WINNIPEG -- When Dave Lowry placed the call to Darryl Sutter in January of 2003, he wasn’t quite sure how it was going to go and had no idea where it was going to eventually lead.
What Lowry knew at the time was that he felt he was ready for a change.
After 17 seasons -- and more than 1,000 games in the NHL -- he’d spent the previous four months in the American Hockey League with the Saint John Flames. And while there was a part of him that enjoyed the mentorship role he had been playing in the minors, Lowry figured it might be time to explore the next chapter of his career.
So after Sutter took over as the Calgary Flames head coach, Lowry dialled up his former bench boss with the San Jose Sharks to run an idea by him.
“I had actually called Darryl and said listen, I’m in the AHL right now. What are the chances of me coming up and being an assistant coach?” Lowry recalled in a recent interview. “Pay me out until the end of the year, I’ll see if I like coaching.
“He says ‘no, I’m not doing that.’”
Lowry was taken aback by Sutter’s swift response.
This seemed like a win-win situation that he was proposing.
Why in the world would Sutter not take him up on his offer?
As the conversation continued and Lowry tried to contain his disbelief, soon Sutter countered with a better offer than the one that was initially proposed.
“He said ‘can you play?’” said Lowry. “I said what do you mean can I play? ‘Can you play the way I know you can play?’ I said yeah. I was hurt at the time and I was getting close to coming back. He said ‘get yourself ready to play and when you’re cleared to play, you’re coming back here.’
“True to his word, I got cleared to play and the next thing you know, I was on a plane back to Calgary.”
This isn’t a yarn about Lowry -- the current interim head coach of the Winnipeg Jets -- overcoming the odds to return to the NHL at the age of 36, nearly 12 months after being stripped of his Flames captaincy by then-coach Greg Gilbert.
It’s a recollection of when the seeds of a coaching career were planted and how that call to Sutter that Lowry made eventually led him down that path -- even if it happened after this unlikely twist and turn.
That Lowry played 34 games and chipped in 19 points during that stretch run after the Flames thought he was probably done was a testament to his ability to put in the work in the AHL and ultimately prove he had a bit more left in the tank.
Lowry made the Flames again the next fall, though an injury limited him to 18 games during the regular season.
While he was rehabbing and with Sutter serving a suspension, the coach asked Lowry to step behind the bench as an assistant coach.
That continued for the next several months. Lowry would skate with the team, but when it came time for games to be played, he was in a suit and on the bench, getting a first-hand look at what the coaching profession looks like.
“That’s how I really got the coaching bug and I knew two things,” said Lowry. “I knew that my career was coming to an end and it really solidified that’s what I really wanted to do.”
His playing career wasn’t quite done, as Lowry suited up in 10 playoff games for the Flames that spring, including five in the Stanley Cup Final, where his team narrowly lost in seven games to the Tampa Bay Lightning.
By the fall of 2005, Lowry had taken a job as an assistant coach with the Calgary Hitmen of the Western Hockey League. In 2008-09, he was promoted to head coach and led his team to the WHL final that season.
That summer he joined Brent Sutter’s staff as an assistant with the Flames and after three seasons, he returned to the WHL as head coach of the Victoria Royals.
Cameron Hope was the general manager of the Royals when Lowry interviewed for the job back in 2012.
What was scheduled to be a half an hour get-to-know-you session turned into a two-hour conversation. It didn’t take long for Hope to realize Lowry was the guy he was going to hire.
“You can tell there is no agenda. He’s interested in everything and he’s interested in making the best out of any situation he’s put into and he has the ability to articulate it,” said Hope. “But there’s no baloney. He’s a straight-ahead guy who is genuinely interested in everything that has to do with hockey and getting the best out of athletes. It’s incredibly impressive. Sometimes I think that he probably has a low tolerance for B.S. and that’s good. That’s a positive thing when you’ve got somebody that has his intelligence.
“He just blew me away with his level of intelligence and clearly the level of integrity that was behind everything he said. Sometimes you leave a discussion with someone and you think, maybe I’ve been hoodwinked. Maybe this guy is just a good talker, but there was no chance of that with Dave. You could see what he was. What you saw is what you get.”
Over the course of five seasons working together, Hope marvelled at Lowry’s ability to connect and communicate with his players.
“You can only get there with a player and have their respect when the player knows that it’s not personal -- and that the coach cares about you,” said Hope. “That’s the same for being a leader in any business. But you can’t if you don’t have that foundation built. He’s exceptional at building that foundational trust amongst those that he leads.
“Some coaches are better as assistant coaches and some coaches are better as head coaches. I think he’s actually better as a head coach because he can bring that particular skill set to bear that much more effectively.”
That’s part of why Hope is confident in Lowry’s ability to handle the high stakes of being an NHL bench boss in a passionate Canadian market.
“In terms of coaching, he’s part of that pretty small group that ticks all of the boxes for what you need to be a head coach at the highest levels these days in hockey,” said Hope. “It’s a special mix of skills that you have to have and he’s got them all. You have to be a high-energy person that understands the game, obviously. You have to understand today’s athlete and it helps to have been a high-performance athlete yourself. You have to be just a little bit smarter than the average bear in terms of understanding the psychology of what it takes to motivate a team.
“That sounds like it’s right out of every talk anybody gives at a coaching clinic, but he’s one of those guys that has lived it as a player. He’s been a head coach, he’s been an assistant coach at different levels and he also has three kids who are high-performance athletes. He’s been in all of those rooms and he’s got a real advantage over some people in terms of that. Overlay that with an incredible amount of intelligence for the game and an understanding about how to treat people. That integrity factor that sometimes you see and sometimes you don’t in people that are put in the position to lead.”
Lowry’s wide range of experiences should serve him well in his current role with the Jets.
