The Tri-City Americans are putting a wealth of knowledge and experience behind the bench with the hiring of former NHL forward Kelly Buchberger.
Buchberger, 51, was named the 21st coach in franchise history Monday. He replaces Mike Williamson, who stepped down last month after four seasons at the helm.
“For me, (Buchberger) being a WHL alumni is very important,” Tri-City owner and general manager Bob Tory said. “Our new head coach played 19 years in the National Hockey League. He was a captain of almost every team he played for. He was certainly most renowned for being the hardest working player on the ice each and every night for 19 years.
“That speaks to his character, and that’s important.”
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Buchberger, who was an assistant with the New York Islanders last season, jumped at the chance to coach in the WHL, especially after the Islanders cleaned house in the offseason and left the assistant coaches in limbo.
“I live in Edmonton so I am well aware of what goes on in the WHL,” said Buchberger, a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Edmonton Oilers. “A good friend of mine, Mark Lamb, who is the general manager at Prince George, he told me what happened in Tri-City and asked if I was interested. We didn’t know what was going to happen in Long Island with the coaching staff and change in management. I reached out to Bob, we talked, and it happened pretty quick.
“I couldn’t be any happier to be back in the WHL making things happen.”
Tory said he had dozens of applicants for the position after Williamson stepped down. He quickly whittled the pool to six.
The team had to get permission from the Islanders to talk to Buchberger, and it went smoothly from there.
“There was a lot of criteria I was looking for,” Tory said. “I always look for former WHL players, and experience coaching in the NHL and the AHL. It became a perfect fit. I had some really good candidates, but he forced me to look outside the box.”
After being as assistant in the NHL for several years, Buchberger is excited to take the reins of his own team.
“This is my passion and this is why I choose to come back to the WHL,” Buchbergr said. “For me, to be a head coach and come back, and get the opportunity again to be in the WHL, it is a huge, huge thing for me. I am really going to enjoy spending my time here.”
The Americans players were notified of the hire Monday, and Buchberger said he is anxious to get things started.
“I sat in Bob’s office today and looked through the roster,” Bucherbger said. “Some players aren’t coming back because of being overage and other things. I think the biggest thing is that they have a really good handle on the team that is there. I think we can find the right chemistry and right solution to get the best from our players.”
The Americans lost Jordan Topping, Patrick Dea and Max James to graduation. They also will see 2017 first-round NHL draft picks Michael Rasmussen and Juuso Välimäki move on to the next level. Overage players Dylan Coghlan and Morgan Geekie are questionable to return.
Tri-City will return overage forwards Nolan Yaremko and Parker AuCoin, as well as goalie Beck Warm and forwards Kyle Olson and Isaac Johnson, to name a few.
“What I am trying to do, is reach out to the players, what we expect of them the rest of the summer and what we expect of them throughout the season,” Buchberger said. “Team comes first. We play for the team only. You can’t play as individuals. When you play as individuals, you are going lose a lot of hockey games. The only way you are going to win is that everyone has a role on the team and they play to the best of their ability. We will find roles for these players.”
Brian Pellerin, who was Williamson’s assistant, will remain the same role with Buchberger.
“Brian Pellerin and myself will coach the team and work together to make sure we are coming out on the right end every night and that we are playing our best,” Buchberger said. “I am a head coach, but I consider Brian equal to me. We are going to work together and make things happen for this organization.
“We will find a way.”
Buchberger the player and coach
A native of Langenburg, Saskatchewan, Buchberger started his WHL career with the Moose Jaw Warriors during the team’s first year in the WHL league in 1984-85.
“We were the very first team for Moose Jaw,” he said. “I played with the likes of Theoren Fleury, Mike Keane and Lyle Odelein. We developed a lot of good players, and we want the same thing in Tri-City. They have great alumni already.”
A forward who had more penalty minutes than points, Buchberger was drafted in the ninth round of the 1985 NHL draft by Edmonton. He played 12 years with the Oilers, winning Stanley Cups in 1987 and ’90 alongside the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey and Grant Fuhr.
He went to the Atlanta Thrashers in the 1999 expansion draft. He also played for the L.A. Kings, Phoenix Coyotes and Pittsburgh Penguins before retiring in 2004.
From 2008-17, he served in different capacities for the Oilers, including six as an assistant coach.
He’s now trading frigid Canadian winters for the Tri-City sunshine.
“I have been all over as a player,” he said. “Last year I lived in New York. I’m used to the different climates. My wife (Carla) and I are empty nesters. She will remain in Edmonton and commute back and forth.”