Jared Bednar's evolution into one of the brightest coaching minds in hockey

Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar confers with players during the third period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in Denver. (David Zalubowski/AP)

DENVER — When the night began, Jared Bednar was adamant. He was not yet ready to hang up the blades.

But over the course of this hot summer evening in South Carolina in 2002, his friend and former ECHL teammate Jason Fitzsimmons made a pitch that would expedite the process of Bednar becoming one of the brightest minds in the coaching fraternity.

“I had just been named the head coach and director of hockey operations of the South Carolina Stingrays and ownership told me I had to find my own replacement because I had been the assistant,” Fitzsimmons, now a pro scout with the Washington Capitals, says. “I had one guy in mind and it was Jared. That was the only call I made.”

Bednar lived around the corner from Fitzsimmons and was invited over for a chat.

Fitzsimmons shared the good news of his promotion and followed that up with his sales pitch, hoping Bednar would agree to join him behind the bench.

“I asked him about his future and he said he still wanted to play hockey, he wanted to come back and play,” says Fitzsimmons. “I had a different plan. I said it would be great if you joined my coaching staff.”

Bednar was 30 years old, a valued veteran leader and captain of the Stingrays, a hard-nosed player who loved the game and was known for sticking up for his teammates. Four times in his pro career, he eclipsed 200 penalty minutes, but he wasn’t just a tough guy either. He studied the game closely and he had a way of connecting with people, something that remains evident today as he’s into his sixth season as the bench boss of the Colorado Avalanche.

Fitzsimmons knew that when Bednar made up his mind about something, he was resolute in his beliefs but that didn’t prevent him from trying to coax him into changing his mind. A few beverages were consumed and the conversation continued. Eventually, Fitzsimmons had convinced Bednar to transition into the role of assistant coach.

“People ask me, why Jared? I was an assistant coach and I ran the D and I just saw the way he goes about his business,” says Fitzsimmons, a former goalie who was an assistant himself for four seasons before spending four more as the head coach of the Stingrays. “He’s a detailed person, X-and-O-wise and he taught me a lot when I was actually the assistant coach. We learned on the go and we learned together. We had some bumps along the way, but we had a lot of good times too. He’s always gone through his life with structure and I like that about him. He always has a game plan and he executes it and he doesn’t deviate. He’ll make adjustments on the go, but he’s strong in his beliefs.

“He’s a modern-day, old-school guy. There’s no grey area with Jared. It’s cut and dry. You know where you stand and he’s not afraid to tell you and it doesn’t matter if you’re one of the best players on the team or you’re a first-year guy. He’s going to treat everyone fairly. The other thing that made my decision (easy) is that when you have an assistant coach, you want someone you can trust and Jared is as honest as the day is long. I love that about him to this day. That’s why we still remain great friends.”

Neither individual could have guessed how impactful the conversation and subsequent decision would be for Bednar, who is on the verge of opening up the 2022 Stanley Cup Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday at Ball Arena.

Bednar spent four seasons as an assistant with the Stingrays, earning a promotion of his own in the summer of 2007 when Fitzsimmons left for the job with the Capitals.

In his first season in charge, Bednar led the Stingrays to the ECHL conference final and the following campaign they captured the Kelly Cup in a dramatic Game 7 victory over the Alaska Aces.

That’s where longtime NHL goalie James Reimer first encountered Bednar.

Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar watches his team play against the Minnesota Wild during the first period of an NHL hockey game Sunday, Feb. 9, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Hannah Foslien)

Reimer was a rookie pro in the Toronto Maple Leafs organization during the 2008-09 season and had spent time with the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League and the Reading Royals of the ECHL before he was acquired late in the season by the Stingrays.

“Honestly, probably one of my favourite coaches that I’ve ever played for,” Reimer says. “What I thought he did a great job of — and he had played for the organization, so he knew the area and he knew the guys — but he had a really good mix of being one of the guys, you could kind of joke around with him but then he would put on his coaching hat and guys respected him.

“Everyone bought in and he brought the team together. That was early on in his coaching career, but I think the demand of excellence, every good coach has that. That’s how you create a good hockey team. You have to demand that high level of execution and excellence. Otherwise, it’s human nature, you just won’t get there. You wanted to play well for him and you wanted to be at your best because you knew that expectation is there. He gives you everything he has, regardless of the scenario. He definitely brought it every day.”

