WINNIPEG – Dave Lowry is a first-time NHL head coach by definition only.
He doesn’t lack experience on the ice or behind the bench.
Perhaps most importantly, he doesn’t lack the conviction required to make bold decisions.
The only thing that’s truly been missing is the opportunity, which changed on Thursday night when he received a phone call from Kevin Cheveldayoff about a potential vacancy that was both sudden and unexpected.
You could easily make the argument that the interim head coach of the Winnipeg Jets has been on this path since late in his NHL playing career, which spanned 1,084 regular season games and another 111 in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Lowry has run his own teams in the Western Hockey League (Brandon Wheat Kings, Victoria Royals and Calgary Hitmen) and served as an assistant in the NHL with the Los Angeles Kings and Calgary Flames, handling a variety of roles in those stops.
He also brings some international experience to the table as both a head coach and an assistant with Team Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championship.
It’s true that his one shot as a head coach produced a disappointing quarterfinal loss to Finland in 2016, but the year earlier he was on the staff that helped Canada deliver a gold medal.
This isn’t about dictating the lines on Lowry’s resume, but if you’re wondering about whether he’s qualified, move along to the next topic.
That’s not to suggest the hiring for the remainder of the season is a slam dunk or doesn’t have any risk attached to it.
There’s never a guarantee that a move is going to work out, whether the individual has coached in the NHL for decades or worked his first game as the bench boss in Friday’s 5-2 loss to the Washington Capitals.
When you’ve been working toward a moment like this one, even if it doesn’t come under the circumstances you might expect, preparation is essential.
Much like Dom Ducharme said in Winnipeg after he was promoted to interim coach of the Montreal Canadiens last season, Lowry has been studying for this exam for quite some time and when you’ve put in the work, you’re not nervous when the chance comes.
Now it’s time to see what Lowry can do with the responsibility of trying to get the Jets turned around.
Lowry is looking for the Jets to play faster, but he also wasn’t about to unveil a 10-step plan or detail all of the previous shortcomings during his first official day of his new job.
He knows this isn’t an overnight fix and that he’s not going to have all the answers or the ability to implement all of them immediately.
One of Lowry’s biggest influences in the game was the late Roger Neilson and he imparted some valuable lessons.
“I was fortunate enough to play for him in Florida and the biggest thing I always took away was the care and respect he had for his players and how he wanted to create that family environment,” said Lowry. “I really believe that’s something we have here now, and we’d like to continue with that moving forward. I think I’m a direct communicator. I’m a firm believer in honesty. I’m not going to tell them what they always want to hear but I’m going to tell them what they need to hear. I understand the athlete today.
“I understand how you have to communicate with them. And that goes to formulating relationships. I’m fortunate that I was able to be a part of this group last year, albeit in a different role. I built some very strong connections with these players and I look forward to working with them moving forward.”
The inability to meet the increased expectations is part of the reason Maurice chose to step aside.
And in a rare look behind the curtain, Cheveldayoff stood at the podium during his media address and openly discussed challenging his players privately early that morning after Maurice informed them he was done.
“I challenged them to hold each other accountable. I challenged them to hold themselves accountable,” said Cheveldayoff. “Again, we can be fine with where we’re at or we can get to where we think we all should be but it’s got to be done a certain way and it’s got to be done with a different voice.”
Some folks might argue that since Lowry was on the staff of the departing Paul Maurice that he’s too close to the situation, that if a new voice needed to be heard, why not go outside the organization?
How can a voice that’s already been part of the coaching staff be viewed as different?
Not to discredit the theory entirely, but it’s important to remember that Lowry joined the Jets in November of 2020.
Although the backdrop of the pandemic can sometimes make things feel like forever, Lowry was part of one condensed season and just over a quarter of another.
Part of the reason he was brought in originally was to deliver some fresh ideas to the table.
He’s been around long enough to identify some of the areas to attack surrounding this Jets team and not too long that an established pecking order on the depth chart is not in danger of being challenged.
Of course there are certain players that have a built-in advantage based on prior performance, but the slate has essentially been wiped clean.
“Dave has been around the game a long time. He comes prepared,” said Jets defenceman Josh Morrissey, who was part of the Canadian world junior team that captured the gold medal. “There are no grey areas with him. You know where you stand, what’s expected of you. That’s something as a player, especially mid-season, it’s important to have that transparency. He’s going to be transparent with us on what he expects and is looking for. As a player that’s all you can want.”
What the players also want as a collective group is to start digging themselves out of this rut.
Following a 9-3-3 start where the Jets were competing for top spot in the Central Division, they’ve gone 4-8-1 since and have dropped below the playoff line.
That’s not where the Jets plan to be when the end of the season arrives.
“The expectations, it’s not just playoffs. We want to push past that,” said Jets defenceman Brenden Dillon. “And I think (with) where we’re at, we’re not in a playoff spot, so there’s a sense of urgency.”
Although he went out of his way to say it would be a collaborative effort with the rest of the coaching staff, Lowry fully realizes the gravity of the task at hand.
He also knows full well what’s at stake, for both himself and the entire organization.
This is a shot Lowry has been waiting for and the best way to force himself to the front of the line and have the interim label removed when a more thorough coaching search is expected to be conducted during the offseason is to do his part to bring the best out of a Jets team that needs a boost.