Family is important to new Griffins head coach Mike Stothers, who knows that the relationship between hard work and success is more than relative.
Story and photo by Mark Newman
As a parent, you look out for your kids. You show them there’s a right and wrong way to do things. You show them the value of hard work, honesty and integrity.
You tell them you’ve been in their shoes, you know how they feel and, even though they aren’t listening, you hope they understand you only have their best interests at heart.
You pray they don’t make the same mistakes you did.
Being a coach is not the same as being a parent, but in the overall scheme of things, there are similarities. You teach, you mentor, you admonish, you encourage, you nudge, you push.
For Mike Stothers, the two roles have become nearly inseparable, partly out of design, partly out of necessity. You don’t stop being a coach any more than you stop being a parent.
Stothers will tell you he’s a family man, first and foremost. He loves spending time with his wife, Judi, his daughters, Ashley, 20, and Logan, 18, and his dog, Bailey, a golden retriever.
At the same time, he loves coaching. It is obvious that he finds equal pleasure in the role. “I enjoy my job immensely,” he says. “I can’t imagine anything else I’d rather do.”
For nearly 20 years, Stothers had a job within the Philadelphia Flyers organization, first as a player, both in the AHL and NHL, and later as a coach.
But in sports, stability is a gift, not a given. Stothers appreciated what it afforded him and his family, but eventually he yearned for a new opportunity, a new challenge.
He wanted to be a head coach.
Stothers got his wish in Owen Sound, the Ontario Hockey League outpost where he spent the past five years. It was not, however, without paying a price.
His oldest daughter had just finished her freshman year of high school. Pulling up stakes, Stothers discovered, “was pretty hard on my kids.” Although he has no regrets, he looks back on the decision rather wistfully.
“We decided we would avoid moving again if we could, and if we were going to move, it would have to be something we couldn’t pass up,” Stothers said.
Other job possibilities came along, thanks to his winning ways. In his last 13 seasons as both a head coach and assistant coach in the NHL, AHL and OHL, his teams have never missed the playoffs.
“I did look into some of the opportunities, maybe not as strongly as I should’ve or could’ve, but they just weren’t right for my family at the time,” he said. “The bottom line was we wanted to make sure our youngest one got through high school.”
Besides, he was enjoying himself too much in Owen Sound.
“When you’re happy with what you’re doing, you don’t want it to look like you’re trying to leave,” he said. “It was a hard situation because I didn’t want it to come across wrong to my employers, especially after they had given me the chance to be a head coach.”
At the same time, Stothers wanted a shot at being a bench boss in the American Hockey League.
Enter the Grand Rapids Griffins.
“When you get a call from (general manager) Ken Holland and the Detroit Red Wings, and they want to talk to you, you’re flattered, you’re in awe, and you’re just grateful for the opportunity.”
He drove to Detroit for an interview with Holland and assistant general manager Jim Nill. “They made me feel very comfortable,” he recalled. “They started out doing most of the talking.”
Stothers heard about the situation in Grand Rapids, how they were looking for a new head coach after relieving Greg Ireland of his duties. “They talked about the organization and what they were looking for. They asked questions. I found it very easy to talk to Ken and Jim.”
The Red Wings’ brain trust must have been impressed. They offered him the job on the spot.
“That was a total shock,” Stothers said. “I was prepared to make the five-hour drive back to Owen Sound and wait by the phone for a couple of days. It caught me totally off-guard, but it didn’t take me but a millisecond to say yes.”
Which might have surprised the Red Wings’ brass. “They said, ‘Don’t you want to go home and talk to your family and discuss it with them?’ but I knew I had their support even before I went down. I told the Wings, ‘If you’re offering the job, I’m accepting.’”
Of course, Stothers had worn two hats long enough to make sure he had his bases were covered. “My youngest had just finished high school and she was going to attend the University of Guelph, where my oldest already was. It was absolutely a determining factor in my plans, career-wise.
“It just seemed like this was a good time, plus it was the Red Wings.”
To seal the deal, Holland and Nill brought in Steve Yzerman and (senior vice president) Jimmy Devellano to meet their new coach. “I’m in the office with all these guys and I thought, ‘Who could say no to this?’”
Besides Stothers’ pleasant personality and perceived paternal instincts, the Red Wings liked his experience.
Following a 10-year-playing career that included 30 NHL contests with the Flyers and Toronto Maple Leafs, Stothers enjoyed a phenomenal nine-year run as an assistant coach for both the Flyers and their AHL affiliates.
During his first three seasons with the expansion Phantoms, he helped guide the club to three straight division crowns (1996-99), consecutive AHL regular season titles (1996-98) and the 1998 Calder Cup championship.
After serving interim stints as an assistant coach with the Flyers during both the 1998-99 and 1999-00 seasons, Stothers worked behind the NHL team’s bench for two full seasons from 2000-02, capping off his tenure with an Atlantic Division title in 2001-02.
