This weekend marked Hartford Wolf Pack assistant coach Keith McCambridge’s first return to St. John’s, Newfoundland since his four seasons as the St. John’s IceCaps’ first head coach.
And when asked Friday, before the Wolf Pack’s first of two games at St. John’s’ Mile One Centre against the IceCaps, what stands out most in his memory from his time on “The Rock”, as it is affectionately known, McCambridge’s answer came quickly.
“Just the people, how friendly the people are,” he said with an affectionate smile. “From when you land at the airport, just having the chance to say hi to people again and walking around downtown, just the culture and how friendly the people are and how hard working they are.
“It was a great four years. (IceCaps COO) Glenn Stanford and (President/CEO) Danny Williams do an awesome job with regards to running this organization. It’s real special to be back here.”
There is a melancholy side, however, to this trip for McCambridge, who left St. John’s with the Winnipeg Jets’ affiliation after the 2014-15 season. That is because, barring an unforeseen change in circumstances, this is the last year for the IceCaps in Newfoundland. The parent Montreal Canadiens are set to move the franchise to Laval, Quebec for 2017-18.
“It is really sad,” McCambridge mused. “The fans have shown up, they almost set the American Hockey League record with four-and-a-half years of continuous sellouts, but the Maple Leafs pulled out years ago, and then when we came back with the Winnipeg Jets, relocating to Manitoba, that’s hard on your fan base. And then it was always known that Montreal was going to leave after two years, possibly three, but there’s always that hope, that maybe they’ll stay, or maybe they’d be able to secure another AHL team to come in here.”
If Stanford, Williams & Co. are able to find a way to keep AHL hockey in Newfoundland’s capital city, McCambridge knows first-hand how good a developing ground it is for young prospects.
“When you look at what you want your AHL team to provide, with regards to getting players ready for the NHL, it has that,” he said. “When the fans realize that the team is going to be here, you have the sold out crowds. You have the media attention, you have the importance in the town and being under that spotlight, where people know you, which you have to deal with, obviously, with Montreal and with Winnipeg and all different cities in the NHL. So the different, away-from-the-rink aspect with regards to preparing yourself for the National Hockey League as a young player is something that’s taught in this city, but also the on-ice, the knowledge of the fans, that recognize good plays that take place whenever games are going on. It’s just a real special place.
“I understand the travel, but in my four years that I was here, we didn’t have any instances where we weren’t able to get players to the Winnipeg Jets, that was a non-issue. I know they’re running out of time, and I really, from the bottom of my heart, hope that they get an American Hockey League team back in here, because they deserve it.”
McCambridge had good success in St. John’s, guiding the IceCaps to an Atlantic Division title in the franchise’s first year, 2011-12, and going all the way to the Calder Cup Finals in 2013-14. That club lost in five games to the Texas Stars in the Final, but that series was tantalizingly close to going the other way, with the last three games all needing overtime.
Even though his club couldn’t quite grasp the brass ring of a championship, that 2013-14 season is a very fond memory for McCambridge.
“I’m pretty positive,” he said, “that if you would have polled the 29 other teams in the American Hockey League and asked who would have been in the Finals, Texas would have been their answer, of every team, but the St. John’s IceCaps wouldn’t have been picked as the other. It was a real special group, that came to the rink every day and worked really hard, and really just kind of came together at the right time. The electricity in this city, the electricity in this building, was a memory that I’ll never forget.”
McCambridge and his wife Susan are both from Western Canada, the other end of the country from St. John’s, but they and their young family, with daughter Lauren and son Aidan, truly found a second home in Canada’s easternmost locale.
“We really liked it,” McCambridge said. “My daughter came back last year three times to visit friends. When we left here, when the team relocated and we were packed up and going to the airport, my daughter had 14 friends come to the airport from her school. So a lot of special bonds made there, and then my wife came back last year as well. So we miss it here. Definitely, over the years, we had the chance to meet a lot of really good people in this city, and a lot of really good people with the organization. It’s what you want out of a place to have your family and raise your family. It’s part of this business, with regards to teams relocating, but my family really enjoyed their time here, as did I.”
After McCambridge’s four seasons with the IceCaps, he and his brood moved back to their native Manitoba, and McCambridge helmed the Manitoba Moose, the Jets’ relocated affiliate last season, before moving on to the New York Ranger organization, and his Wolf Pack assistant’s post, this summer. It had been five years since McCambridge had not been a head man, but he has greatly enjoyed his first half-season in his current gig.
“When you’re dealing as a head coach with 23 players, you’re focused on your structure and making sure everything runs a certain way and detailed how you want it,” he elaborated. “With taking a step back here as an assistant coach, it gives me a chance to work one-on-one with those players. We’ve got some really good young prospects, guys that are going to play in the National Hockey League, along with some veteran guys mixed in there. So being able to work with them, and then watch what you’ve talked about in video, or worked on in practice or after practice, see that get traction in their games, that part, as a coach, the learning curve and making a difference in a player’s life, I’ve enjoyed that this year.”
“The experience with the New York Rangers, having the chance to go into main camp and meet and talk with management, what strikes me is, they’re so calm and controlled, and have just ‘been there, done that’ as an organization, and do everything the right way here. So that part’s been really good.
“My family loves Connecticut, as you always want when a move happens. You want your kids to be happy in school and your wife to be happy, and we’ve checked off on all those boxes. It’s always hard, not staying on with an organization, but this move for us, as a group, has been real good for our family.”