He’s been through the ringer himself, finishing with 1,084 NHL regular season games and another 111 during the Stanley Cup playoffs, including two trips to the Final (the other coming with the Florida Panthers in 1996).
But it’s how Lowry handled that demotion to the minors back in the fall of 2002 that impresses Jim Playfair to this day.
“Remember, he was a captain of an NHL team and he was put into a position where he could have gone one of two ways,” said Playfair, who was the head coach in Saint John and became an assistant on Sutter’s staff before Lowry was recalled. “He could have shut it down or he could have come down and been bitter about it. I just have to say how excellent he handled it all. He never complained one time. He spent lots of extra time with the players on the ice after practice and helping them during games. There were times I’d go up to him and say 'you’re not going to play tomorrow night, we need to get these young kids going.'
“He never once did anything but act professional with it. He was outstanding. I couldn’t have asked for him to be a better pro and a better teammate the entire time he was down there. At the end of an awesome career, he had a difficult bump in the road that he managed very well.”
Playfair watched the way Lowry interacted with players, how he took guys under his wing and showed them the ropes and how he conveyed the things that were required to prospects in order to help them eventually reach the goal of becoming an NHL regular.
“He had a very clear vision of the job at hand,” said Playfair, now an associate coach with the Edmonton Oilers. “That took some direction, some authority, some clarity and some demands, but he was the first guy to make sure that they all got together and had some fun and rewarded themselves for the effort they put in. There is a natural balance you need to have. Some guys struggle to find it. They want to be one way or the other, but Dave has a really good balance.
“He had a really solid message and a good voice to send it. He’s not going to shy away from having to make the hard calls.”
If a player comes into the office and wonders about his ice time or why he isn’t being used more on special teams, Lowry has been down that road before.
If a player is on a heater or going through a rough patch, Lowry can relate to that as well.
He played with plenty of high-profile stars and also values the importance of the checking line guys -- and those on the periphery of the roster battling to get into the lineup or those in the minors waiting anxiously for a call-up.
“We all relate to what we’ve experienced and went through. Whether he’s dealing with guys on the top line or on the fourth line, guys going on waivers, he’s kind of run the gamut,” said former Flames teammate and roommate Craig Conroy. “I don’t know how he’s going to be as a head coach, but he’s going to have compassion and he’s going to be able to share his experiences with those guys. Even though it’s not going to be fun for some of those guys, it’s part of the business and he’s going to be able to help them transition into whatever it is. If it’s coming to the NHL, if it’s not playing as many minutes, whatever it is, for me, that’s going to be something that he can bring.
“It was always about the team with Dave. That’s why he had such a long career. Whatever role he was in, whether he was playing 10 minutes or 20 minutes, it didn’t matter. It was always about winning and the team. There are always guys that you play with and you wonder, what are they going to do after? It was a no-brainer that Dave was getting into coaching.”
On the day Lowry was promoted by the Jets, he said he was a direct communicator and in speaking to people who know him well, it sounds like an accurate assessment.
“He’s not going to beat around the bush. You’re going to know where you stand, which is nice,” said Conroy, who is now the Flames assistant GM. “Even as a player, if you weren’t doing something, he would say ‘hey, that’s not good enough. You need to do this or you need to do that.’ Even on that side, he was very direct.
“That’s what players like. They don’t want to be guessing, ‘Am I doing something wrong or why am I not playing?’ You’re not playing because you’re not winning draws, you’re not killing penalties, because you’re not blocking shots or doing all the little things. That’s what players want. Feed it to me straight, good or bad. But then give me an opportunity to prove I can do it. Dave will give his players that opportunity.”
Lowry has a strong connection to the Sutter family.
He played for Darryl on two stops -- Calgary and San Jose -- and for Brian in St. Louis, while Duane was an assistant coach with the Panthers.
He also played with Ron on the St. Louis Blues, Sharks and Flames and with Rich on the Vancouver Canucks and Blues. And, of course, Brent gave him his first opportunity to be on a coaching staff in the NHL.
When you hear that hockey can be a small world sometimes, this is another great example of that.
“I have a lot of respect for Darryl. I learned a lot from him and one of the biggest things I take from Darryl is that he was one of the best in-game managers,” said Lowry. “I don’t know if he gets a lot of credit for that, but he’s a wizard. He was quick to make adjustments.”
Navigating life in the coaching ranks can be a challenge, especially when the ultimate goal is to become a head coach in the NHL.
How long do you stay in one place?
What are the benefits to running your own bench in junior or in the minors versus being an assist or an associate coach in the NHL?
There is no easy answer and no manual to follow.
Ultimately, it’s about doing the best job you possibly can wherever you are and making the choice that feels right at the time.
That was part of the reason Lowry left the Brandon Wheat Kings after one successful WHL season to join the staff of Paul Maurice with the Jets in November of 2020.
Lowry has said on numerous occasions that he came to Winnipeg to work with Maurice, not on the off chance he might eventually replace him.
But after Maurice chose to resign on Dec. 17, saying the team needed a new voice, Lowry was chosen by Jets general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff to take over for the remainder of the season.
Sometimes you can’t choose the circumstances surrounding an opportunity.
As thankful as Lowry was for the chance to work with Maurice for those 13 months, he’s been around long enough to realize this is his best shot to show that he can handle the job.
“For me, the biggest thing is accountability,” said Lowry, whose club is 3-2 since he took over and will be back in action on Thursday against the Detroit Red Wings. “We put in certain demands and expectations and that’s the way that I coach. We play a certain way and obviously, you look at the team that you have. You have to coach the personnel.
“You stick to your beliefs and your ideals. If you get one chance at it, put everything on the table. You don’t want to leave with any regrets.”