Following in the footsteps of Junior Hockey’s greatest coach is no easy task.
But combine the mountainous shadow left by former coach Brian Kilrea with a relatively short résumé and the potential crisis Ottawa 67’s coach Chris Byrne faces is frightful.
However, Byrne might just be the right man for the job.
On paper, he doesn’t compare to most Ontario Hockey League coaches. His own hockey career only took him to the East Coast Hockey League for two seasons – a minor-pro league not much stronger than the OHL.
This experience hardly compares to that of 67’s bitter division rivals, the Kingston Frontenacs, who are coached by NHL legend Doug Gilmour – a man who played 20 NHL seasons and tallied over 1,400 points.
Byrne’s only coaching experience comes in tier two junior hockey with the Nepean Raiders.
Though he enjoyed success at this level – winning a couple of league championships and nearly making the national championship – the OHL is a whole new beast, with many elite players who have a lot on the line as they try and reach the NHL.
Though this lack of head coaching experience in the OHL may trouble some, it has many benefits.
Byrne is a local boy, who grew up in Nepean.
Coaching the junior ‘A’ team there hasallowed Byrne to plant his roots in the local community.
It also gives him an invaluable connection to the local hockey community when it comes to adding undrafted players to the 67’s.
Just look a Julien Demers.
Demers played for Byrne in Nepean and then moved to the 67’s when Byrne signed on as assistant coach.
Once a player not considered pro material, as a 67 Demers has transformed into a highly sought-after, tough defenseman and was drafted to the San Jose Sharks in 2008.
Without Byrne, this may have never happened.
While replacing the legendary Kilrea with a former NHLer like Gilmour must have crossed the minds of 67’s brass, it would have been a short sighted move. High profile coaches are good Band-Aids, but rarely last long.
Just look at Peter Lee, who played at various professional levels for 20 seasons and coached the 67’s in 1994-95.
He was the fast find replacement for Kilrea, but was then quickly replaced himself.
By giving Byrne a few seasons to gel with the team, it gave him plenty of time to learn the OHL game.
This experience will ease Byrne's transition into the head coaching role and has cemented his place in the organization.
Many sports commentators believe Byrne was hired as an eventual replacement for Kilrea after spending a few years as his assistant, despite his lack of experience.
67’s owner Jeff Hunt says that was not the intention when Byrne was hired origonally. But was simply the strongest candidate for the job when Kilrea retired.
After talking with current and former 67’s players, they too believe Byrne benefitted from being an assistant coach first.
Byrne strongly reflects the modern style of coaching in junior hockey.
In contrast to Kilrea, who was known at times to make enemies within the dressing room with his heavy-handed and old school tactics which echo a different era in hockey.
“[Byrne’s system] will be based more on transition and using different options off the rush instead of [Kilrea’s] style of dumping it in and cycling the puck,” says Julien Demers. “It will definitely be more speedy and offensive.”
This will be good for the team since this season will be the first year in recent memory when the 67’s do not have a legitimate highly-talented offensive player to rely on.
Their most recent star and former captain, Logan Couture, is long gone on his way to a career in the NHL– for the past four seasons, he was their “go-to guy.”
The 67’s may not look like a threat right now – sitting last in their division. But remember that this team was stripped of their core and have a new system in place.
Byrne needs time to grow into his head coaching role and work with his newly furbished team. With time, the wins will come.
Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.