Former Oiler Kelly Buchberger Enjoying Life as Americans Coach

The story of Kelly Buchberger’s hockey career has some very fascinating chapters. From starting in the WHL, to being a 9th round pick of the Edmonton Oilers, to becoming one of those beloved players in franchise history. I mean, the guy started his NHL career by going from a black ace to lifting the Cup over his head in a matter of weeks (he told that story during an episode of Nation Real Life, which you can listen to here. His rise through the hockey world was anything but conventional.

After his playing career ended, he jumped into coaching. First as an Assistant Coach with the Edmonton Road Runners then as the Head Coach of the Springfield Falcons. From there, he spent six years on the Oilers bench as an Assistant before moving into a different role in the organization.

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He returned to coaching in 2017 when his good friend Doug Weight hired him on as an Assistant with the New York Islanders. That role only lasted one season and now, Buchberger is taking a shot at running his own bench once again and it’s much different than any challenge he’s faced in his hockey career.

He’s now in his second season as the Head Coach of the Tri-City Americans and this past weekend, his team rolled into Rogers Place so I had a chance to catch up with the one time Oiler and talk to him about life in the WHL.

“I don’t think anybody ever finds the road trips that easy,” laughed Buchberger when I asked him how he’s adjusting to things in his second year in Tri-City.

He makes a great point. I can’t imagine it’s an easy transition to go from flying across North America to taking long bus rides across Western Canada. Winning definitely makes the bus rides easier and the Americans have certainly been doing that. On their recent road trip through Alberta, where they faced the Calgary Hitmen, Lethbridge Hurricanes, and Edmonton Oil Kings over a span of four nights, they won all three games.

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The Americans are enjoying some success early in the season and as any good coach would, Buchberger credits that success to the players in the room.

“Our guys are buying into what we’re selling and when that happens, coaching gets a lot easier,” he said.

If getting used to the bus rides wasn’t the most difficult part of going from pro hockey to junior, then I would imagine dealing with the athletes was. These aren’t grown men anymore, they’re 16 to 20-year-old’s and they can’t be approached the same.

“It’s 100% about patience. We got young kids that are developing and you see them getting better month by month. You need to give them opportunities in key situations,” was Buchberger’s answer when I asked him about the challenges of dealing with junior-aged players.

Of course, junior hockey and the type of athletes that are coming into the league has changed tremendously over the last 10-20 years. We see it at the NHL level now as well. You can’t just yell and scream anymore. That message gets tuned out very quickly.

“You got to change with the times. The players have changed’” said Buchberger. “Everyday you got to work with them and you’ve got to be a big part of them.”

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He’s not just a coach, he’s a mentor. That’s the message I pulled from my chat with him. The term ‘Players Coach’ doesn’t even really need to exist anymore because nowadays if your players don’t like you and if you can’t relate to them, you’ll get tuned out quick.

I don’t see that happening anytime soon with Buchberger in Tri-City. The kids seem to really enjoy playing for him and he’s seemingly loving life right now.

“I love coaching and I love our team right now,” was his final quote to me.

Before the hit the road for the nearly 13-hour bus ride back to Tri-Cities, Washington another staff member walked up to Buchberger and said that he was going to tell the guys that the bus was pulling into 7-11 before they hit the highway. Buchberger laughed and said he loved the idea. 

Victory beers on the plane ride home have now been replaced with Slurpee runs on the team bus. It’s not quite the same as the NHL, but Buchberger is enjoying the new chapter in his hockey life.