Derek King comfortable in new role as Blackhawks assistant coach: ‘I have no ego about it’
Most NHL interim head coaches leave for new organizations if they don’t get the head job permanently. But King isn’t like most coaches.
Derek King was sitting around his Florida vacation home in June when Kyle Davidson called with news: He had hired someone else to be the Blackhawks’ new coach.
But Davidson told King to sit tight for a few days before looking for other job openings.
“I waited,” King said Friday. “Then, all of a sudden, I had great conversations with Luke [Richardson], and he asked me if I’d be willing to come aboard and help them. I guess Kyle and the rest of the staff had a lot of good things to say about me and felt I could still contribute. So after that, it was a piece of cake. We just hashed out the contract negotiations, and here I am, back with the Hawks again.”
Behind the scenes during the days in between, Davidson — the general manager who appointed King as interim coach last November — had approached Richardson, his new choice as coach, about the possibility.
“When we brought Luke in and [started] developing a profile of the coaching staff, we wanted really good people,” Davidson said last month. “We wanted a group that’s going to drive a really positive culture. Derek is someone that’s emblematic of that endeavor. [To] Luke, we said, ‘We really value Derek, but we’re not going to force anything on you. This is your staff.’ ”
It’s rare for an interim coach to return to the same organization the following season in a lesser role — in this case, as one of three assistant coaches. Egos typically get in the way, in both directions. Ex-interim coaches often don’t want to start reporting to someone else, and new coaches often want a clean slate to bring in their own assistants.
Of the six other interim coaches besides King around the NHL last season, three (Edmonton’s Jay Woodcroft, Vancouver’s Bruce Boudreau and Montreal’s Martin St. Louis) dropped the interim tag, while the other three (Florida’s Andrew Brunette, Philadelphia’s Mike Yeo and Winnipeg’s Dave Lowry) didn’t return and thus left for different organizations (New Jersey, Vancouver and Seattle, respectively).
But King’s flexibility, humility and affability are also rare traits in NHL coaches, and they make him better-suited than anyone else to navigate this unusual transition.
He admitted he felt some initial disappointment about not keeping the top job. Still, he wanted to stay in northern Illinois, since the area has become home for his family — although they are moving from Rockford closer to Chicago this summer — and he saw no issues with an assistant role.
“[In my] conversations with Luke, I felt really comfortable, and I felt that he felt comfortable, that we could work together and I’d be a good fit for him,” he said. “I wasn’t upset. I wasn’t not going to talk to him because he got the job. I have no ego about it. I wish I would’ve got the job, but I’m more than happy and privileged to be part of the organization.”
King and Richardson seemingly know half the hockey world, but their social spheres barely included each other before this summer. Their reminiscing so far has primarily been about playing against each other in the OHL in the mid-1980s. The same goes for King and new fellow assistant Kevin Dean.
King does know the Hawks’ other new assistant, Derek Plante, fairly well. They played together in 2001-02 with the Munich Barons in Germany.
The four coaches’ philosophies and visions align well nonetheless, and they’ve begun to roughly divide duties, although more specific job descriptions will be “etched in stone” between now and the start of training camp Sept. 21.
King and Plante, as forwards during their playing careers, will focus more on the offensive side, while Dean, as a former defenseman, focuses on the opposite end.
“Luke’s fairly similar to me,” King said, “[in that] we’ll have job details but we’ll all work together, help each other out and throw in our opinions on things.”
An assistant role with more hands-on coaching opportunities and a narrower column of responsibilities could play more to King’s strengths, too.
He was thrown into the fire last year, his first as an NHL coach in any capacity, when he inherited a poorly constructed, mentally broken team abruptly 12 games into a lost season. He did a much better job than predecessor Jeremy Colliton did, restoring morale in the locker room and guiding the Hawks to a respectable-given-the-circumstances 27-33-10 record the rest of the way, but the situation still challenged his abilities.
Asked to reflect on the knowledge he gained, King — humble as always — was quick to point out his mistakes.
“The biggest thing I learned was to take more control over the team,” he said. “You’re busy as a head coach. You’re dealing with all these different people from the outside. And I maybe got a little bit away from the coaching part of it.
“It [requires] talking to the media, talking to [team services director] Tony Ommen, talking to the trainers, making sure everybody’s good to go, talking to the doctors, making sure everybody’s healthy. And by the time practice is ready, you’re like, ‘You know what, I’ve still got to go over the practice plan with the coaches.’ ”
The experience did convince King, who previously had always seen himself as a purely minor-league guy, that he does have the chops — and the ambition — to be an NHL head coach. That thought clearly lingers somewhere in the back of his mind.
“If I got that opportunity again, I’d take more time to do those little things that I’ve always done,” he said. “I’ve always done some video [analysis]. I’ve always broken games down. I’ve always been a lot more involved with the coaching part of it.”
But for now, he’s wholeheartedly looking forward to his first camp and first full season as an NHL assistant, even if the route he followed to this milestone wasn’t exactly conventional.
“It’ll be a lot easier,” he said. “I’ll have a lot more time to do what I like to do: sit one-on-one with forwards and show them clips and work with them after practice. Stuff like that.”