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Hockey Technician

Oct 13, 2023
Written By: Mark Newman

The son of a small-town mechanic, Dan Watson has learned what makes players tick while doing his best to master the nuts and bolts of coaching hockey.

Photo by Mark Newman

If you want to understand new Griffins head coach Dan Watson, a little trip to the town of Glencoe, Ontario, might tell you all you need.

If you journeyed to the village located in Middlesex County between Chatham and London, Ontario, you might start with the story of Don Webster.

Webster was the town barber for 75 years until he retired two years ago. "He's a local legend there," Watson said of his 94-year-old grandfather. Webster began cutting hair with his father, who started Webster's Barbershop in 1927. "He had the same cash register, same chairs, practically the same spot for all those years," said Watson.

Next door was a flower shop owned by Watson’s grandmother, mother and aunt. "I had two older sisters and they worked there as well, so we could do the things that we wanted to do," he recalled. "I didn't work there, but I went on deliveries at times. The Christmas holidays were extremely busy, and so was Mother's Day, and all of the major holidays. When I got older, I'd go for rides and carry some of the heavier flowers."

His father, meanwhile, was a mechanic in Glencoe.

"If something was broken, he could fix it because that's what he did – that's what he did best," said Watson, who never learned to turn a wrench like his father. "I learned a few things, mainly life lessons, but outside of that, I didn't, because he did it all. My mom retired in March 2022, the same time as my grandfather, and my dad retired in September 2022."

Everyone worked because Watson was showing promise as an athlete.

"Living in a small town, to have a team in any sport, all the kids had to play," he said. "So all the boys my age, we played soccer and baseball. We were on the swim team and we played volleyball and basketball, too. And, of course, we played hockey, which was not cheap. It's an expensive sport. So I grew up playing a multiple amount of sports."

It was in his early teens that he became serious about hockey.

"When I was 12 or 13, I started to play summer hockey," he said. "You start going to all these tournaments and things like that, and that's when it started to get real, when I saw how hard my parents worked to provide for us kids. And I think that's sort of where I get my work ethic from, that commitment level, the dedication to get up and do your job the best that you can every day."

He was invited to practice with the local junior B team in nearby Strathroy when he was about 14 or 15. "They came looking for kids who could maybe play and I went to a couple of their practices and realized that only a couple of kids had been invited. I thought hockey could be a route I might go," he said. "Certainly, pro hockey wasn't even in the picture at that point."

At that early age, Watson said he was more worried about winning championships than what he might accomplish alone.

"When I got to Strathroy, it was 'just be great' and hopefully I might get the opportunity to play major junior, college, or whatever," he said. "That's kind of the mentality I took. My parents had never been through it and I didn't know much about the OHL growing up, to be honest with you. I knew the London Knights and the Sarnia Sting, but I didn't know much about them until I actually got into it."

Watson became a defenseman almost from the start.

"I could skate and I was good positionally," he said. "For some reason, even in soccer, I was a defender more than I was on the offense. I wasn't someone who had to be the guy to score goals. I actually wanted to help and not let the other team score goals.

"To this day, if I'm watching a sport, I'm trying to figure out where every person has to be for their position, whether it's football on TV or watching my daughter play volleyball. In hockey, I was the same way as a defenseman. I wanted to know where every forward needed to be, where every defenseman needed to be, and I just stuck with it."

He was also a good backward skater, an invaluable skill for a budding defenseman.

"Jack MacKinnon taught everybody in Glencoe, Ontario, how to skate," Watson said. "If you ask players who came from there, they'll tell you how good he was. He was kind of ahead of the curve in terms of balance, edge work, skating on one foot, and using your inside and outside edges. No one else taught that unless you went to hockey school.

"Most minor hockey teams were working on your passing, shooting, and scoring, but we used to just skate, no pucks. It was edge work, it was balance, it was everything. He was more worried about skating because if you can't skate, you're not gonna play. That was his whole thing.

"When we got older, he wanted us to have the ability to play hockey for a long time. Even my friends growing up, they're all really, really good skaters. It's unbelievable to see. He was phenomenal at teaching kids to skate. He set the foundation."

