Q&A: Jay Leach on being interim head coach in the AHL

Altamont native Jay Leach has two games under his belt as the interim head coach for the Wilkes-Barr
Bridgeport Sound Tigers right winger Blair Riley, left, checks Albany Devils defenseman Jay Leach in a 2012 game at Times Union Center. Leach is now the interim head coach for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League.
Bridgeport Sound Tigers right winger Blair Riley, left, checks Albany Devils defenseman Jay Leach in a 2012 game at Times Union Center. Leach is now the interim head coach for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins of the American Hockey League.

Last Saturday morning, Altamont native Jay Leach was named interim head coach for the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, hours before facing the Albany Devils.

Leach, 36, was hired as an assistant coach for Mike Sullivan on July 7, but when Pittsburgh fired head coach Mike Johnston on Saturday and replaced him with Sullivan, Leach was handed the reins for the first time, and the Pens beat the Devils — the last team Leach played for, and captained — 4-0. Under his guidance, they also beat the Lehigh Valley Phantoms 3-0 on the road Wednesday.

Leach becoming a head coach is no surprise.

“I actually played with him and coached him for a bit,” Albany coach Rick Kowalsky. “He was always one of those players that asked about drills, spoke up in meetings and video meetings if he had a question or felt somebody wasn’t sure what was going on. Generally, those guys who are that open and communicative with the coaching staff or other players, you get the sense they’re going to get into coaching.”

But Leach thought he would have more time to prepare.

“I think you have to have goals and aspirations in mind, and mine definitely would be to be a head coach some day,” Leach said on July 7. “At the same time, there’s plenty to learn, frankly.”

After coaching two games, Leach spoke about coaching and his new responsibilities:

Q: So Jay, did you learn all there was to learn in time for your appointment as interim head coach?

A: I’m done, I’m good. I’m ready to go. [laughs] No, I think in an ideal world, I’d still be an assistant under Sully and learning every day from him, which I did. He’s a terrific teacher. He’s seen a ton in his playing career and in the past probably 15 years as a coach. He’s just very well-learned and he can talk, he can explain things, he’s got his system down to a T. There’s just a lot of things he does on a daily basis you pick up on. But he’s gone, and it just is what it is. For right now, I’m the head guy. I’m the guy trying to steer the ship and, more or less, just keep this train rolling the way he had it rolling.

Q: After Sullivan steered this team to an 18-5-0-0 start, is there a sense, at all, of ‘Whatever I do, I’ve got to avoid screwing that up,’ killing that momentum?

A: Yes, absolutely. I try not to put that sort of pressure on it, but at the same time, I think it’s very important for us to stay the course and, on a daily basis, keep things the way they were. I’m not going to be Mike Sullivan. He’s obviously older than I am, he has more experience, he has a booming voice — he has all these things. I can’t be someone I’m not, so that’s the No. 1 thing. I have to be authentic to these guys and just be myself. But in saying that, that’s not to say we can’t control our operation and how we do things on a day-to-day basis and do the exact same thing we’ve been doing, which is coming to work every day on time and having the meetings squared away and ready to go, showing up to practice and to play every night.

Q: Has the transition in practices been easy? Have you kept to the format Sullivan used?

A: We keep it familiar. We’ve had the same sort of practices. There were maybe 25 drills Sully and I had going for the last month, which we would rotate in and out. We keep the pace up. The last few days, I’ve done more of that, trying to keep it fresh and keep the pace up and get them a good skate, but keep it familiar, at the same time, so they know the drills and can go out there and execute and get ready for games.

Q: What has been the reaction from the players? Acceptance? Indifference? Do they even care who’s holding the whistle?

A: You’d think by their play, I’m not sure they do. In all honesty, they have an ownership of this team. Sully put them down this path, but in doing so, gave them a ton of ownership of their own team. They take responsibility for the way they play, and you can see it. Every time they go out there, they have pride in the way they work, they have pride in keeping to the system and playing in a team way. I’m sure there are moments when it’s different because he’s not here and I am, but at the same time, I think they have a real sense of team in that locker room.

Q: Was it an easy adjustment, sending out the forward lines, remembering they work shorter shifts than the D?

A: You’ve always got to be thinking two or three shifts ahead just to get lines back together. That’s an adjustment, because as a defensive coach, you’ve just got your six D. Even if you’re running matchups, you still can kind of get it going fairly easy. When you’ve got a penalty kill, and you’re splitting up your lines because there’s just two guys going out, that’s where you’ve almost got to just stop the bleeding and get a line out there, just so you can get back to normal. I want to say the first night I was fine with it, but [Wednesday] we got jumbled up once on a 4-on-3 or 5-on-3. I had to stop in my tracks and just call a line out, and then we were fine. It’s hard for me to say if that’s because I’m a rookie coach or that’s just the way it works.

Q: Did you have a chance to speak with Rick Kowalsky after Saturday’s game?

A: Rick and I have a terrific relationship. The end of my career as a player was spent with Rick, and I admire the type of guy he is. I had a chance to talk to him afterward, and he was very gracious. He offered a helping hand whenever I need it, which was super nice.

Q: From these two games, is there anything more you’ve learned about being a head coach?

A: The No. 1 thing is to be prepared — the old Boy Scout mentality. The thing I’m learning is to get organized and be prepared with the pre-scouting for the meetings, and then with the logistical things like bus times and hotels and meetings. You’ve got to have your ducks in a row so you can have the operation running smoothly, so the guys know exactly where they’re supposed to be and when they’re supposed to be there. Then you don’t give them any excuse to not go out there and perform the way they should.

Q: Regardless of what happens next with the organization and this coaching position, how valuable, and in what ways, do you see this interim experience being?

A: It’s invaluable. It’s a terrific opportunity to get a taste in this role. Not only that, the opportunity here in Wilkes-Barre, this is a pretty coveted job in the coaching community. They’ve had pretty good teams here and a pretty loyal fan base. They’re expected to win. For me to be in this position and experience those sorts of pressures, it’s invaluable. I’m pretty fortunate to be in this spot.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Bill Cain at 395-3154, [email protected] or @Bill_Cain_ on Twitter.

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