GRAND RAPIDS — Dan Watson’s job is to help young men adjust to life as professional hockey players on and off the ice.
But he’s been learning and adjusting to his new role as a coach in the American Hockey League.
“The biggest adjustment for myself as I get to be a coach,” he said Thursday. “(In) the ECHL ,where I came from, you’re building a roster, you’re worrying about the salary cap. Right now. I get to focus just on hockey and watching hockey and helping these young players every day, every minute of the day.
“You get to watch hockey games at night and have to not have to worry about where am I calling the next guy up from and things like that,” he added. “So I’ve thoroughly enjoyed that part of it. And that’s probably the biggest difference of time spent on really being able to coach and mold and develop these players.”
Moving Up the Ladder
Watson, who is 44, is in his first season coaching the Grand Rapids Griffins after moving up from the ECHL’s Toledo Walleye over the summer. He coached for 13 years in Toledo, the last six as the head coach. His teams won 69% of their games in the regular season and never missed the playoffs, reaching the Kelly Cup finals in 2019 and 2022.
His first season with the Griffins has been a work in progress. The team is 8-13-2 after a 2-0 loss to the Texas Stars on Wednesday night. There have been injuries, but the Griffins and their coaches are still adjusting to each other nearly a third of the way into the season.
“They’re kind of growing and evolving as well,” he said. “Defensively, as a group we’ve got some good length, good height, and want to use that to our advantage in the D zone. You know, we’re still working on ending plays a little bit quicker. With that said, we are protecting our net fronts. We are protecting middle ice and making sure these guys understand how important how vital defending is.”
Coaching Staff Comes Together
As the players mesh, so too does Watson with assistants Stephane Julien and Brian Lashoff, a longtime Griffins player who moved into coaching this season.
“We’re working extremely well together,” he said. “But that’s still building on that too. That’s the fun part of coming to work every day. And then with our team, it’s the managing the ups and downs that we’ve had, whether it’s within a game, whether it’s in a two game series, you’re there. We’ve had a few rollercoaster rides. We’re trying to limit those and play more consistent hockey within our group. It’s a work in progress. We are getting there. We’ve made big strides from day one to now. This team is meshing together and gelling, and that’s the fun part of it, too.”
Watson also has more interaction with his superiors in Detroit as Griffins coach than he did in Toledo.
“The communication with with (Red Wings executives) Shawn Horcoff and Dan Cleary and Steve Yzerman at times. I think it’s been great to learn from those guys and I know they had great careers the NHL, so I love the fact that we can talk and communicate about hockey.”
Communication is Key
Watson was signed as an undrafted free agent by the Columbus Blue Jackets out of junior hockey in 2000. He says his approach to players today is in contrast to his playing career.
“Now it’s all about communication and trust and respect,” he said. “And you do that through conversation. You do that through communication. So there’s a lot of differences in terms of how people are treated, how you treat people. I truly believe that to build, trusting, respectful (relationships) you have to communicate. Be honest with these guys, and show them exactly what they need to do (and) how they need to do it. And I think that’s the sort of biggest differences right now.”
Watson is still adjusting, like his players, to living alone in a new city until his wife and kids can join him in Grand Rapids. His ability to develop players while juggling the new demands of coaching in the AHL will determine how long he’ll be there and how successful he’ll be.