Jim Hiller was one of the longest-tenured and winningest coaches behind the Tri-City Americans bench, but after a lackluster year in which the team finished 29-33-4-6 and last in the U.S. Division, the Americans decided they needed to take the team in a new direction.
Hiller, who had been with the Americans since 2009, was fired Friday after five seasons. In his wake, he leaves two U.S. Division titles, a Western Conference title, a .619 winning percentage and a Western Hockey League Coach of the Year honor in 2012.
“Jim is a good man and a good hockey coach,” said Tri-City general manager Bob Tory. “He came in and a did a good job following Don Nachbaur. But every coach has a shelf life. I felt our team needed a fresh face and a fresh voice. The situation was given a lot of thought. I looked to others for input, and in the end, we came to a consensus as to what was best for the team.”
Hiller coached 360 regular-season games with a 210-124-11-15 record over five seasons. He did not return calls for comment.
The Americans’ move is just one of many on the coaching carousel this spring.
Don Hay left Vancouver at the beginning of the month to coach the Kamloops Blazers, leaving the Giants top job open.
The Calgary Hitmen fired long-time coach Mike Williamson on April 16, the Saskatoon Blades fired Dave Struch in March after just one season, and the Lethbridge Hurricanes fired coach Rich Preston in March after four years behind the bench.
Tory said they opened the position Friday, and expects to be wading through a bevy of applications early next week.
“I’m sure I’ll have 150 applications by Monday,” Tory said. “In a perfect world, the sooner we hire someone, the better. But I’m not going to rush to a decision.”
Hiller, 44, began his coaching career in the WHL as an assistant with the Americans from 2002-2004. He left Tri-City to take the head job with the Alberni Valley Bulldogs (BCHL).
In 2006, he was hired to coach the WHL expansion Chilliwack Bruins, a job he held for three seasons before being dismissed following the 2008-09 season, in which the Bruins won just 19 games.
The Americans hired Hiller as their 19th head coach at the start of the 2009 season to replace Nachbaur, who left the team after six seasons to coach the Binghamton Senators (AHL).
Hiller inherited a wealth of talent and over the course of his first four seasons, the Americans won at least 40 games, including a 50-18-2-2 record in 2011-12.
In the playoffs, Hiller coached a franchise-record 57 games, winning a club best 29.
In his first season, the Americans went 13-9 in the postseason, winning their first Western Conference title before losing in the WHL finals to the Calgary Hitmen in five games.
In 2012, the Americans won the U.S. Division title with 104 points, edging Portland by two points. The Winterhawks would have the last laugh, sweeping Tri-City in the Western Conference final.
Tri-City lost in the first round of the playoffs the last two seasons.
“Jim did a good job,” Tory said. “I’m sure he will land on his feet. It’s been a difficult day, and I’m sure for Jim, too.”
A native of Cranbrook, British Columbia, Hiller played at Northern Michigan and helped the Wildcats win an NCAA title in 1991. His junior season, Hiller was second in scoring in the NCAA. He then turned pro.
He came up with the Los Angeles Kings, who drafted him in the 10th round in 1989. In January 1993 after scoring six goals and six assists in 40 games, Hiller was traded to the Detroit Red Wings and was later claimed off waivers by the New York Rangers.
Hiller never logged much ice time in the NHL, yet he had a 10-year career that included stops in the International Hockey League, AHL and Europe.
The Americans, who were hit with a rash of injuries last season, return a strong corps of players, including goaltender Eric Comrie, defensemen Justin Hamonic, Parker Wotherspoon and Brandon Carlo, and forwards Brian Williams, Beau McCue and Parker Bowles.
“There still is a lot of work to be done,” Tory said. “The last two years were not up to the standard we would have liked. Our young guys will be that much better. We are moving back in the right direction.”
Tory said the Americans also have not made a decision on assistant coach Dan Price, whose contract also is up this year.