📝 by Patrick Williams
The chatter started to pick up among the Milwaukee Admirals.
Milwaukee’s bus rumbled east toward home in the early-morning hours of Dec. 15 after the Admirals had defeated the Iowa Wild, 6-3. That win, Milwaukee’s third in a row against the rival Wild, had given the resurgent Admirals their fifth consecutive victory.
For Admirals head coach Karl Taylor and assistant coach Scott Ford, this was one more American Hockey League bus ride. Next up on the schedule ― the Chicago Wolves.
But something was up with the parent Nashville Predators.
The word came from Nashville ― help would be needed. COVID-19 cases had broken out within the Predators dressing room as the team prepared for a Dec. 16 game against the Colorado Avalanche. The recall process, a daily occurrence all over the American Hockey League for players, sped into action. Nashville summoned Admirals forwards Cody Glass, Rocco Grimaldi, Mathieu Olivier, and Cole Smith.
This time there was a twist, however, and the players had company.
Nashville head coach John Hynes; assistant coaches Dan Hinote, Dan Lambert, and Todd Richards; and goaltending coach Ben Vanderklok all had been sidelined by cases. Nashville needed help on the bench against the Avalanche immediately. This time the call went beyond players to the people who typically let players know they are off to the National Hockey League.
Taylor and Ford had just been called up to the NHL.
Taylor is in his fourth season with the Nashville organization and third leading the Admirals. A true hockey lifer, the 50-year-old Taylor had spent four seasons as an assistant coach with the Texas Stars (2014-18) and one with the Wolves (2011-12) before going to Milwaukee in 2018. He also had six seasons as an ECHL head coach, one season as a Western Hockey League assistant, and another season as a Vancouver Canucks pro scout, plus seven more campaigns coaching in the Canadian university ranks and another season with Team Canada.
Ford, a Brown University product, had been caught in the AHL-ECHL shuffle as a hard-nosed defenseman for his first four pro seasons before coming to Milwaukee in 2008. From there, he went on to play parts of seven years with the Admirals, including captaining the club, before retiring in 2015. He immediately went into coaching with the Admirals in 2015 and has been with the organization ever since
In the words of Karl Taylor and Scott Ford, here are their experiences as AHL coaches getting their NHL call-ups:
ON PREPARING TO LEAVE MILWAUKEE
Taylor: “I think initially it’s kind of a little overwhelming, because there’s so much going on. You’re so busy packing… how long are you going to be gone? There were a lot of question marks with what was going to actually occur. So, I think for both of us, we were just trying to keep our feet on the ground. And what’s the next hour look like? What do we have to focus on [with] what we need to do?”
Ford: “We had just had a big emotional win in Iowa on the road. We got on the bus, traveled back, and kind of heard some rumblings that this might occur. And sure enough, we rolled in at five in the morning back in Milwaukee after the charter bus [ride], not the charter flight like in the National League. And lo and behold, we found out that we were going up.
“So, it was kind of a scramble that Wednesday morning to get ready to go. We had to begin the COVID protocol of the National Hockey League and the flight [was] Wednesday evening into Nashville.”
ON GOING THROUGH A “CALL-UP”
Taylor: “I won’t speak for [Scott], but we discussed it a little bit. We both have aspirations of the full-time call-up. That’s our goal, to be full-time NHL coaches while doing a great job while we’re waiting for that opportunity.
“When this fell into our laps, it was exciting. But I think like anything in life, when you’ve done the work, and you’re prepared for it, the nerves are not there. Because you know, it’s just you doing what you do at the right time. So for both of us, we felt very comfortable. With a lot of the Milwaukee guys being there, that assisted us in having that comfort.
“We were both excited about the opportunity, both excited to have a home game and then go into a great place like [United Center in Chicago] for a game [Dec. 17]. Both of those games, and the opportunity to be a part of that, will definitely help us down the road when the opportunity is presented to us. We’ve already got a couple of games under our belt at that level.”
Ford: “I wouldn’t say ‘nervous.’ I think it was more excitement and anticipation for what was going to occur. Our organization has done a good job, whether it’s training camp, summer development camps, rookie tournaments, etc., having the guys as a group and understanding what identity Nashville wants to play.
“A lot of their players there, we’ve coached and worked with here in Milwaukee. And then basically the rest of the guys I played with at some point in Milwaukee. So it was just a great opportunity and a lot a lot of excitement kind of rolling into that first day.”
