There are different views from an NHL bench.
The players sit and watch their teammates and opponents skate and bang by, poised for their next 50-second burst of action. The head coach, coiffed in a suit and tie, stands, arms folded, his face usually in some state of glowering. Then, there are the assistant coaches, off to the side and quiet, a part of the ensemble but, much like the bass player in a band, important but in the background.
Glen Gulutzan spent most of his 30s as a head coach, 10 seasons that began with a six-year tenure in Las Vegas in the ECHL and two running the Texas Stars in the AHL. He rose, two months before his 40th birthday, to head coach of the Dallas Stars.
He lasted two years. The Stars, in Gulutzan’s rookie season, led the Pacific Division late in the year, but lost their last five games and missed the playoffs. Last season, the Stars struggled, and came up short again.
Out of work, Gulutzan had a decision to make. He had arrived in the league at an age when many promising bench bosses get their first NHL head coaching gig. Some, such as Dan Bylsma in Pittsburgh, or Joel Quenneville in Chicago, land at the top, and stay. Others, such as Alain Vigneault (now with the New York Rangers), lose their first job and have to scrap to get back.
Gulutzan had options. There were head coaching jobs in the AHL in Toronto and Iowa. He interviewed for the head job with the Vancouver Canucks that went to his now-boss John Tortorella. He spoke with the Tampa Bay Lightning about an assistant role. He weighed the prospect of more time as the main man at a lower tier, or to remain in the NHL as an assistant at any level.
The guy who was the lead singer for a decade chose to pick up the bass. Gulutzan signed on as an assistant with the Vancouver.
“Learning from somebody else, without the pressures and the perils that are in this occupation, is a crucial thing for a coach,” Gulutzan said in an interview in late November, sitting in the stands of a rink at the University of British Columbia after a Canucks practice.
Gulutzan, an avid student of the game, has his first chance to directly watch a peer at work. “For me, with John, it’s just the way he handles the room. The little things about the way he handles a group, how he doles out responsibilities, how he doles out criticism. Watching another guy do it certainly makes you better.”
Gulutzan’s life in hockey began in Hudson Bay, Sask., a small-town home to about 1,500 people, about 400 kilometres northeast of Regina. The hockey rink was the focal point of the community. Gulutzan’s dad, Eugene, a school teacher, was his coach until Gulutzan, at 15, moved to Moose Jaw to play major junior.
When people are asked about Gulutzan, they invariably will immediately say something about his penchant for details. His father remembers his son’s focus from an early age.
“Give me all the information you can possibly give me” was the approach, his dad said. “He always had facts and quotes, this happened and that happened.”
Gulutzan had his eye on coaching early. In his last year of major junior, he started an education degree at the University of Saskatchewan, and continued playing in the minors in Fresno, Calif. Turning 30, he finished his career on ice with two seasons as a player-assistant coach, before hopping to Vegas for the same team owner as in Fresno.
Last summer, when he was considering his future, he had a chance encounter at LaGuardia Airport in New York with an old acquaintance from Hudson Bay, Trent Yawney.
Yawney had a short run as an NHL coach in Chicago in the mid-2000s, and went on to serve three years as an assistant with the San Jose Sharks. Yawney is currently an AHL bench boss in Norfolk and counselled Gulutzan to take an assistant job in the NHL.
“The stuff he’ll gain is invaluable,” Yawney said. “It’s not always about the Xs and Os.”
Vancouver’s veteran players have embraced Gulutzan. Ryan Kesler says he has brought a brainy mind to the power play, of which Gulutzan is in charge. The woeful man-advantage has finally been clicking of late, scoring in each of the past five games.
“He throws out different stats during power-play meetings and it gets guys thinking,” Kesler said.
The boss, Tortorella, praises his assistant. Tortorella spent nine seasons as an assistant in the NHL before he became a head coach.
“Gully’s going to be a star,” Tortorella said. “You know, quite honestly, he was probably too young to take over a team right away as he did with Dallas. But he’s going to be a star.”