“I think the Red Wings liked that I had been with the Flyers so long, because they like that kind of loyalty in their people,” Stothers said. “I also think they liked the fact that I had been a player at all levels.
“I’ve got a pretty good feel for what it’s like to be a player and what it’s like to try to reach your ultimate goal of playing in the NHL. It’s very difficult to play in the American Hockey League. There are a lot of demands, both physically and mentally.”
Stothers is quick to admit that he wasn’t the greatest player to ever step on the ice, but he was a first-round draft pick. He may not have been the second coming of Gretzky, but he was better than he suggests.
“As a player, I was never the most talented guy on the team. I wasn’t overly flashy. I was a stay-at-home, steady defenseman. My foot speed was not good enough to play regularly in the NHL, but I was OK as a call-up or fill-in. I had to work hard.
“But I was a good teammate. My role was to protect my teammates and I had no problem with that. If I needed to provide a little room for some of the skilled guys or to cover their backs, I was more than willing to do that.”
In other words, Stothers wasn’t afraid to drop his gloves. He still stands as Hershey’s all-time leader in penalty minutes.
“I actually enjoyed that part of the game. It got a little tougher as I got older, but it’s the role I played. Not everyone can be the 50-goal scorer, so I did the best I could to help out the organization. The idea is to try to find a positive in everything and that’s what I did.”
Stothers, it seems, fought for everything he earned. He never hesitated to take one for the team.
“In my first NHL game, I was standing in front of the net when a point shot came in and hit me right in the face. I broke my nose, took 25 stitches in my forehead and got carried off the ice on a stretcher. That was my debut. That was nice.”
What Stothers will never forget is what happened in the couple of the weeks that followed, when Flyers general manager Bob Clarke allowed him to accompany the team on a western road swing.
“They could have very easily left me behind in Hershey or Philly to recuperate, but Clarkey brought me on the trip, which meant a lot. It was one of the classiest things they could have ever done.”
The fact that Stothers’ resume includes Calder Cup championships both as a player and as a coach should earn him the immediate respect of his new team. Both titles, he contends, were equally satisfying.
Winning the Cup (in 1984) as player was “a super, super thing,” according to Stothers. “I remember each and every guy that was on the team, from the guys who played regularly to the guys that didn’t.”
But the Calder Cup title in 1998 as an assistant coach was no less rewarding. “To see how happy those guys are when they’re leaping over the boards, it’s such a great feeling because you’re so happy for them.
“It’s no different for me than when I’ve gone to watch my daughters dance or gone to their swim competitions. You’re beaming. At the moment, you couldn’t be any happier for them.”
It’s a feeling that he would love to share with the people in Grand Rapids. He knows it’s his job is to develop players for the Red Wings, but he also realizes that there are great expectations for building a champion.
“It’s a fine line,” Stothers said. “This is a developmental league, first and foremost, but at the same time everybody wants to win. You want to develop players in a winning environment, so you do both. That’s the competitive nature.”
As far as Stothers is concerned, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“My dad was a produce manager and he worked 50 years in a grocery store. He didn’t particularly care for his job, but he went to work every day anyway... still works part-time, even after he retired.
“Here I am going to the rink every day, watching hockey, playing hockey and being around hockey players all day. They call it work and it’s a job, but a lot of people would love to be in my shoes.
“I consider myself very fortunate.”
Joining the Red Wings’ organization after so many years in the Flyers’ program wasn’t as big of an adjustment for Stothers as one might guess.
“When I went to training camp this fall, I never felt like I was the new guy or the outsider,” he said. “From the management to the Detroit coaching staff, they made sure to include me in everything.”
As it turned out, he knew more people in the organization than he realized.
“Glenn Merkosky, who is one of the Red Wings’ pro scouts, was a teammate in Maine when we won the Calder Cup, and I played with Mark Howe (Detroit's director of pro scouting) in Philadelphia,” Stothers said.
Although they never played together and had never met, Stothers and Griffins assistant coach Jim Paek discovered they shared some common threads as well.
“We practically grew up in the same (Toronto) neighborhood, so we played with the same bunch of guys and know a lot of the same people. We knew more about each other than we ever dreamed we could.”
Stothers thinks it was beneficial that he was less familiar with the players in the organization, whether they were prospects in the Red Wings’ rookie camp or veterans slated to come to Grand Rapids.
“It was like 3-4 weeks of on-the-job training, getting to see the whole Detroit organization,” he said. “Of course, it’s not too bad when you have the chance to talk to people such as Scotty Bowman and Gordie Howe.”
As a personable guy, Stothers says he looks forward to developing a rapport with his new players.
“I’d like to know a little about them and I’d like them to know a little about me. I’d like them to know that I’ve been there, that I know how they’re feeling,” he explained.
“The more I talk, the more they will realize I’m just a person like them, a guy with a wife and two kids and who loves hockey as much as they do.”