A decade ago, the Kamloops Blazers fired coach Marc Habscheid, who months later wound up 200 kilometers down the road in Kelowna, where eventually he would win a Memorial Cup. In the space of 10 years, Lorne Molleken coached three different hockey clubs in Saskatchewan. Inevitably, the guy at Medicine Hat ends up with the same job in Lethbridge, and just as inevitably it is something less than cataclysmic.
Some bloodlines you just don’t cross – an Auburn man, for instance, cannot be the football coach at Alabama.
But in the Western Hockey League, it’s as if a rivalry isn’t consecrated until their guy becomes your guy, or vice versa.
Today, Don Nachbaur is Spokane’s guy. Game on.
OK, the game’s been on between the Chiefs and Nachbaur’s former club, the Tri-City Americans, for 22 seasons now. But now the skates have been run through the sharpener to an extra fine edge.
“When you say ‘ratcheted up,’ it makes it seem as if it isn’t tight enough,” said Chiefs general manager Tim Speltz with a laugh. “I think it’s tight enough already. But I’m sure this will add to it a little bit.”
This was not especially Speltz’s intention when he filled the Chiefs’ coaching vacancy with Nachbaur, who just two years ago was behind the Americans bench when they lost a dramatic seven-game conference final to Spokane – which did not lose again that year.
“I’ve still got some feelings about that,” admitted Nachbaur.
Nor has Nachbaur surfaced in Spokane to tweak his old constituency in the Tri-Cities, where he became something of a franchise icon in his six years. This is about mutual opportunity, and mutual need.
Still, it’s a hell of a conversation starter, and continuer.
For instance, when we last heard from Nachbaur it was 2009 and his gifted Ams goalie, Chet Pickard, had just been carted off with a concussion after a brazenly cheap hit by Spokane’s Ryan Letts. Understandably furious in the moment, Nachbaur insisted the shot was planned and described the Chiefs’ Hardy Sauter as “a primitive coach.”
Now he’s replacing Sauter. Junior hockey’s a funny old dog.
“If you’re in hockey long enough,” Nachbaur shrugged, “it’ll all come around. Players get traded. Coaches move. I don’t look back. I just look forward.”
And now he can look forward to the Chiefs’ 2010-11 season opener – in Kennewick.
“He’ll get a welcome,” said one-time Tri-City coach Bob Loucks, who himself pulled one of those rivalry switcheroos almost 20 years ago moving from Lethbridge to Medicine Hat. “Then he’ll be the coach of the Chiefs, and nobody down there is going to want to lose to the Chiefs.”
Nachbaur, of course, did not leave Tri-City to get here. He moved into the pro ranks with the Binghamton Senators of the American Hockey League, chasing the same grail that lured Mike Babcock and Bill Peters from Spokane and other WHL successes. But his family – wife Kim, daughter Sydney and son Daniel – stayed behind. Now Sydney will be off to college at the University of Victoria, and 14-year-old Daniel will head to Canada to launch his hockey dreams, and Nachbaur knew he’d see even less of them than last season. So he resigned.
Tough circumstances, but serendipitous for Speltz.
“Timing is everything,” he said. “The year before Mike Babcock came to us, he couldn’t get a job in the WHL, so when we were looking he was available. This was something like that. Let’s just say it was an easy interview process, because obviously I’d seen Don work close up.”
Speltz called it a “home run,” but Nachbaur’s credentials more accurately make it a hat trick – successful in junior at both Tri-City and Seattle (431 wins), fresh from the pros, NHL playing experience.
“His teams always overachieved,” said Speltz. “At the end of the year, you never said, ‘I expected them to be better.’ They were always better than anyone thought.”
And for the first time since Bryan Maxwell joined the organization pre-Speltz in 1989, the Chiefs have hired “a finished package.
“That’s the perfect scenario for a GM,” Speltz said. “It’s always easier to give your opinion when you have a confident guy who’s going to do what he thinks is right. Your opinion is a resource – he’s going to take if he thinks he needs it. But he’s going to do whatever he thinks is necessary.”
And the Tri-City dynamic? Again, it moved Speltz to laugh.
“I remember in 1990 when we went to Medicine Hat, where Bryan had coached and I’d been GM the year before,” he said. “That was a big game for us – and when we lost, we were devastated. But for the players, it was just another game.
“This will ratchet up the intensity with coaching and management and fans, I’m sure. But it isn’t going to get to a different level for the players.”
Hmm. He might want to ask the guys who’ve been coached by Don Nachbaur.