Why Mike Vellucci is ready to be an NHL head coach

Mike Vellucci has enjoyed success everywhere he's coached. (Photo via AHL)

Twenty-six times the car rolled on that Ontario highway.

During about the 13th flip, that’s when Mike Vellucci crashed through the passenger window and broke his back.

It was the summer of 1984. Al Iafrate, the car’s driver, had fallen asleep next to his fellow Belleville Bulls defenceman. Both players had just had their dream realized by getting selected in the NHL draft. Iafrate flew out that same window and busted his ribs. At least, that’s what Vellucci was told after he’d been stitched up.

“I don’t remember a lot. I remember a little. I remember seeing a green road sign coming towards me. That’s about all,” Vellucci says today, over a phone from Wilkes-Barre, Penn., willing to touch on that traumatic night.

“I really don’t talk about it much. I try not to think about it. I’m very fortunate to be here when you really sit back and look at what happened. We’re lucky to be alive, for sure.”

The accident gave the young man perspective, strength and determination.

“I saw three doctors. Two of them said I’d never play a sport again. And one of them said, ‘I can fix you.’ I picked that doctor, and I ended up playing in the National Hockey League, when I was told I’d never walk normal or even play a sport,” says Vellucci, who sat out the entire 1984-85 season recovering.

Bone fusion surgery cobbled three vertebrae back together. Six months were spent in a cast.

“Nobody is gonna tell me no, that I couldn’t do it. It’s one of those things: it’s not what happens to you; it’s how you deal with what happens to you.”

Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman talk to a lot of people around the hockey world, and then they tell listeners all about what they’ve heard and what they think about it.

Through his 27 years of coaching young men, Vellucci, now 53, seldom if ever shares this personal tale of perseverance, but that spirit of hurdling the steepest of challenges seeps through in his constant one-on-one meetings with his AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the farm club for Pittsburgh.

“I don’t know why I don’t talk about it much. I don’t use it as a crutch or think of it is as poor me. It’s just life experience I went through, and I overcame it. I don’t really reflect on it, but I do talk to the players a lot. It’s amazing. I’m less of a coach and more of a psychologist nowadays,” says Vellucci, the American League’s reigning Coach of the Year.

In addition to meeting with his leadership group weekly, visiting with his training staff, and checking in constantly with Pens GM Jim Rutherford and senior management, Vellucci squeezes in six or seven daily individual “touches” with his players.

Despite two-plus decorated decades behind the benches of the NAHL’s Compuware Ambassadors, the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers, the AHL’s Charlotte Checkers and now the Baby Penguins — mostly serving the dual role as minor-league GM as well — Vellucci sees himself more as mentor than a coach.

“You have to have a heart. You have to help them through those things that come in their lives that are traumatic. You have to have communication now,” Vellucci explains.

“So, I just love the interaction with the players, helping them achieve their goals.”

One of the Penguins’ fathers passed away this season. Naturally, the player was rocked. Vellucci took it upon himself to speak to his player and ensure he got help. When Plymouth stars Tyler Seguin and Tom Wilson went on to win Stanley Cups, both reached back and invited Vellucci to their Cup parties.

“I’ve been invited to old players’ weddings. They’re calling me when they play their first NHL game or have their first baby. It’s a lot of fun to still be in their lives long after their hockey career’s done,” he goes on. “That’s the most fulfilling part of it, because I know that I had some kind of influence on their life, positive.

“I get calls like, ‘Are you in town? Can we get together for coffee?’ It’s just so rewarding.”

Vellucci isn’t a self-promoter. In a world where coaches invest three years in a town before padding the resume and bouncing upward, he isn’t a climber.

Modesty and loyalty are traits he picked up growing up in Farmington, Mich., from a father who flooded the winterly backyard rink for the boys and repeatedly turned down promotions from IBM. Instead, Frank Vellucci stuck with the same managerial role for 30-plus years so his children wouldn’t have to change schools or decorate a new bedroom.

Now that Vellucci’s own children are grown up, now that he’s hoisted a Calder Cup, he’s starting to itch for the ultimate career reward: an NHL head coaching gig.

