I had many great conversations with Todd Nelson during his five seasons in the Oilers organization. He was always accommodating with his time, and came on my radio show once a week during those years to discuss the OKC Barons. He loved talking hockey and I found he always gave honest assessments of his players, both on and off the record.
Nelson was name the head coach for the Grand Rapid Griffins, Detroit’s AHL affiliate, earlier today. I just got off the phone with him and as usual he answered all the questions and explained why going back to the AHL as a head coach was the right decision for him.
Nelson loves coaching.
He was a player coach with Muskegon in the now-defunct UHL in 2001-2002. He played 66 games, scoring 8-12-33 as a D-man and helped out the head coach. It was his final year as a player and it made his transition into coaching much easier.
The next year he was hired as an assistant coach with Grand Rapids. He was there for one year, before taking the head coaching job with Muskegon in the UHL for three seasons. He won a Championship in his first two campaigns and had a record of 149-58-25.
He moved back to the AHL in an assistant role in 2005/2006 for two years and then moved with John Anderson to the NHL as an assistant for the Atlanta Thrashers for two seasons, but during that time he realized he preferred being a head coach.
“I was a head coach in Muskegon, then I went to Chicago as an assistant and it was a hard adjustment. You want to be hands on when you are the head guy and you want to do it your way. Some people are that way, while others are great assistants and don’t want to be head coaches. I want my name in the paper, if it is good or bad, at least I have control of the team,” said Nelson.
Nelson always tells the truth, and I respect him for that. He wants to be a head coach and is following his dream. Some wondered why he choose to return to the AHL rather than enjoy live in the NHL as an assistant. It wasn’t him, and he wasn’t ready to give up his dream of being a head coach, and there was one other small detail.
Did he have an offer to be on Todd McLellan’s staff with the Oilers?
“We talked about it. I talked at length with Todd. We have similar philosophies and had a great conversation. At that time we put our thoughts on paper and I asked him for his advice. He asked me some pretty good questions and I thought about it for a couple days, and I decided I was a head coach. I want to be a head coach.
“I’ve always had that feeling in my stomach when I was an assistant in Atlanta, even though it was great working with John Anderson, there was always a part of me that felt I could give more. But being an assistant you have to be loyal to your head coach and follow his lead. That was one part of it, but was there an offer? No, because we didn’t get that far,” explained Nelson.
There is also the fact Nelson was overlooked on three different occasions to be the head coach of the Oilers. He was interviewed by Steve Tambellini, but Ralph Krueger got the job. Then Craig MacTavish inexplicably didn’t even interview him after firing Krueger and hired Dallas Eakins. Peter Chiarelli did have a five-hour meeting with Nelson, but once again he didn’t get the job.
Did he feel the organization didn’t have faith in him as a head coach at the NHL level?
“Maybe early on I felt a bit like that, but when given the opportunity I think I put that to rest. My time in Edmonton was fantastic. I can’t say enough about the people of Edmonton, the fans and even the media, you guys were outstanding to me (laughs). They did what was right for the organization and I can accept that. It is a business and you have to keep emotions out of it.
“Of course I’d like to be there as a head coach, but it didn’t work out that way so I had to figure out the best route moving forward and that’s why I made my decision to start new with a fresh organization and go from there,” explained Nelson.
Nelson felt being a head coach in the AHL was a better path to his ultimate goal of being an NHL head. You can get lost in the shuffle sometimes being an assistant head coach in the NHL, while AHL, NCAA or CHL head coaches are front and centre. Nelson was leery of being overlooked as an assistant and elected to remain a head coach.
It is impossible not to respect his decision and I wish him well. If he has a successful season in Grand Rapids, I’m sure he will be on the short list of NHL teams when the inevitable coaching vacancies arise next summer.
***You can hear my entire interview with Nelson today at 2:20 MST on TSN 1260.**
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