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Patience, hard work paying off for Phantoms coach

by Brian Smith || AHL On The Beat Archive

It’s been nearly 20 years since the Flyers shipped veteran goaltender Bob Froese to the New York Rangers for a young defenseman named Kjell Samuelsson, who was in just his second year of North American professional hockey. Samulesson was still pretty new to the North American game, having come from his native Sweden to chase a dream of playing in the National Hockey League.

In those two decades, Samuelsson’s career has been through quite a few chapters. There were two stints with the Flyers as a player, each of which included a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. In between was a stop in Pittsburgh, where Samuelsson won the Cup in 1992.

The latest chapter began on Oct. 23, 2006, when Samuelsson was named the fourth head coach in Phantoms history. Samuelsson, who was heading into his seventh season as a Phantoms assistant coach, replaced Craig Berube when “The Chief” was summoned to join the staff of new Flyers head coach John Stevens.

It completed a whirlwind summer for Samuelsson. He and Berube were the top two candidates to replace Stevens in June after Stevens was named a Flyers assistant coach. Berube got the job in a decision that was termed “very difficult” by Flyers interim general manager Paul Holmgren.

“I was a little disappointed I didn’t get it there, but I was set to be an assistant for Craig Berube,” Samuelsson said. “Chief and I had a good relationship, but then everything else happened and I’m happy to now have the opportunity to be a head coach, even if it’s not the ideal situation with all these players and movement. But that’s an experience too, though. You have to take the good with the bad. In my mind, I’ve got great help too, so hopefully it’ll work out pretty well.”

The road to Samuelsson’s current position started back on the day of the trade that brought him to Philadelphia on Dec. 18, 1986. He came in as a 25-year-old blueliner known for his size and tenacity. His nine total seasons as a Flyer set the stage for him to make a call to the organization when he sensed it was time for him to wrap up his career as a player.

“I contacted the Flyers and they didn’t have any openings, so [Holmgren] suggested I go to [the ECHL’s Trenton Titans] and be an assistant. I was there on kind of a half-time basis, only when they were home. That was pretty good actually, because I could decide if I liked it.”

Samuelsson spent the 1999-2000 season in that capacity, working with head coach Bruce Cassidy and fellow assistant Mike Haviland. Then, during the summer of 2000, the opening Samuelsson had been looking for in Philadelphia occurred. Bill Barber was promoted from head coach of the Phantoms to head coach of the Flyers, and Stevens was elevated from assistant to head coach of the Phantoms.

That opened up a slot for Samuelsson, and he stayed in it for six seasons – a relatively long time for an AHL assistant coach. During that time, he established himself as a solid teacher with a strong work ethic.

“I think it’s obvious that his multiple years as an NHL player are a big asset for him,” Stevens said. “I also think the fact he came over from Europe and was acclimated over here, he can really understand what [young European players] are going through. And he’s a really committed guy. He works hard at what he does, and he really goes after it hard when you give him a task. He really cares and really understands the philosophy. Now that his responsibilities are expanded, I’m sure he’ll continue to do well.”

Samuelsson’s first task was to find an assistant coach. To do that, he reached back to his Pittsburgh days and called Hockey Hall of Famer Joe Mullen, a former assistant coach with the Penguins and the head coach of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins for most of last season.

“We played together in Pittsburgh, and after that he got into coaching too,” Samuelsson said. “I know Joe is a hockey guy and has been involved in the game his whole life. And he’s a quality person. That counts a lot for me. He has good values and he’s a good man. And he’s been coaching on a higher level than I have. He’s been a head coach, so I think he’s more than qualified for the job.”

And now, Samuelsson and Stevens are on a bit of a parallel. When Samuelsson joined the Phantoms, Stevens was making the transition from an assistant coach to a head coach. Two defensemen who were drafted by bitter rivals in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft are in the same hockey orbit. Samuelsson is making the transition for the first time while Stevens does it again, this time on a bigger stage.

“The big thing is that you have to pick and deliver the direction of the team,” Stevens said. He had a lot of input in that before, but now he’s responsible for that. I learned it’s important to delegate that responsibility, and now that he’s got [Mullen] there, I think he’ll be able to do that with no problem.”