When David Quinn left Boston University for the first time, to become the head coach of the Lake Erie Monsters in 2009, he felt a knot in his stomach. He had never been a head coach at the pro level before—in fact, he had never coached professional hockey at all. But Thursday, now that he’s left BU for a second time, after three years in the AHL, one year as an NHL assistant, multiple tours of duty with the U.S. national team, and five years at his alma mater, he felt different.
“There’s no knot in my stomach today,” he said.
And there was no doubt in New York Rangers general manager Jeff Gorton’s mind that Quinn was the right choice to become the 35th head coach in franchise history.
“We’re looking for somebody with fresh ideas, a fresh approach,” Gorton said. “As we went through this process, we met with a number of people and talked to a lot of good hockey people, and it just kept coming back to David as the guy we wanted.”
In trading his Terrier scarlett for Ranger blue, Quinn becomes the third former NCAA bench boss to jump directly to the professional ranks over the last three seasons, following Dave Hakstol, who went from the University of North Dakota to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2015, and Jim Montgomery, who graduated from the University Denver to the Dallas Stars earlier this year. Gorton is the latest NHL exec to tap into the college coaching pool, a decision he felt was necessary to avoid any “retreads” with established former NHL coaches, such as Alain Vigneault, the coach he fired mere hours after the Rangers concluded the season with a 5-0 loss to the Flyers on April 7.
“I basically ruled out veteran NHL coaches,” Gorton said. Instead, he seriously considered “between five and ten” total guys, from NHL assistants to college and minor league coaches, and coaches from overseas —“all walks of life”—before circling back to a guy he’s known for 25 years in Quinn.
And why not? This guy seems to have it all. He’s got jokes: staring out over the crowd for his introductory press conference on Thursday, Ranger blue fluorescent lights gleaming down from above, his first public words as the official Rangers coach were: “This is different than a BU press conference, I’ll tell you that.” He later was reluctant to reveal that, as a defenseman growing up in Rhode Island during the eras of Bobby Orr and Ray Bourque, of course his favorite team was the Bruins. “The Rangers,” he quickly added with a knowing smile, “were my second-favorite.”
He’s got schemes: “Practice is going to be important. You’ve got to come to the rink every day with a game-like mentality and work on getting better. We’re going to do that. We’re going to be in great shape. Our practice will be fast, and with a lot of attention to detail.”
He’s got similar goals: “We all seem to be on the same page. Through the process of talking with them [Gorton and assistant GM-slash-BU legend Chris Drury], every time they said, ‘this is what we’re looking to do’ instinctively I would say to myself, ‘I do that. That’s kind of my coaching DNA.'”
He’s got respect for his team: “I’ve been fortunate enough to get approached by some NHL teams over the past few years, but when it’s the New York Rangers it’s a little bit different. It’s the pinnacle of the coaching profession. If you ask coaches in hockey what job they would want to have, this would be at the top. This is really the only situation I would’ve left Boston University for.”
And, if you believe Gorton’s wife, Cyndi (or if you saw any of the images of his face spread across the MSG marquee over the last few days), he’s got some charm as well: “My wife and I, we had dinner with him [on Wednesday],” Gorton said. “I said to her, ‘Well, what’d you think?’ and she said, ‘Oh, he’s handsome!’”
Quinn says he gets mistaken for Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, another former Terrier, “15 times a day.” The Rangers would certainly be pleased if Quinn has close to the amount of immediate success in the Big Apple that Sullivan’s had in the Steel City, but that will have to wait. For now, Quinn, like Sullivan surely did, will draw from the teachings of his long list of coaching mentors, including Ben Smith, who first introduced a 26-year-old Quinn to the world of coaching at Northeastern, and Quinn’s mentor, former boss, former coach and predecessor at BU, Jack Parker.
“One of the great things about college hockey is you’re more than a coach,” Quinn said. “You develop lifelong relationships, you have an impact on players on and off the ice. One of the things that drew me to coaching is how much the coaches meant to me and my life, and I was hoping to have that type of impact on our players.”
For many teams in many leagues, four straight trips to the playoffs, including one appearance in the Stanley Cup Final, would be seen as a success. That’s what Vigneault, a former Jack Adams Award winner with Vancouver in 06-07, produced in his five-year run on Broadway. But that wasn’t good enough for this ownership group or the fans.
“I think it’s pretty well-documented that, our team, we had a good run for a long time. We got to a certain point where our franchise needed a change,” Gorton said. He referenced the multiple high-profile trades his team, perennially buyers at the deadline, made this year, shipping Ryan McDonough and J.T. Miller to Tampa Bay and Rick Nash and Nick Holden to Boston.
“It’s an exciting time. When you go through something like that, it’s an eye-opening experience. We have a lot of good players on our team still, and now we’re adding a coach that, obviously, we think a lot of to lead us in the future.”
It’s been an unusual offseason for one of those good players left on the team, Henrik Lundqvist. It’s just the second time in his 13-year run on Broadway that his team has failed to make the playoffs. Still, while it’s painful at times, he says he watches the postseason because it motivates him to get back there.
“The whole second half of the season was strange. It was tough to go through that,” the former Vezina Trophy winner said at a charity event earlier in May. “Obviously we’re going through some rebuilding here, a unique phase, and I haven’t experienced this in 13 years.”
He said there wasn’t any specific coach he had his eyes on, but he knew there were a lot of good options lurking beneath most people’s radars.
“I think there’s a lot of good young coaches out there right now, they understand the game and they work really hard,” he said. “They’ve proven themselves at the college level, and there are some good coaches overseas as well that have done the same thing.”
Gorton wouldn’t say if he consulted any active players on this decision, but that’s fine with Lundqvist. He said it’s better to let the management focuses on the team in the offseason while he focuses on himself.
“I’m probably going to skate more this summer, start earlier, there’s definitely a few things that I need to work on,” he said. “And then, obviously, there’s a lot of different things the team needs to put in place. Hopefully we’re going to have a good summer here as an organization, make some good decisions and get some big pieces for the team. Then we’ll take off and go.”
Well, chalk this up as a good decision. Now, it’s time to go.