It was almost two decades ago, when he was getting his feet wet behind the bench, that Ryan McGill noticed one of his players had a similar mind for coaching.
McGill was newly in charge of the WHL’s Edmonton Ice midway through the 1997-98 season when a lanky winger named Kris Knoblauch exhibited some key traits that wound up being good to use.
“He was a very good team player in the dressing room,” McGill said. “Very methodical in his approach to the game. He had a patient approach to the game as a player. That shows through his coaching.”
McGill’s Owen Sound Attack and Knoblauch’s Erie Otters face off in the OHL’s Western Conference final, beginning Friday.
While there are plenty of notable players in the series – likely the CHL’s best line in Dylan Strome, Taylor Raddysh and three-time 50-goal man Alex DeBrincat as Exhibit A, B and C – the parallels of two of the men wearing suits adds some intrigue.
McGill, 48, and Knoblauch, 38, are two of the top coaches in the CHL. And their career paths have been eerily alike.
After Knoblauch graduated from major junior and moved on to the Canadian university system, McGill and the Kootenay Ice won the Ed Chynoweth Cup as WHL champions in 2000 and 2002.
Knoblauch’s first head coaching job was with the Ice and he, too, guided the club to a league title in 2011. (McGill actually replaced Knoblauch in 2012 for his second tour of duty with the franchise. Knoblauch was fired after he reportedly fielding interest in a job with his alma mater, the University of Alberta Golden Bears.)
Both have been assistant coaches for Team Canada at the world junior championship, McGill in 2014 and Knoblauch in 2017. He’s on Dominique Ducharme’s staff again for the 2018 tourney.
Now, of course, the pair are rivals in the OHL’s wild west and can lay claim to excellent results – something to which Knoblauch owes his old coach a bit of gratitude.
“I learned a lot,” Knoblauch said of playing for McGill with Edmonton and part of the following season with Kootenay. “I was fairly new to the league and Ryan was new to coaching. Obviously, you could tell he was going to be a very successful coach right from the start. I had a very positive experience playing for him.”
McGill is in his second season in Owen Sound, a smaller community much like Cranbrook, B.C. With top NHL draft prospects Nick Suzuki, Jonah Gadjovich and Markus Phillips and star goaltender Michael McNiven (MTL), McGill built off a 32-win campaign last season to post 49 in 2016-17, good for second in the league.
Right in front of him were the Otters, with his old winger at the helm.
Knoblauch guided Erie to another 50-win season, the fourth time he’s done so in as many full seasons in Pennsylvania.
The first two of those years were with the great Connor McDavid. Yet, the Otters have continued to succeed without him.
Knoblauch credits current Toronto Maple Leaf Connor Brown and Adam Pelech for setting the example for McDavid to follow and the current crop of Strome, DeBrincat and Raddysh’s older brother Darren for picking up the torch.
"Connor has a lot to do with our success right now,” Knoblauch said. “He’s very professional and works hard. If he didn’t lead like that, our team and our players aren’t probably in the situation they are right now.”
Despite those successful regular seasons, what Erie doesn’t have to its credit is an OHL championship. The closest the Otters came was in 2015, McDavid’s final foray, when they lost in the OHL final to the Oshawa Generals.
This year, they survived a valiant comeback from the archrival London Knights. The Otters allowed a Knights’ tying goal in the third period of Game 7, but won the series when Carolina Hurricanes prospect Warren Foegele scored in overtime.
This series against the Attack represents Strome’s fourth trip to the semifinal.
“There’s obviously a bit of extra pressure on us, just being here for the fourth time,” said Strome, an Arizona Coyotes top pick and Canadian world junior captain.
“Hopefully this is our year. We’ve been looking forward to this for a while. Everyone marked this on our calendar. We wanted to get back to this spot and go even further. Being here for the fourth time is hopefully beneficial for us. Hopefully we can bring our playoff experience to form.”
Knoblauch would love to add a second major junior league title to his resume – much like his former coach.
However, neither of the two claim to be drawing on their winning experiences from yesteryear.
The 2011 Ice and his Otters are too different for Knoblauch to compare. The Ice were plucky underdogs that relied on sound systems and goaltending. The Otters are full of star power.
For McGill, his last title came 15 years ago, a lifetime in hockey.
The first trophy win came just after his time teaching Knoblauch. McGill was an AHL coach and an assistant on Brent Sutter’s staff in Calgary before returning to the Ice.
Now he’s back facing his former pupil. And he feels like he’s a much more equipped than he was way back when.
“I had no idea how to coach when I was coaching Kris,” McGill said. “I was just starting to learn. I’ve learned more in the last three to five years than in my first five years.”