Reimer was also impressed by Bednar’s integrity.

When he arrived in South Carolina, the regular starter, Jonathan Boutin, was out with a groin injury so Reimer played the final six games.

When the playoffs began, Bednar told the goalies that the plan was simple: since he had two great options at his disposal, if you win, you stay in.

If you lose, the other goalie starts the next game.

The flip-flopping took place through the first two rounds, but Boutin was in for all four games during a third-round sweep.

When the Stingrays lost Game 2, Bednar was faced with a critical decision. With the series tied 1-1, does he go back to Reimer and stick to his word or does he go with the guy who has played the bulk of the games most recently?

In another example of the conviction that Bednar has shown along the way, he turned to the rookie for Game 3 against the Aces.

Reimer rewarded the show of confidence with a win in Game 3 and 4, but the Stingrays lost in overtime in Game 5, so Boutin started Games 6 (a loss).

With the season on the line, Reimer was preparing himself for Boutin to get the call but Bednar turned to him once again and the Stingrays captured the title with the rookie between the pipes.

“He stuck to his word. In my mind, he didn’t have to,” said Reimer. “That was pretty instrumental in my development and how management of Toronto noticed me.”

Bednar’s players weren’t the only ones getting noticed.

Following the ECHL championship, Bednar spent one season as an assistant coach under Jim Playfair with the Abbotsford Heat, then spent two seasons as head coach of the Peoria Rivermen in the St. Louis Blues system.

Bednar spent the next four campaigns with the primary affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets, including two as an assistant and two more as head coach.

In 2015-16, the Cleveland Monsters captured the Calder Cup in front of a crowd of more than 19,000 fans at Quicken Loans Arena, finishing off an impressive 15-2 run with nine consecutive victories.

That Monsters team included a number of future Blue Jackets, including defenceman Zach Werenski and Calder Cup MVP Oliver Bjorkstrand (who had six game-winning goals in the playoffs), but Bednar’s ability to bring together a group of top prospects and role players was critical to the team’s success.

Of course the on-ice portion was important, but Bednar and longtime assistant coach Nolan Pratt put a heavy emphasis on team building, whether it was team dinners, ping pong tournaments or bowling outings.

“By the end of that year, our team was as close a hockey team as I’ve ever been a part of,” says Trent Vogelhuber, who played for Bednar for four seasons and was recently named head coach of the Monsters. “You can’t force that as a coach, but they did a great job of putting us in positions where it was encouraged, throughout the year. When the coach is encouraging it and doing it with you, over the course of six, seven months you just bond and gel and you start to care about your teammates a little bit more and your coaches a little bit more.

“When the margin for error is razor thin in May and June and you really do give a [expletive] — excuse me — care about the guy next to you, it might push you over the edge on those occasions, if it’s in overtime or whatever. You just give that little extra bit that maybe is subconscious because you love the guy. That was the biggest thing I remember about that team.”

Weeks after leading the Monsters to the AHL crown, Bednar was hired by the Avalanche following Patrick Roy's abrupt resignation in August.

"He is not ego-driven at all. He just wants to get better. "

The influence of Avalanche assistant general manager Chris MacFarland, who had known Bednar from his time with the Blue Jackets, was a factor but there was also an immediate bond forged with general manager Joe Sakic during the interview process.

“It's a connection,” Sakic said prior to the Western Conference final with the Edmonton Oilers. “We probably met for a couple hours, and it takes a couple of days to decide. It's just Jared's demeanour. We had a great conversation going over our team.”

Bednar’s NHL career got off to a rocky start, with the Avalanche finishing last in the league with a record of 22-56-4.

“Obviously, you’re going into it and you’re hitting the ground running, going one million miles an hour. You’re in the NHL and you’ve got three weeks before training camp and it’s all uncharted water. You were set up to fail,” says Fitzsimmons. “It wasn’t smooth sailing, but I remember talking to Jared in March of that first year and he started talking about ideas and ways to change the culture. We were spitballing. The wheels were turning and he wasn’t satisfied with the bad season, but he was trying to correct it mid-stride.