The NHL came knocking with assistant opportunities when Vellucci was hoisting trophies and making deep runs in Plymouth, and again when he led the small-budget Charlotte Checkers to a pro championship in 2019, but he always put family first.

“The kids are older now. Now I started looking and thinking, ‘OK, now is the time. I’m ready. I’ve proven myself from the ground up, and I’m ready for the next challenge, which would be an NHL head coach,” Vellucci says.

“I’ve been a head coach my whole life and have the track record of winning at every level I’ve been at, and I’ve made the playoffs every year that I’ve coached. So, it’s something that I’m proud of. No matter what kind of team I have, I find a way to get us to the next level.”

What better example than the 2018-19 Checkers, who triumphed despite losing four of their best forwards to the higher levels? (Lucas Wallmark, Valentin Zykov and Warren Foegele all graduated to the Carolina Hurricanes, while Andrew Miller signed in Europe.)

“Usually when you win the American League, you have six veterans. I think I only had one or two,” Vellucci says. “We were the youngest team and had the lowest payroll by far, and we won the championship.”

Vellucci then pulled a Barry Trotz — won and done.

Loyal to former Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos, Vellucci and new Carolina owner Tom Dundon couldn’t come to terms on an extension of his expired contract. So, the coach was lured to the Penguins by Jim Rutherford, the very man who gave him his first GM/coaching/rink managing job for Compuware way back when he’d retired as a player.

(“I didn’t realize I wanted to be a coach until probably halfway through that first year, when I knew that everybody was trying to get that job and wanted that job,” Vellucci recalls. “I got it, and then we won the [1992] national championship my first year as a coach.”)

That Wilkes-Barre bench bosses have a long history of spring-boarding to the NHL — Mike Sullivan, John Hynes, Todd Reirden, Dan Bylsma, Joe Mullen, Michel Therrien — makes it an attractive destination.

“Put it this way: I had other opportunities also. I weighed them all,” Vellucci says. “The best opportunity was to go back with Jim in Pittsburgh.

“I have a multi-year deal, but it’s not holding me back from anything in the NHL. Jim Rutherford has always been great with all his employees and helps promote them. If they have an opportunity to go the National Hockey League, he would never hold them back.”

While the coaching section of Mike Vellucci’s HockeyDB page runs long, the Hartford Whalers seventh-rounder’s NHL playing stat line is succinct: 2 GP, 0 G, 0 A, 11 PIM, in 1987-88.

Vellucci chuckles as he points out that he actually dressed for a third game in Hartford but didn’t get a GP credit because he was never given a shift.

“If I would’ve known that, I would’ve stepped on and took a too-many-men,” he quips.

And, yes, he did squeeze in a fighting major between sips of his cup of coffee.

“I don’t know if it was a scrap. I might’ve suckered somebody in the Boston Garden,” Vellucci says. “I had a choice between Nevin Markwart and Cam Neely. I decided Nevin Markwart was probably the smarter one.”

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So, why was Vellucci’s first foray into the bigs so brief?

“Probably because I wasn’t good enough, if we’re being honest,” he laughs.

Then he pauses and thinks. Then he communicates.

“I didn’t work as hard as I should have. That’s something I’ve always reflected on. I could’ve been in the weight room more. I was in the time of where the older guys never worked out during the summer and then the new guys coming up were working out in the summer.

“If I was to evaluate my career at the end, I should’ve been working even harder than I did. And I wouldn’t blame anybody other than myself for not sticking. But I got my opportunity, and I did pretty good.”

Vellucci’s first acceptance into the NHL may have been a blip, but remember: This was a young man recovering from a shattered back. That he walked at all was a minor miracle. That he walked to the top is a major inspiration.

“I dealt with it in a positive way and worked through it,” Vellucci says. “That’s definitely what I learned from that accident — you can feel sorry for yourself, or you can do something about it.

If, 35 years later, Mike Vellucci gets another opportunity at the NHL, here’s betting he’ll do pretty good.

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