“I think Don has a relationship with John Stevens, obviously in the past,” Blake said. “He’s forged a pretty good career in the WHL. He’s obviously understood the assistant coaching role, been able to prepare at different levels and put a game plan in place. There’s some familiarity with John and understanding what he would need on the bench alongside Dave Lowry, so we thought that was a fit going forward and we’re excited to have him and get that formally announced. I know we’ve been in the process here for a few weeks with him, so it’s good to have him on board.”
Nachbaur, who played 223 games and 11 playoff games with Hartford, Edmonton and Philadelphia, was originally a third round pick by the Whalers in the 1979 NHL Draft. A former linemate of Kings radio color commenter Daryl Evans while with New Haven in 1983-84, he also appeared with both the Flyers and the AHL’s Hershey Bears with Stevens, and was an assistant under Stevens with the 2000-01 and 2001-02 Philadelphia Phantoms. He also served as an assistant with AHL-Binghamton in 2009-10.
“Don is a great addition to our coaching staff. I personally have known him 30-plus years. I played with him and have coached alongside him. He has played the game at a high level and he is a tremendous all-around teacher who is very well-rounded,” Stevens said in a release.
In addition to his history as an AHL assistant, Nachbaur is a legend of the WHL’s U.S. Division. With Seattle, where his tenure ran from 1994-2000, he coached Patrick Marleau, who potted 51 goals in his draft year. Marleau was selected second overall in 1997, the same year he coached the Thunderbirds to the WHL final, where they fell to Lethbridge.
Perhaps his best work in the WHL was with Tri-City from 2003-09. With the Americans poised to move from Kennewick, Washington to Chilliwack, B.C., during the 2005 off-season, Nachbaur helped solidify the team’s presence in Southern Washington and instilled a fast-pace, attacking style of play that guided the Americans to the Scotty Munro Trophy as the WHL’s top regular season team in 2007-08 and led the club to division championships in 2008 and 2009.His teams’ characteristics of forechecking, competing and buying in to his message continued after returning from Binghamton, where he linked up with WHL-Spokane and guided the Chiefs to a 48-18-4-2 record in 2010-11, his first year with the club. Nachbaur’s teams finished first in the WHL with 262 goals in 2007-08 (Tri-City), third in the Western Conference with 263 goals in 2008-09 (Tri-City), and tied for first in the WHL with 310 goals (Spokane) in 2010-11. Though he is Spokane’s all-time wins leader and finished with a 261-190-30-19 record with the Eastern Washington club, he was let go in late March after the Chiefs failed to make the playoffs for the first time in 11 seasons. He ranks third in WHL history with 692 wins.
Correspondence with hockey operations shortly after Lowry’s hiring indicated that the delineated roles between the assistants hadn’t yet been clearly outlined. That remains the case, and Blake hinted at the possibility of hiring an additional assistant who would be situated from the hockey operations booth in the press box.
“A lot of staffs have gone to that where you could call it an ‘eye in the sky,’ or another part of that,” Blake said. “We’re still looking at some different options there, so I wouldn’t say [the coaching staff is] completely filled [or] that they’ve identified exact roles just yet.”
Ranford, as goaltending coach, has also worked from the team’s booth in the press box during games.
A native of Kitimat in remote northern British Columbia, Nachbaur totaled 69 points (23-46=69) and 465 penalty minutes in his 223 regular season NHL games and one goal and two points in 11 Stanley Cup playoff games.
Not quite 40 years ago, when Don Nachbaur was a boy on skates in the game he coaches now, he remembers being whistled to center ice at practice, being tossed a pair of boxing gloves and paired against one teammate inside a circle of them.
“And we were all like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” he recalled.
He also recalls, deep down, loving it a little – at least once he linked it as a lesson in hockey’s one sacred art: competing. There are other arts – work, yes, and a level of skill to be developed, and other familiar buzzwords of the game, like leadership and accountability (though you never hear “play” much anymore).
But the compete thing, that’s what hooked Don Nachbaur.
Now he tries to instill the concept in the Spokane Chiefs, and while the methods aren’t as nakedly brutal as those he experienced (“I’ve mellowed,” he allowed), surely his young players occasionally look at one another in an are-you-kidding-me moment, too.
The following story was printed in the Tri-City Herald and is being posted on LAKI with the approval of Herald sportswriter Annie Fowler.
Shortly after Don Nachbaur was hired as coach of the Tri-City Americans, he took a good look at his roster.
He saw a solid core of returning veterans and promising young players, including Logan Stephenson of Outlook, Saskatchewan.
A Stephenson from Outlook, Saskatchewan?
Nachbaur wondered if Logan was the son of his former Hartford Whalers teammate Bob Stephenson.
Americans general manager Bob Tory confirmed that he was.
“I played with Bobby, ” said Nachbaur, who teamed with the elder Stephenson during the 1979-1980 season with the Springfield (Mass.) Indians and Hartford Whalers. “You always think about guys you played with. When you travel in the league and you see signs of hometowns, it brings back memories. I knew Bob was from Outlook and I wondered how he was doing over the years.”
