the players understand that I have their backs, want to see them be successful, and our staff will go to work for them.”

Expect a lot of give-and-take in the Stockton dressing room between Love, his coaching staff, and the players.

“It’s no longer a dictatorship,” Love said. “I’m a firm believer in that. I like to have input from my players. I like to hear what they see.

“Ultimately they go out, and they play the game at a high level of speed and skill, and just because I’m a coach standing behind the bench trying to look good with them out there doesn’t mean I’m right. So when you’re sitting down with a player, and you’re talking about a certain play that you discussed on the bench during a period, you’ve got to get their input. That’s also evolution as a coach in terms of learning the game from a player’s eyes. So I’m big on that component, and that will carry with us to Stockton.

“I want our players to have input on certain situations. Ultimately, obviously, as a coach you make the final decision on certain situations. But I want them to understand that they have a say in terms of how we do things.”