Midway through a Hall of Fame playing career, Ron Francis took care and notice of a young forward who had yet to make his fulltime mark in the NHL.
Now assistant GM and director of player development for the Carolina Hurricanes, Ron Francis remembers thinking Jeff Daniels would make a good head coach someday.
“It’s something that, all along, I knew he was capable of doing, based on the way he prepared himself as a player,” Francis said. “He was very thorough in his preparation, and I don’t think that will be any different as a coach.
“He is constantly reading up on things and looking at systems and video and analyzing them. He doesn’t take anything for granted. He works hard for everything and is very complete in his preparation. A guy like that normally translates into a pretty good coach.”
Five years after retiring from a 15-year playing career, nearly half of which was spent in the NHL, someday has arrived for Daniels.
After four seasons as an assistant coach with the ’Canes, the 40-year-old ex-forward will make his debut behind the bench as Albany’s seventh head coach when the Rats host Bridgeport in Saturday’s regular-season opener.
Daniels takes over as head coach and GM from Tom Rowe, who filled Daniels’ spot on Carolina’s coaching staff under Peter Laviolette.
“It’s the right move for him and the organization at this point in his career,” ’Canes’ GM Jim Rutherford said. “He had a good playing career and was a good assistant coach. He needs to have his own team to take that next step.
“We would not have sent him there if we did not think he could continue to develop the players the way Tom did. I’ve known Jeff for a long time. He’s got great
character. He’s a real good leader, and I really believe he’ll do a good job there.”
Originally drafted 108th overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1986, Daniels has a long history with the organization, dating back to Carolina’s NHL predecessor, the Hartford Whalers.
Daniels spent parts of seven seasons as a player with the ’Canes, Whalers and their former AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons, in addition to his tenure as an NHL assistant coach.
In all, he played 940 pro games in the NHL, AHL and defunct
International League, winning two championships and reaching three other league finals. In other words, he’s been where the current crop of Rats are now, and want to be in the future.
“I think that’s one of my strengths,” Daniels said. “I’ve been in their shoes. I started out in the minors. I’ve been called up, sent down, traded, every scenario you can think of. I won my first year pro in the minor leagues and won up top, and there were years that I didn’t make the playoffs.
“I know what these guys go through and, hopefully, I can
relate that to them and have them keep pushing forward, and never get settled or be content. As soon as you get content, someone else is going to come along and pass you. I’m excited about our team.”
As a player, coach and volunteer, ex-captain Geordie Kinnear has been around the Rats for most of their 16-year history. He has skated under, and worked alongside, some intense and outspoken coaches such as John Cunniff, Red Gendron and Rowe. Daniels’ approach is far more laid back.
“He’s a good teacher of the game, has a great personality and can communicate with the players because he’s been at every level and had success at every level,” Kinnear said. “That’s what he brings.
“I think it speaks well to being a good coach. The more that you’ve been and done, you can relate those experiences to the players. Jeff was the type of player that had to learn the game. Every training camp, he had to earn his spot. Being down here, he’s going to help our prospects and players make the transition to the NHL.”
That transition was a gradual one for Daniels, who turned pro in 1988 with Pittsburgh’s former IHL affiliate in Muskegon, who captured the 1989 Turner Cup. He played parts of five seasons for Lumberjacks teams, getting his first taste of the NHL with Pittsburgh in 1990-91.
It was there he met Francis, who led the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles in 1991 and 1992, the latter which included Daniels.
“Being from Canada, it’s all you did growing up, playing hockey and watching it,” Daniels said. “To actually experience that . . . it’s all you think it is and more. It’s tough to explain until you actually get caught in that moment. It’s something you’ll always have and always remember.”
Daniels never played more than 69 games, or had more than five goals or nine points in any NHL season. He reached the Stanley Cup finals again as a player with Carolina in 2002, and had his name inscribed on Lord Stanley’s cup again as a coach when the ’Canes won in 2006.
“You talk to any player and they wish they could play forever,” Daniels said. “It comes to a point where your skills start to diminish and you’re not as fast, and the young kids are coming up and eager to take your spot.”
To get ready for his new job, Daniels sought advice from people like Laviolette, Francis and Kevin McCarthy, a ’Canes assistant coach since 1999 who was Daniels AHL head coach in Springfield from 1995-97 and again with the Beast of New Haven in 1997-98, where Daniels was team captain.
“I’d be dumb not to ask different people for their opinion,” Daniels said. “I obviously learned a lot the last few years from Peter Laviolette. I spent some talking to him and asking him stuff, along with Kevin McCarthy, who is someone I have a lot of respect for.
“Ronny is someone who took me under his wing when we played together in Pittsburgh. We kind of lived near each other, and we’d drive to the rink together. He looked
after me, being a young guy, and I’ve always had a lot of respect for the job he did on the ice and is
Francis is confident that the transition from Rowe to Daniels will be a smooth one.
“We were fortunate to have a guy like Tom down there for a long time with a lot of experience, and Geordie Kinnear came in and did an excellent job for us last year,” Francis said. “Jeff has plenty of experience. He’s very honest, very fair and very knowledgeable in
every facet of the game.
“We think it’s a good fit for the organization. There’s a lot of young kids down there this year, and he’s a guy that can work with them and develop them, and sort of keep the ship steered in the right direction.”