by Zach Dooley | AHL On The Beat
Mike Stothers, bench boss of the Ontario Reign, doesn’t believe in a gray area when working with players.
“I don’t have any problem expressing myself,” Stothers said. “I’m pretty passionate about what I do and I guess you can say I wear my heart on my sleeve but I don’t like gray area. There should never be any gray area. Usually, you know where you stand.”
That direct approach, something Stothers has applied when working with his players with Ontario, has resonated with those who play for him.
“He’s a coach that will be real with you, he’s not going to play games,” Reign forward Boko Imama said. “When things are going well, he will tell us and some games, even if we have the lead, if we’re not playing good he’s going to tell us. As a player, I think it’s really good to have someone like Stutts. He pushes us every day to get better as a group.”
Defenseman Kurtis MacDermid has played under Stothers for parts of four seasons and described the Toronto native as “really honest and a great coach.” MacDermid, who has played in more games with the Reign (160) than any other defenseman in franchise history, echoed the sentiment that players always know where they stand under Stothers, with hard work and effort going a long way towards having success.
“He just asks for you to come to work every day and work hard, do all of the little things right,” MacDermid said. “If you do those things, he’s going to be happy and you’re going to do well as a team. He’s really good with his players and players know what he expects from them and vice versa, so it’s good.”
While defining expectations is not unique to just the Reign, the man everyone refers to as “Stutts” may not be your most conventional coach in the game. He doesn’t try to emulate any one coach in particular, quite the opposite in fact. He noted that you can’t just go out and try to be a Joel Quenneville or a Barry Trotz; you’ve got to be yourself, something he makes a point to do each and every day.
“I’m just me, what you see is what you get,” Stothers said. “I’m a different duck –- I wear Crocs, I’m not big [on fancy clothes], I don’t shave. I can be very laid back when it comes to being jovial with the guys or joking around but I can also be pretty stern and focused on what the expectations are. I just think that in order to do anything, you’ve got to be yourself.”
To date, it would be hard to question the results of the approach and the proof is in the pudding. Stothers has been at the heart of the success found by the AHL affiliate of the Los Angeles Kings: four straight playoff berths, a Western Conference Finals appearance and a Calder Cup championship are the resume.
Since moving to Ontario in 2015, the team has yet to miss the postseason, one of just two Pacific Division teams with that claim.
However, in the American Hockey League, there is always the fine line of balancing a desire to win against the league’s primary purpose, which is developing talent to play in the NHL. Since 2015, 29 players have played games with both Ontario and Los Angeles. Stothers noted that, ideally, the concepts of development and winning go hand-in-hand. Part of the development process is instilling a winning mentality into the players, teaching them how to be successful at the professional level.
“They all say they want to win, but they don’t know how to -– you have to teach them how to win,” Stothers said. “If we have success as a team that wins, everybody will have success.”
Stothers has been a part of coaching staffs since the 1991-92 season, his final campaign as a player, when he was a player/assistant coach with the AHL’s Hershey Bears. Now 56, Stothers has coached from the OHL to the NHL and has worked with several generations of younger players. When asked about working with today’s generation, he said that they don’t always understand the level of work and commitment that goes into becoming an NHL player.
“They look at the TV, see Sidney Crosby and say, ‘Well, I’m just going to be Sidney Crosby.’ If you really did your homework on Sidney Crosby, he’s one of the hardest-working individuals in the game of hockey,” Stothers said. “It’s not a fluke that he’s got three Stanley Cups, it’s for a reason, he puts the time in. I think that’s something that these kids take for granted, they don’t realize how hard it is to get there and then, once you’re there, it’s really hard to remain there.”
For the veteran coach, it’s that teaching and development aspect of the game that he’s most drawn to. Being a part of a player’s journey to the NHL is what delights Stothers most about his job.
“I can accept what my role is and that’s to develop players and I relish it,” he said. “To me, it’s the most satisfying thing out there. To see somebody get called up the NHL and play their first game and maybe remain up in the NHL, it’s an exciting thing for all of us.”
Take goaltender Cal Petersen for example. Petersen spent all of last season in the AHL with the Reign, being named as an AHL All-Star in the process as a first-year professional. Slated to spend this season with Ontario again, injuries changed Petersen’s timeline to the point of making his first NHL start just over a month into the season, a 2-1 win over the Chicago Blackhawks last week.
“You think of Cal going up and getting his first win in Chicago, close to his hometown,” Stothers said. “Maybe that’s the father in me coming out but I couldn’t be happier for him. I mean, I’m giddy. It’s a special feeling for us here as coaches to help provide those guys with the opportunity.”
Stothers said that it always eats at him when he sees a player move up and not find success but has a “proud papa” feeling when a player is successful at that next level.
“That’s the good part of the American Hockey League. That is your reward,” Stothers said of having those relationships with players. “We don’t go into this looking for accolades or anything like that, we just want to see young players succeed. Sometimes it takes a little bit longer than others, but I guess for me, I feel for them like I do my kids.”
Stothers and his wife, Judy, have two children –- both daughters -– but said that his players are like the sons he never had.
“I have two great daughters, they’re the best,” Stothers said.
And with a chuckle, he added, “and they were way easier to raise than these 24 boys that we have, too!”