Watson also gives credit to Pat "Whitey" Stapleton, who played 15 seasons in the NHL and the World Hockey Association, most notably for the Chicago Blackhawks. Father of longtime NHL center Mike Stapleton, Whitey was the first of many mentors who would not only help shape Watson's playing ability but also his coaching philosophy once his playing days were over.

"He was my coach in Strathroy," Watson said. "He passed away a few years ago and they named an arena in Sarnia after him last year. He taught me a lot about the mental side of the game, how you feel about yourself, and the importance of having a positive attitude. I'm forever grateful to him, obviously."

Watson said there wasn't much to his decision to play in Strathroy. "It boiled down to proximity to our house," he said. "It was 50 minutes away, so my parents could still get to see every game, home and away, which was important."

He was chosen by Sarnia in the seventh round of the OHL draft. "Back in 1996, college hockey wasn't like college hockey is today, where guys sign big deals and get drafted out of college to play NHL," he said. "If you wanted to play pro hockey, if you wanted to play in the NHL, you played major junior."

From 1996 to 2000, Watson played for the Sarnia Sting, where Mark Hunter was his head coach for three full seasons. Watson learned a lot from Hunter, who played 12 NHL seasons with Montreal, St. Louis, Calgary, Hartford, and Washington.

"He was a demanding coach, but if you worked hard and competed, he left you alone. He didn't care about anything else," Watson said. "If you made a mistake because you were working hard, competing, he could live with it. But if you were lazy, not being a good teammate, not being a good person, that's when he'd be in your face. I respected him a lot. I think I was a good player for him because of my work ethic, just that discipline of showing up every day and working hard."

Watson was not even sure he would get the chance to play pro hockey.

"I went to Montreal's NHL training camp my overage year, but nothing came out of that," he recalled. "I started talking to Canadian college teams because I thought that would be the route. And then out of the blue, my agent called one day and said Columbus is going to offer you a three-year deal.

"I went from nothing to signing a contract in 24 hours. I think I was the first free-agent defenseman that they signed out of college or junior and it was cool to get my start with a new franchise, a new team. I was there there from the beginning."

Watson spent most of his first three pro seasons in Syracuse, playing for Gary Agnew, who later became an NHL assistant coach with Columbus, St. Louis, and Pittsburgh. Agnew is currently an associate coach with the AHL's Abbotsford Canucks.

"He's a very good technical coach who taught me a lot about the ins and outs, how to manage and talk to people," Watson said. "I didn't play every game – I was a guy in and out of the lineup at times – but the way he handled me showed me that he cared and that he wanted the best for me."

Injuries would ultimately derail Watson’s playing career. After Syracuse, he would play only four more seasons, splitting his time between the AHL, ECHL, and UHL.

"I'm very proud of my playing career," he said. "There's no looking back saying, 'What if I would have done this or that?' I'm very proud that I made it to the American League because I wasn't overly skilled, but I think I was a great teammate. I think I did my job to the best of my ability."

After splitting most of the 2003-04 season between Kalamazoo and Columbus in the UHL, Watson landed a spot with the ECHL's Long Beach Ice Dogs.

"Going to Long Beach was a big decision," he said. "I had just gotten married and it was one of those points where I had to ask, 'What do I want to do?' I was recruited to be the captain of that team, so I thought that it would be a good thing to try to lead a group of people to see how it went."

In the first of his two seasons as captain, Watson led the Ice Dogs to one of the biggest turnarounds in the history of professional hockey. "We went from being the worst team to one of the best," Watson said. "We went from 51 points (23-44-0-5) to 95 points (43-20-0-9) in one year."

It was a memorable season for more than one reason.

"I had never played out west and 2004-05 was also the year of the NHL lockout," he said. "We played on blue ice the entire year. We were one of the teams that they chose to try to feature blue ice to see if people could see the puck better on blue ice versus white ice.

"We had light blue ice with dark blue lines and a yellow line that served as our red line. You didn't think about it when you went to play because after a while you didn't notice it. You got used to it, but it was a very interesting experiment."

By then, Watson realized that his NHL dream was just that – a dream.

"At some point as a hockey player, you understand that you're not a prospect anymore. There are younger guys who can do what you do and because they're younger, they're going to get the opportunity. Then it becomes a situation where you do whatever you can to teach these young guys to be pros every day."