“I was impressed. He wasn’t worried about getting fired. He just wanted to fix the problem. When he sets his mind to something, he’s going to see it through. That was just a classic example.”

Some observers were curious if this would be a one-and-done scenario for Bednar, but Sakic stuck with his head coach.

The following season saw a 47-point improvement and represents the turning point of where the Avalanche are today, a bona fide Stanley Cup contender set to face the two-time defending champions.

“Bedsy [has] that calm presence behind the bench,” says Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar. “He's not a coach who is going to lose his emotions. Sometimes it's good to show emotion, but sometimes if players are seeing that it might put them on edge a little bit.

“He's always calm, always trusts us in every scenario and gives us the freedom to play the right way individually. But at the same time the coaches give us the systematic things to always fall back on. There's a really good balance here.”

Colorado Avalanche coach Jared Bednar confers with players during the third period of the team's NHL hockey game against the Vancouver Canucks on Wednesday, March 23, 2022, in Denver. (AP)

Throughout the course of this season and these playoffs, Bednar is constantly talking about the need for the Avalanche to get to their identity. Not only are the Avalanche one of the fastest — if not the fastest — teams in the NHL, their willingness to defend is the most improved area of their collective game.

“He loves it and he’s relentless with getting the team to play that he feels is the best,” says Vogelhuber. “He always preached pace and execution and being predictable with what you’re doing, so you can play fast. Watching Colorado, obviously they have a much more talented team — about as talented as it gets — but it reminds me of the way that our teams got to when we had success at the American Hockey League level. He’s super passionate about it and he knows what he’s talking about.”

Bednar also knows how to get the most out of his players, striking that balance between knowing when to pat them on the back for a job well done and when to ask for more when an individual may not have been at his best.

“Absolutely. It’s just the truth. There’s nothing demeaning about it and because he has respect and is honest with you, you can be critical of players in a positive way,” says Vogelhuber. “There’s no sugarcoating or trying to coddle players, but it’s not demeaning. It’s the truth and it’s always with the team’s best interest in mind, to try and get everybody playing their best and obviously the team playing their best. I don’t think any player has a problem with honesty, even sometimes if it’s brutal, especially when he does it in a respectful manner.”

That ability to explain exactly what he’s looking for is essential for both the cagey veteran and the modern-day player.

“A new-school coach. He’s great at coaching personalities, whether you have an intense guy like myself or Nathan MacKinnon, who is at another level, or a guy that has consistency issues, he’s really good at getting to each individual and keeping that relationship with each individual,” says Matt Calvert, who spent three seasons with the Avalanche before a back injury forced him to retire at the end of the 2021 season. “That’s a really important thing, especially with the new wave of kids coming in, they’re used to more communication and less yelling and that’s something Bedsy brings on a daily basis.

“The big thing for me is becoming a presence. A lot of these coaches do great at the junior level and the AHL level and then you’re dealing with the best players in the world that are making anywhere from 1-to-10 million dollars and sometimes they have a bigger voice than the coaches. The big thing with Bedsy is that he is not ego-driven at all. He just wants to get better. We talk about his evolution and he found that fine line of how can I be a players’ coach, but also I’m the guy that has to scratch these guys and cut these guys and deal with trades. I know he loves the game of hockey and he loves what he does. He lives and breathes it and guys like that get rewarded.”

Bednar, 50, is appreciative of the journey that brought him here and by his own admission, he’s gone through some important growth of his own during these six seasons guiding the Avalanche.

“It's all new to you when you first come and it’s a totally different ball game to the NHL from the American League,” Bednar said after the Avalanche advanced to the Stanley Cup final. “When I came I really felt that I was ready for the opportunity and I had this mentality to keep working hard at my craft so I was ready for the next level and the opportunity if the opportunity came. I was fortunate to get an opportunity in the American League after winning in the ECHL and the same thing in the NHL a few years later.

“I wasn’t in a rush to get to the NHL, I never played in the NHL, I’d still be coaching today if I was in the ECHL or the American League. But the opportunities came and I wanted to make sure I was ready. I put a lot of work into that and a lot of growth over the last few years, no question. It’s been a lot of fun and we’re going to get a heck of an opportunity here and try to finish this thing off.”

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