Nolan Baumgartner retired from playing to become an assistant coach with the Wolves
For the past few years, Nolan Baumgartner knew he would attempt to begin a coaching career after his playing days were over.
After the Chicago Wolves fell in double overtime in the winner-take-all Game 5 of the Western Conference Quarterfinals and --- thus ending Baumgartner's 16th professional season --- he thought his offseason would be like the previous 15: rest up, sign a new contract and then begin preparing for season No. 17. That all changed when he discovered in June that the Vancouver Canucks didn't have a spot on their 50-man roster for him for the 2012-13 season. Instead they had another kind of contract ready and waiting for the former defenseman.
"Vancouver didn't have any room for me and then things didn't work out for me signing with and playing in Chicago," Baumgartner said. "With all the changes on the Wolves coaching staff that took place at the end of last season, they offered me the chance to become an assistant with Chicago.
"I have been thinking about becoming a coach when I got done playing, so it was an enticing offer. It just that it came sooner than I thought it would. But you know what? I am really comfortable with my decision of retiring and taking the job, and I'm really looking forward to the challenge."
Baumgartner admits that he never had a moment during the 2011-12 season that he contemplated retirement and he fully expected to hit the ice as a player this season. He had a few teams contact him about the possibility of patrolling their blueline, but he never pursued them after he caught wind on Vancouver's potential target to replace Craig MacTavish as the Wolves head coach.
"Once Vancouver presented me the offer to be an assistant coach in Chicago, I sat on it for a few days to really think about it," Baumgartner said. "As the Canucks told me some of the names they had in mind for the head position I would just listen. But when I heard Scott Arniel was one of them, that was something that really intrigued me."
Vancouver hired Arniel on June 26 and, 10 days later, Baumgartner retired as a player and signed on to be one of his former head coach's assistants in Chicago. The chance to learn under Arniel and the chance to continue to work in Chicago was enough to let Baumgartner know it was his time to move on to the next phase of his career.
"Just knowing Scott was going to be in Chicago and having the opportunity to start my coaching career under him was something too good to pass up," Baumgartner said. "It was the right decision and right timing for myself to stop being a player and become a coach."
The 36-year-old Baumgartner ended his pro career with 143 National Hockey League games and 878 American Hockey League outings to his credit. All in all, he tallied 437 points in 1,021 career games with 12 teams and served as three franchises' captain, including the Wolves. Looking back on his illustrious career, he can recall his first pro goal like it was yesterday – which came way back in 1996 – and fondly remembers his 500th and 1,000th career games. However, there was one season that sticks out to him and one that he will look to take things from and make them a part of his coaching philosophies.
"The 2008-09 season as a member of the Manitoba Moose was a special year in my career and something I still think about," Baumgartner said. "We made the Calder Cup finals that season and we ended up losing. But looking back on that season, it was really great experience. We had a great team and a great group of guys. Then in the playoffs, just to see the lengths that guys would go to win a game was unbelievable. Whether it was playing hurt or making other sacrifices. It taught me what it takes to win. That will now help me out coaching."
First-year coaches typically encounter many challenges on the job and one challenge Baumgartner might encounter from the get-go could be transitioning from player to coach on a team filled with players he went to battle with last season. More than 15 players from last season return to the Wolves this year, all of whom viewed Baumgartner as a captain, friend, and teammate. Now the past relationships will take on a new form as a coach. Something Baumgartner sees as an easy transition.
"The players and I both know that it is different now," Baumgartner said. "I am still their friend, but it is at a different level now. It might be a little bit different at first, but I don't think it will be difficult. I think the respect factor is there from the guys and it is on my side. It will be enjoyable and fun to be on the other side of it."
Even though Baumgartner sees this new challenge as fun, he still has imposed expectations on himself. He wants to go in and just be a sponge to soak everything Arniel and Mike Foligno, the Wolves other new assistant, have to offer. He also knows one of his main duties will be to bring energy to the rink every day and have a great attitude around the guys. But people familiar with his playing style should see a similar style in the way he wants to coach.
" I am going to try to be the best person I can out there for the Wolves," Baumgartner said. "I took pride in working hard when I played, so I am going to do the same when I'm coaching."