In Long Beach, Watson was fortunate to play for Malcolm Cameron, who had been his head coach in Columbus the previous season before the team folded in midseason, which is how he ended up playing for the Kalamazoo Wings for half of a season.

"I was out west, my wife wasn't there and I was hurt," he said. "During my injuries, he allowed me to jump behind the bench with him, to help lead the defensemen. At times, we did video together. I was out on the ice with him for practice. He kind of steered me into coaching, even though I didn't know I wanted to be a coach yet.

"I appreciated him doing that because a lot of coaches would be like, 'Just sit in the stands, show up, get your therapy, and go home.' He cared enough to allow me to do more. He was a big believer in showing up and doing your best every day."

Unfortunately, Watson's playing days were nearly over. "Three straight surgeries for labral tears in my left shoulder and that was it," he said.

He played his final season as a member of the ECHL’s Toledo Storm. In 2006-07, he tallied a career-best 25 points in 66 games, but his body told him that it was time to hang up the skates. "When I had my final shoulder injury, I knew that was it," he said. "I was calling it a career."

Watson was at a crossroads, but his future path was clear. "I remember my exit meeting," he said. "Nick Vitucci was my head coach, and he said, 'Do you want to be an assistant coach? There's a new team, the Toledo Walleye, coming here in two years and I want you on my bench.' And right from that day, I was like, ‘I'm in.’"

He spent the next two seasons preparing for the transition. "I went to a ton of coaches clinics, and former NHLer Mike Wilson owned a place in the Cleveland area that was called Puckmasters. It was on synthetic ice, and it was all individual skills or small group training," Watson said.

"That time in skills development I thought would help prepare me to become a good assistant coach, knowing that the work would be part of my future job. I worked with Mike as his head coach, teaching kids hopefully to play good hockey."

It was in Cleveland, where Watson and his family still live, that he played 30 games over the course of two seasons (2002-04) for Roy Sommer, the legendary AHL head coach who retired after last season with an 828-770-110 record, making him the league's all-time leader in wins and games coached (1,814) in addition to helping develop more than 150 NHL players.

"He liked to be around the guys, to be part of the dressing room atmosphere. He wanted to make sure that it was a team. And he let the guys play. He wasn't a stickler for X's and O's, in terms of you have to be here when the puck's here or there. For him, it was all about reading the play. Be your own player," Watson said.

"Roy treated me like I was another one of his prospects and he helped me to continue to get better. He was a good players coach and he showed me things that have stuck with me today."

Having played for nine teams during his pro career, Watson learned the value of developing a good coach/player relationship.

"To be a players’ coach, you have to understand each individual, so that's where you start," he said. "How do these individuals fit into a group? I want to care about each guy personally so they can be successful on and off the ice. Once a player understands that you have their backs – that you really do have their personal interests at heart – that's when we start to talk about going through the wall and playing hard for their coach."

Watson was an assistant coach to Vitucci in Toledo for five seasons. Despite all his earnest preparation, he admits his transition to coaching was not immediate.

"Those first couple months where you think you can still play are hard," he said. "You're thinking, ‘I might be better than this guy or that guy,’ but then you quickly realize, no, your playing days are over. You jump out in a practice drill and you're huffing and puffing, and suddenly, you're thinking, 'Oh boy, I can't do this anymore.'

"The quicker you realize that and that you've already made your decision, the better off you'd be. It's tough because it is the closest thing to playing. You still have the emotion, you still get up for games. You still get that nervousness before a game starts, so all that intensity is still there. You can feel it."

Watson is thankful for the confidence that Vitucci showed in his abilities.

"He let me do everything and didn't micromanage me," he said. "He let me learn on the fly, where other coaches might say, you have to do this, you have to do that. He would say, 'Dan, it's your penalty kill. You run it how you think, you use the players you want.'

"So he gave me the freedom to do what I wanted within his structure. And the more I wanted to do, the more he allowed me to do. If I wanted to grow, he would add more to my plate."

After Vitucci, Watson spent two seasons working with future Red Wings head coach Derek Lalonde.

Watson had wanted Toledo's head coaching position but the organization opted to hire Lalonde, who had won a championship as the head coach of the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers after spending five years as an assistant coach at the University of Denver and three years as an assistant at Ferris State University.