ON THE GAME-DAY EXPERIENCE
Taylor: “For us, the [Nashville] coaching staff was still involved. They were on Zoom a lot with us, assisting us and helping us, and so we basically implemented their plan for the most part. We did virtual meetings with the [penalty kill] and the power play, which the NHL staff facilitated.
“We ran the pre-game skate. We ran their drills. We were being aware and wanted to be caretakers and make it as easy and as seamless for the players as we could. There are a lot of guys that have played for us in Milwaukee that were on the roster, so I think that helped because there’s a lot [that was familiar for] each other. And the current NHL staff guided us as we moved through the process.”
Ford: “[We] basically started our day-to-day operations Thursday morning, going to the rink and trying to get as organized as possible. [The Nashville staff] did a fantastic job there, whether it was on Zoom or just phone calls, preparing us with what kind of game plan they wanted to do and get us going for the game.”
ON THE IN-GAME EXPERIENCE
Taylor: “The opportunity to actually be on the bench, go through the process, run the bench, changing lines, getting your matches, all the things that you’re trying to do, that is very similar to what we do here.”
The Predators took a 5-2 win against Colorado that night at Bridgestone Arena. From there it was off to Chicago. After a 3-2 overtime win in Chicago on Dec. 17, word came that the Predators’ game Dec. 19 against the Carolina Hurricanes had been postponed. With the Predators’ next game not scheduled until Dec. 29, Taylor and Ford would be on their way back to the Admirals in time for a road game against the Wolves at nearby Allstate Arena on Dec. 18.
ON “BEING SENT DOWN”
Taylor: “Off the plane, grabbed our stuff, get on the bus, off to Allstate instead of going to play the Hurricanes.
“We were expecting that at some time, at some point. But it still was an adjustment. For me, it was a great experience, I’ll be honest, because it’s really given me a better perspective. Unless you live it, touch it, taste it like a player does [you don’t know what it’s like].
“It wasn’t like we were disappointed. Sure, we would like to coach another game in the NHL. But the adjustment of getting back to where you were and reinvesting into the process and into the Admirals and getting ready for the Wolves, all that process was very interesting for me, and I learned a lot from it.
“I’m thankful I went through that process, because now when it occurs [with] the players that I’m working with, I’ll have a better perspective on that. It’s nowhere near what the player goes through. A totally different thing, obviously. But there were some similarities that I’ll be able to use and talk about and share. You’re always looking for bridges with players and trying to find ways to talk with them and share an experience. And now, fortunately, going through that, I do have a bridge to use at random times to explain my own experience and kind of what it felt like and also be able to have another honest conversation with a player who goes through that experience.”
ON THE JOURNEY TO THE NHL
Taylor: “There’s no question [Ford and I have] both been in a lot of different places. The message we’ve had here in Milwaukee since I’ve arrived here is to treat it like the National Hockey League. And for me, that means we’re not going to treat it [as] less-than.
“Are there differences? Absolutely. There are differences at every level. But we’re not going to treat the players like they’re in the minors. So, we expect them to treat it with the same respect that we do, and I think that’s how you help build a culture and get what you want out of your team.”
Ford: “We want to prepare athletes and our prospects as best as possible so when they do get that opportunity and they are called up, they’re ready to go. I mean, it’s so fulfilling when you sit there as a coach and you give that player the news for the first time that they’re going to the National Hockey League. Just to see the look on their face and the excitement is unbelievable. And that opportunity for us as coaches, I’m sure it was the same.
“For us to get that win on that night in Nashville at home and in that atmosphere, it was pretty special. The guys treated us with the same respect and the same excitement and admiration as we have done with them when we [were] able to give them the news that they [had been] called up. It was pretty special all the way around. It was just a very surreal kind of unbelievable day that it happened in that case.
“The outpouring of support, it’s just been overwhelming. I mean, the amount of hits on social media, text messages, phone calls, have just been phenomenal. Your close friends and family, they understand the day-to-day operations [of] what we’re doing here at the AHL level, how we’re preparing, how we’re trying to develop our players and win hockey games, and the amount of sacrifice that goes with it from family and friends.
“To have it validated on a big stage like that was pretty cool.”
Grand Rapids Griffins head coach Ben Simon went through a similar process this month with the Detroit Red Wings. The always-talkative Simon will describe his experience in a piece on TheAHL.com on Monday.
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. He is currently the co-host of the Around the A Podcast.
Patrick was the recipient of the AHL’s James H. Ellery Memorial Award for his outstanding coverage of the league in 2016.