Bob Stephenson, the mayor of Outlook and a motel proprietor, is one of three former hockey players with ties to Nachbaur whose sons now play for the Americans.
“There were rumors floating in the hockey world that (Nachbaur) might be going to the Tri-Cities, ” said Bob, whose son is a 17-year-old defenseman. “At that time, I told Logan I knew the guy, but it had been a few years since we crossed paths.
“The hockey world is a small fraternity. (Nachbaur) was a centerman for me. He was a good hockey player, from what I remember of him. He was a fairly rugged individual and he had an edge to him that you can ride a long way in hockey.”
Former Western Hockey League goalie Jerry Price of Williams Lake, British Columbia, played junior hockey against Nachbaur in the late 1970s. Price’s son, Carey, is a rookie goalie.
“When I was 13 or 14, I was going to Calgary Centennials camps and Jerry Price was a goalie for them, ” Nachbaur said.
Brian Festerling of Quesnel, British Columbia, played against Nachbaur when they were minors and juniors. Festerling’s son, Brett, is a 17-year-old defenseman.
“I played hockey against Festerling’s dad throughout my whole youth, ” Nachbaur said. “I was down in Quesnel every weekend or he was up in Prince George. There was only a 60-mile difference. Brian was a good player. I can’t imagine his son would be any different.”
Stephenson, 49, is the only one of the three to have played with Nachbaur.
“We were in (the Hartford) organization for a while, ” said Stephenson, who played right wing. “He was young back then. We played together a little bit in Springfield and played a few games together at Hartford. The majority of our games were with Springfield (American Hockey League).”
Stephenson was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs after the 1979-80 season and retired in 1981. It had been more than 20 years since the former teammates had seen each other when they met in September.
“It’s been quite a while, ” Stephenson said. “I was about 25 or 26 and he was maybe 20. I kind of kept track of him after I quit playing. It was fun to see him again. I had a good chat with him.”
Part of that talk included the direction and discipline that Nachbaur is instilling in the Tri-City Americans.
“They are young kids and they need that direction, ” said Stephenson, whose older son Shay is a 20-year-old forward for Red Deer. “They need discipline. I think he will be good. Donnie has come into a tough situation and I think he has done a good job. You can’t change things overnight, or in a month. The fact of the matter is, they are going in the right direction. You are there to play hockey and win and he isn’t going to expect any less.”
When Nachbaur was hired in June, Jerry Price, 45, had to search his memory bank to remember where he had heard the name.
“When I saw that, I said ‘Don’t I know him?'” said Price, who would have been a teammate of Nachbaur’s if not for a trade. “The first year he played in the league he was with Billings. I had played for Calgary (Centennials) and they moved to Billings that year. That was my last year and I got traded to Portland.”
Four franchise moves later, the Centennials became the Tri-City Americans in 1988.
Price, a career transition counselor, believes Nachbaur will have a positive impact on the Americans.
“I think he has proven himself as a player and a coach, ” said Price, who retired from hockey in 1983. “He has a good record in the WHL and as an assistant in the AHL. He’s paid his dues. I was quite excited to hear he would be coaching.
“It’s always nice to see someone you knew way back when, and then they get to be a part of your kid’s life. Being (at the Americans’ camp) brought back a memory or two.”
Jerry Price also played against Brian Festerling, 45, who played for Saskatoon and Regina from 1974 to 1977. But it was against Nachbaur where Festerling had success.
“We played a lot of minor hockey against each other when we were 12-13 years old, ” said Festerling, who sells lumber to American companies. “He was always losing to us. It’s a small world. The hockey world is a pretty tight community. I think it’s good that he’s there. He’s had a lot of success as a player and a coach.”
Brett Festerling said it took his dad a while to connect Nachbaur with his past, but when he did, it was remembered who won.
“When Don and my dad played, they were enemies, ” Brett said. “And Quesnel always won. It’s a small world that three us of would have those kind of connections to him.”
The Americans are in Canada this week playing a series against the five Central Division teams, starting tonight in Medicine Hat. But Bob Stephenson and his wife Sandra are the only parents who will get to see their son play.
“It’s not quite in our area, ” said Brian Festerling. “Calgary is the closest at 11 hours and Swift Current is 16 hours from here. We saw them play last week in Kamloops.”
The Stephensons said they will likely make it to four of the five games, and the Red Deer game is their highest priority.
“We haven’t seen the boys play against each other at this level, ” said Bob, who missed last year’s game between the two teams in Kennewick. “We’re quite looking forward to it. It should be interesting.”
As is the path between three fathers and a coach.The Kings continued to fill out their coaching staff, announcing on Thursday that they had hired Don Nachbaur, who will join assistant coach Dave Lowry and goaltending coach Bill Ranford under head coach John Stevens. During a conference call earlier in the day, general manager Rob Blake hinted that the team may hire an additional assistant to serve as a coach from upstairs in the press box, a coaching placement many teams utilize.