"For Derek to want to hire me, that was a big decision," he said. "I thought I was 100% ready. I thought, 'I can run this team, we'll win championship after championship.' So I wasn't sure coming back was a good idea. But learning from Derek for two years made me a better coach."

Every coach has a different philosophy, so Watson did what he always did and learned everything he could, making mental notes of things he could use himself someday.

"Nick grew up learning from John Brophy and John Marks, who were legends at that level, guys who were 'old-school' disciplinarians in the way they ran things. Derek was more cutting-edge. There were more slides before the game for meetings, lots of video, things like that.

"They were definitely different, but the one thing they both wanted was they wanted close teams and they both won championships. It's not easy to do because you're dealing with a revolving door. Some months you almost feel like you have to wear name tags. We joke about it, but it's serious.

"When you have that many guys going in and out – you're talking 40, 50, and 60 players sometimes – it's not always easy. You might have three new guys show up to the hotel on a Monday and suddenly you see them and you're like 'Who's that? Which guy is that?' And now you're trying to understand and learn who they are.

"In Toledo, it became a seamless process. We built a culture where if a new guy comes in, he's welcomed and fits right into what Toledo Walleye hockey is all about. That's the way it was there and that's the way it will be in Grand Rapids."

When Lalonde left the Walleye to become the head coach of the AHL's Iowa Wild, Watson was ready and his record in Toledo underscores his success. During his six years as a head coach, Watson's teams posted a 272-112-22-13 (.691) ledger. The Walleye never missed the playoffs during his tenure in Toledo, reaching the Kelly Cup Finals twice (2019 and 2022).

"I think the more people you can learn under, the better coach you'll become because you can take bits and pieces and parts and kind of mold yourself to how you want to be," he said. "By the time I took over, I had a good idea of how I wanted to manage, not just the hockey side of it, but also the GM side."

Managing people became Watson's forte. Not every player who came to Toledo was excited about being there, but Watson learned how to heal bruised egos. He was able to motivate players who felt they deserved to be anywhere but Toledo.

"Going to Toledo is not a death sentence. You're not going down to rot. That's not what Toledo is there for. You're going down to get better at your game, get more time on the ice. It's a place to hone your craft, get better at your game, and get back to where you need to be to help the organization."

And now Watson, age 44, will be on the other side. In June, the Red Wings made him the 12th head coach in Griffins history. Like the players he mentored the past six seasons, he believes he is ready to take the next step.

Watson shared his passion and enthusiasm for the job during his interview with the Red Wings. He spent 2-1/2 hours on a Zoom call with Steve Yzerman, assistant general managers Shawn Horcoff and Kris Draper, and assistant director of player development Dan Cleary. There were several individual phone calls as well.

"It was a lengthy process, but it was a great process, to be honest. I did a lot of talking. I answered a lot of questions. They learned a lot about me, but I think at the end of the day, I know what they want and what they expect."

Watson is eager to rebuild the winning environment that has distinguished the Red Wings/Griffins affiliation for many years.

"Listen, hockey is a fun game. It should be fun every time you come to the rink, and winning makes everything that much more fun. You can see the teams that have success, and how much fun they're having. But there's a lot of work that goes into it as well.

"If you put the work in, you're not winning, that can be doom and gloom. But if you're not working and you're not winning, that's a total disaster. For us, it's about playing important games. It's wanting to play in pressure situations. That's what grows you as a person. That's what grows you as a hockey player. And we want all our young guys to go through that this year. Success builds your resume and adds to your character."

Watson is eager to make a positive impression. He is looking forward to further developing those personal relationships that have earned him a reputation as the kind of coach that players will play their hardest for.

"For me, it's dealing with them as people first, players second," he said. "I will be working with guys who are on that cusp of making the NHL and I want to help them get there. I want them to know that I have their interests at heart.

"I think if you have a 'people first' mentality, you're managing people, not a hockey team. That's the culture I want to build here, and you do that by showing that you care about them first. That's just understanding your players as individuals.

"Some guys need love and some guys may need a kick in the rear end. You have to figure out who they are and that takes time, but that's why we're here. We're going to celebrate when guys get called up and I want the other guys to feel like they're next. I'm excited about helping all of our guys reach their full potential, first as people and then as players.

"If we manage that, our [locker] room is going to be an unbelievable place to be."