When opportunity knocked, Tkaczuk was ready

Photo: Lucas Armstrong

by Ryan Smith | AHL On The Beat

“When you’re building your career and you’re moving up the ladder, you’re trying to prepare yourself as best as you can for opportunities that arise, but usually you’re thinking about that in the offseason.

“This one happened overnight.”

December 12, 2023, was far from the average evening for Daniel Tkaczuk. The St. Louis Blues had just fallen, 6-4, to the Detroit Red Wings, the team’s fourth consecutive defeat. Moments later, Tkaczuk had a phone call coming his way from Blues general manager Doug Armstrong.

A tough decision had been made that Blues head coach Craig Berube would be replaced on an interim basis by Drew Bannister, who had coached alongside Tkaczuk in OHL Owen Sound and AHL San Antonio prior to arriving in Springfield as the Thunderbirds head coach in 2021.

With a head coaching vacancy now sprouting up in Springfield, Armstrong turned his attention to Tkaczuk, asking the 44-year-old associate head coach if he would be willing to take the head coaching reins on an interim basis with the T-Birds.

“I said sure, I would love the opportunity,” Tkaczuk recalls. “Then you blink and realize, you play tomorrow.”

Indeed, timing was far from the easiest, as Springfield was about to embark on a string of 15 games in just over a month’s time, with the accelerated holiday break as the only real reprieve.

Less than 24 hours later, on Dec. 13, Tkaczuk and his Thunderbirds picked up a 4-3 shootout win over Rochester, but it did not come totally crisply; Tkaczuk received friendly fire from an accidental high stick on the bench mid-game, requiring athletic trainers’ attention between periods to seal up a cut on his nose.

“With all the moving parts and the process, it’s been pretty busy,” Tkaczuk said in an understatement.

Yet, as anyone in Tkaczuk’s shoes can attest, lessons learned in the coaching industry are accumulated daily to prepare for times like this.

“There are so many things you take as a coach and learn from experiences of the people you’re working with,” said Tkaczuk, who pointed to former colleagues in Owen Sound head coach Greg Ireland and former Kitchener Rangers head coach and Blues assistant coach Mike Van Ryn, as well as Bannister and Berube, among the cohorts who lent insights that he draws from to this day.

The coaching bug came to Tkaczuk in a most unexpected way during his playing days in Italy in the mid-2000s. Sidelined due to an injury, Tkaczuk was encouraged by his head coach to jump on the bench and run the defense. Within minutes, teammates had the same message for Tkaczuk.

“The players all said, ‘You should be coaching,’” he recalled. “I learned that I did actually enjoy sending guys out the door, seeing the matchups, and all of the other variables that happen in a game.”

When his playing career came to a close in 2011, Tkaczuk returned to his roots, running his own hockey school program out of Barrie, Ont., while continuing to network with other coaches, culminating in his first OHL job as an assistant in Owen Sound in 2012 alongside Bannister on Ireland’s staff.

Now in his eighth season with the Blues organization, Tkaczuk has had the chance to gain the familiarity necessary to make the quick jump from associate to head man.

Yet, while the overall team structure, systems, and coaching points have largely remained the same for Tkaczuk’s Thunderbirds, the new bench boss is keenly aware of the need to have a broader scope of his team.

“I have to look at the overall picture,” he said. “When you’re an assistant coach, you have certain tasks and lanes that feed into the greater picture. It’s the head coach’s job to look at the overall picture and make sure it’s continually moving along the path in a positive way. You’re in touch with all departments, and you’re trying to make sure the overall plan between the Blues and Thunderbirds is a competitive environment while making sure all the details are attended to.”

Tkaczuk has plenty of support to organize all of these tasks, as assistant coach Jordan Smith, goaltending coach Dan Stewart, video coach and manager of hockey operations Jeff Jordan, and player development coaches Glen Wesley, Chris Thorburn and Matt D’Agostini have all taken on additional responsibility in the face of the organizational changes.

“You have to trust your staff that they can add increased areas into their roles and take on more to make sure all the needed areas are attended to,” Tkaczuk said. “They have to step out of their comfort zone, but it’s also an opportunity for what could perhaps happen next. We can make an impact on these players, give them a chance to succeed, and if we do that, we know we will succeed as coaches.”

While every coach has victories and championships as the ultimate reward and goal for the thankless hours that go into the profession, Tkaczuk and his staff also emphasize the collective goal in their daily habits.

“As a coach, you’re building to wins and losses, which is competitive within the group,” Tkaczuk said. “It’s part of the reason you love playing or coaching. You’re trying to win and you’re in pursuit of a collective goal as a team. It feeds you emotionally every day. Some of the most rewarding stuff is seeing that teachings and coaching are making players better, moving toward their goals and dreams of becoming NHL players. You hope to see guys do well as they go up (to St. Louis) and that we had a hand in that as a coaching staff in Springfield.”