Jay Varady’s Union College hockey playing career ended before the start of his senior season in 2000-01 because of narrowing of the spinal cord, an injury that was diagnosed late in the previous season when he lost feeling in his neck.
While the injury kept Varady off the ice as a player, it didn’t keep him from participating in the sport as a coach.
A coaching career that started as a volunteer assistant for the 2000-01 season under head coach Kevin Sneddon has turned into a passion for Varady. Last week, before the start of the National Hockey League season, the Arizona Coyotes promoted the 42-year-old Varady from head coach of their American Hockey League affiliate, the Tuscon Roadrunners, to assistant coach with the Coyotes under head coach Rick Tocchet.
“Everything happens for a reason,” Varady said during a phone call Tuesday night from Las Vegas, where the Coyotes were playing a two-game series against the Golden Knights. “At that time, you don’t really realize how it’s going to go, or what twists it’s going to take, or what turn there’s going to be. It happened, and here I am on this coaching path. I’m happy on this path.”
Varady was the head coach of the Roadrunners the last two seasons. He got his first taste of helping the Coyotes during last summer’s playoffs.
“Well, it’s been kind of an interesting period of time right now,” Varady said. “Obviously, the Coyotes went into the bubble [in Edmonton, Alberta], and I went into the bubble with the Coyotes at the end of last season because there is thing called a ‘taxi squad.’ There’s extra players around that were our American League players in case somebody got hurt. I was kind of managing those guys a little bit, and it worked out where I was added to the staff to look after those guys a little bit.”
Varady compiled a 70-45-11 record in his two seasons with Tucson. He was the coach of the Pacific Division for the 2020 AHL All-Star Game.
“Everybody, when they’re growing up, they want to be part of the NHL, and they think the dream is always to be a player,” Varady said. “Coaching was the next-best opportunity, and that was something I was really working for throughout coaching and the kind of jobs I was looking at. That’s what I really wanted to do, is I wanted to try and be an NHL coach in some capacity.”
When Sneddon first offered Varady a chance at coaching, he was reluctant to take it.
“No way I want to have this job,” Varady said with a laugh. “No way I want to be a coach.”
When he graduated in 2001 with bachelor’s degree in economics, Varady entered the business world in the banking industry. But after a while, the hockey itch grew stronger.
“What I missed was being at the rink,” Varady said. “When I got into it, I realized that hockey and coaching was my passion. That’s a little bit of how I got into coaching after the opportunity [at Union]. Kevin Sneddon and [assistant coach] Kevin Patrick were great to me. They gave me a lot of opportunity to see how a Division I program runs and is operated. It gave me a lot of inside knowledge early.
“You look around coaches, usually they have a pro career, play for a period of time. At 29, 30 [years old], they start to transition from playing into coaching. I was a 24-year-old coach with a year of college hockey [coaching] experience, which was amazing for me looking back.”
In December 2001, Varady left the banking world to become a coach with the Pittsburgh Forge of the North American Hockey League. The Forge won the NAHL Robertson Cup championship in 2002-03.
The following season, Varady joined the Everett Silvertips of the Western Hockey League, which is part of Canadian major junior hockey. He served as an assistant coach (2003-07) and associate head coach (2007-10). Varady was the video coach of Team USA when it won the World Junior Championship in 2010.
He was looking to become a head coach, and an opportunity came up in France in 2011. He took over Ducs d’Angers, and he guided the team to the 2013 regular-season title and an appearance in the league final.
“It was a situation where, at the time, I would go into interviews and in the interview, they would say, ‘You did a pretty good job with the interview, but you have no head coaching experience,'” Varady said. “I realized that I would have to take a head coaching job somewhere to gain that experience, to gain that knowledge on my resume. I had a connection with a player over there and he said, ‘Our coach just left, would you be interested in interviewing.’ So I interviewed.”
Varady returned to the United States in 2013 when he became head coach of the USHL’s Sioux City Musketeers. In four seasons, Varady compiled a 136-88-0-16 record. The team won the USHL title in 2016 and reached the final the following year.
He returned to Canadian major junior hockey in 2017 when he took over the Ontario Hockey League’s Kingston Frontenacs. The Frontenacs went 36-23-6-3 and reached the OHL Eastern Conference final.
When he first took over in Tuscon, Varady knew that, since he never played in the pros, it was going to be a challenge for him to coach professional players.
“Everybody’s aware of that,” Varady said. “Everybody understands everybody’s playing career. But I think everybody brings a little something different to the staff. For me, I love to work with players. I love to work with players with video. I love to go on the ice after and before practice to work with players.
“In terms of what I try to do, I try to establish a relationship with those guys with the understanding that I’m trying to help their game and help them be better on a day-to-day basis. When you can do that, then you have a partnership. The players and the coaches have a partnership working together.”