📝 by Patrick Williams
How about Jon Cooper and Jared Bednar for coaching role models?
Brad Larsen? Mike Eaves?
Trent Vogelhuber has had all of them and more as he prepares to take over an American Hockey League bench next season.
Vogelhuber became the AHL’s youngest current head coach earlier this week when the Columbus Blue Jackets appointed him the new head coach of the Cleveland Monsters. The 33-year-old Vogelhuber, a Cleveland assistant coach for the past four seasons, is taking over for Eaves, who stepped down on April 30 following a three-season tenure.
Vogelhuber played for Jon Cooper as an 18-year-old with St. Louis of the North American Hockey League back in the 2006-07 season. Vogelhuber, who grew up just outside of Columbus in Dublin, Ohio, was then chosen by the Blue Jackets in the seventh round of the 2007 NHL Draft ― a draft held at Nationwide Arena in Columbus ― to become the first-ever local player to be selected by the club.
That June day 15 years ago became the first step in a path that has eventually taken him to his new post in Cleveland.
Like any journey, of course, plenty has happened in between. Vogelhuber played four NCAA seasons at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, before turning pro in the spring of 2012. He then put in parts of five AHL seasons in the Columbus organization with the Springfield Falcons and Lake Erie Monsters (including a 2016 Calder Cup championship), playing for Brad Larsen, now the head coach in Columbus, and Jared Bednar, currently leading the Colorado Avalanche.
After two AHL seasons in the Colorado Avalanche organization, Vogelhuber got a head start in the coaching business at age 30, retiring in 2018 to join Cleveland as an assistant coach.
By then he had already learned up-close from some of the brightest minds in coaching. Cooper, who won the Calder Cup with the Norfolk Admirals in 2012, is four wins away from his third consecutive Stanley Cup championship with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Bednar, in his sixth season guiding the Avalanche, will be on the opposite bench when the 2022 Stanley Cup Final begins Wednesday.
After one season for Vogelhuber working under long-time NHL forward John Madden in Cleveland, Eaves took over the head-coaching role before the 2019-20 season. Eaves brought an extensive resume with him to Cleveland that year, but he also had not worked in the AHL since leaving the Hershey Bears in 1993. The 26-year gap and the confident, upbeat personality that is a trademark for Eaves meant that he was comfortable leaning on Vogelhuber along with fellow assistants Steve McCarthy (now with Columbus) and later Mark Letestu.
But shoulder surgery and the ensuing recovery process limited Eaves this season, meaning even more responsibility for Vogelhuber and Letestu in Cleveland.
To start, Vogelhuber guided the Columbus entry at the NHL prospect tournament in Traverse City, Mich. last fall. Then came handling coaching responsibilities with the organization’s Cleveland-bound players at training camp in Columbus. Later as the AHL regular season began and then crept into its middle portion, it became increasingly clear that Eaves would be limited.
“The long story short is,” Vogelhuber said, “I ended up being in charge of the team. I certainly wasn’t trying out for the job. I was just trying to fill in and help the team as best as possible while he was away, which turned out to be the majority of the season.”
But Columbus management did like what it saw from Vogelhuber as he took on ever-growing responsibilities. Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, assistant general manager Basil McRae, Cleveland general manager and director of player personnel Chris Clark, and director of player development Rick Nash all had known Vogelhuber as both a player and an assistant coach.
Along with the uncertainty surrounding Eaves, the Monsters had other problems for Vogelhuber to handle. Eighteen players were sidelined by COVID-19 at one point. While on recall to Columbus, promising goaltender Daniil Tarasov sustained a right hip injury Jan. 1 that eventually resulted in season-ending surgery. Injuries also sidetracked forwards Liam Foudy, Adam Helewka, Kevin Stenlund, and Josh Dunne, while J-F Berube was limited to just 19 games in net.
Eventually what had been a 9-3-1-3 start dissolved when the Monsters won just five times during a 28-game stretch spanning nearly three months.
“As you look back on the season and reflect on where it went wrong, injuries were certainly a big part of our story this year,” Vogelhuber said. “Just not quite being able to turn the page and overcome it as a group. Disappointing, but a really good learning experience that I hope a lot of our guys take with them moving forward.”
Eaves had already decided that it would be his final season with Cleveland, so the Blue Jackets ended up offering the pending vacancy to Vogelhuber late in the regular season. Learning from Eaves, 66, provided Vogelhuber with a special opportunity early in his coaching career.
“He’s older than my dad,” Vogelhuber said, “but I swear he’s got more energy than I do coming into the rink every day.
“I think the biggest thing I learned from him is your coach has to be the best player on a day-to-day basis. And that means being out on the ice with enthusiasm and energy and focus on that day because your team feeds off that. In the dark days of a long season, you’ve got to ramp yourself up to help lead the group through some of those tough days and games and practices and times.”
Playing for the likes of Bednar, Cooper, and Larsen was another education as well.
“They’re honest with you to your face,” Vogelhuber said, “constantly communicating on where you’re at and what you need to do to get better, and how they see you at the moment.
“You’ve just got to be honest with everybody individually and talk to them constantly, especially the young players. Most of them need and want to have a direct and constant line of communication with the coaches and the people making decisions.”
Cooper was an early influence for Vogelhuber.
“The biggest thing I remember was the way that he talked to us as a group and individually,” Vogelhuber said. “I’d never had a coach before, or even after, with the demeanor that he had and the way that he would get his message across. More often than not in a calm but blunt fashion to your face, where you don’t have to yell to get that message across. But the message hits you right there in the face, and you know what he wants to say.
“That really made an impact on me, and I’ll certainly take some of that as I go through my coaching career.”
Vogelhuber already was an NHL-drafted pro who eventually became an AHL alternate captain, but connecting with Larsen and Bednar had a similar significant influence on him.
“He’s honest to your face,” Vogelhuber said of Bednar, who coached that 2016 Calder Cup championship team in Cleveland. “Communication is constant. It’s a relentless pursuit of playing the game the right way. There are no off days, and he won’t accept anybody putting themselves above the team. That’s what it’s all about with him, and that’s why I loved to play for him so much, because I loved being a part of a team. It made a huge impact on me having played for him.
“I played for Brad Larsen. I know how he is. If you’re not going to work every day, you’re not going to play.”
Vogelhuber has blended and will continue to blend those influences as he develops his own coaching style. But there will be one constant for him.
“The one thing that I am going to make sure that I do, and everybody says it, but you’ve got to talk to these guys and be honest with them on a daily basis. My favorite coaches of all time, you do not always like what they say, but you can respect them because they’re telling you the truth.”
Patrick Williams has been on the American Hockey League beat for nearly two decades for outlets including NHL.com, Sportsnet, TSN, The Hockey News, SiriusXM NHL Network Radio and SLAM! Sports, and is currently the co-host of The Hockey News On The ‘A’ podcast. He was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.