Recently, I was fortunate enough to catch up with former Trenton Titans head coach Mike Haviland. Haviland won the Kelly Cup with Atlantic City in 2003 and with Trenton in 2005, and went on to join the Chicago Blackhawks organization shortly thereafter. He’s made it all the way to being an assistant coach at the NHL level, and will have his name engraved on the Stanley Cup after Chicago won it all in June.
The Middletown, NJ native was gracious enough to give me more than ten minutes of his time via his cell phone earlier this week. Here’s how the conversation went…
Mike Ashmore: Can you take me through what you had done in coaching before arriving in Trenton in 1999?
Mike Haviland: “I had coached three years as an assistant coach in college at my alma mater, Elmira College. And then, I’d coached four years of like a midget triple-A youth hockey team in New Jersey. And then I got the job with Trenton. That was my first professional job.”
Ashmore: So how did you end up with the Titans?
Haviland: “Well, basically, one of the kids that I coached in the youth league — it’s funny how the world goes around — his dad called me up. The kid had been out of the program for a year or two, and he said, ‘I do work with the Berman family, and they’re building a new rink and they’re going to have a minor league hockey team.’ He said maybe he could get me an interview, and I said, ‘Yeah, I would love one.’ So I went down and I interviewed with Brian McKenna and Jeff Berman, and they hired me in the first year before the building was even built basically as a scout and a consultant for hockey. I went around and scouted for them and did everything I could do and got the job as the assistant the following year.”
Ashmore: You accomplished so much when you were in the ECHL, winning two Kelly Cups as a coach (Haviland is one of just four coaches with multiple Cup wins)…when you think about your time spent in that league, what are some of the fondest memories for you? And did you ever think your career would progress the way it has?
Haviland: “I was very fortunate, obviously. When I think back to the ECHL years, it was probably the best thing I could have done for my career, to understand the work ethic and the commitment and preparation that had to go in to being successful. You go 12 months a year with recruiting and you’re involved with the contracts and housing and immigration. You wore a lot of different hats, and I think it really prepared you to when you get to the next levels and it becomes just coaching in the American League and the NHL, now you know how much preparation you need to be successful. I was very fortunate, I was with a great ownership with the Berman’s in Trenton and went to Atlantic City and had a lot of success down there and then obviously got another chance to come back with Trenton. But the ECHL, I think it’s an amazing league. I think they’ve come a long way. Did I ever think that I would get out this quick and move on? I think I was quite fortunate to win two out of three years, once in Atlantic City and then I took a year off and won it in Trenton. With two different teams, I think that really helped my cause. Along the way, there were a lot of guys that got called up, too. I would never let anybody stay down, I would never hold anybody back, and I think that got out, that I was a guy who liked to promote guys to the American League. I got to know a lot of the other GM’s and coaches, but I think winning opened a lot of eyes, and I was fortunate enough to get out at the right time and get in with an unbelievable organization with the Blackhawks.”
Ashmore: You mentioned Atlantic City, and the Devils recently announced that their AHL and ECHL teams will be playing a handful of games there this season. Is it nice for you to see that area getting hockey back, even if only for a couple games?
Haviland: “I think it would be awesome. They have a beautiful, beautiful building. It was supported somewhat down there. At times, we’d have five and six thousand people. It’s one of the first-class buildings, I think; historical Boardwalk Hall. I think there’s a lot of hockey people down in that area. I think it would be outstanding if they could get it back down there. I think the rivalry between Trenton and Atlantic City was something that I think that both sets of fans would certainly tell you it was so much fun to be a part of.”
Ashmore: One of the players you coached with Trenton, Rick Kowalsky, did a nice job coaching the T-Devils for four seasons and was promoted to head coach at Albany for this season. I’m sure that had to make you proud…
Haviland: “Very proud. He certainly was a major, major part of us winning that Kelly Cup in Trenton. He was the captain of that team, and like I said, he played a major part. Rick and I built a very good relationship over the years, and I was fortunate enough that he took my offer to go to Norfolk in the American League as an assistant. He was ready, and he got his chance back in Trenton as a head coach and was coach of the year. He’s done quite well for himself. I’m very, very happy for him and his family. To see him progress the way he’s been progressing and for the Devils to promote from within, I think is outstanding, especially in this tough business that we’re in. It’s certainly well deserved, and I’m proud of him. I know he’s going to do outstanding in the American League and he’s got a bright future ahead of him.”
Ashmore: Could you tell that he was going to go on to be a coach someday when you were both in Trenton?
Haviland: “Oh, yeah. He just understood the game so much. He had that quality of calming things down and understanding what buttons need to be pushed in the room, and he was a winner. The guy was a winner. He won in juniors, he won a Memorial Cup. He won at the East Coast level, the American League level; he won an awful lot. He understood that, but he understood the game and he understood how to communicate with people. That’s the biggest thing for me, was his communication skills. You have to communicate with your players to get the best out of them, that’s what coaches need to do, and I think Rick really understood that. He was the captain in a lot of places he was at, and like I said, I knew right away he would be very good at it for sure.”
Ashmore: The Blackhawks had such a magical run last season…what was it like to be a part of that and have a hands-on role in winning Chicago a Stanley Cup?
Haviland: “It was outstanding, words can’t really describe it. I think you dream of it as a little boy…your whole life to get your hands on that thing or being a part of something that special and that magical. That was a very, very young a team. A team that was very driven, very focused, very business-like. I think the year before, going to the conference finals and losing to Detroit really helped us and matured us. It was such a wonderful, magical ride. To see those guys progress — I certainly had a different perspective than a lot of people, I was fortunate enough to have had nine of those guys play for me in the American League for a couple years, so I got to see them progress from young men into these hockey players who won the Stanley Cup — and to do all that together in the same organization, it was even more special for me.”
Ashmore: What was your perspective from the bench on Patrick Kane’s game-winning goal? Did you know it went in right away, or were you holding your breath like the rest of us?
Haviland: “I’ve got to tell you…I actually jumped, because I thought it went in right away. From the angle I was at, it was obviously pretty far away, but I jumped and I turned to Quenneville and I said, ‘It’s in.’ And he was like, ‘Are you sure?’ And when Kaner went by, I said, ‘He knows.’ Only guys that are at that level — when you’re an elite player, and he certainly is — they know when they score. The whole time, I was adamant that it was in. Then, we were radio-ing back and forth with our video guy to make sure and eventually it was ruled in. It was a little anticlimactic, but I knew right away, at least I thought I knew. Then it kind of calmed down, but it was certainly still the same celebration no matter how it happened.”
Ashmore: For your day with the Stanley Cup, you’re bringing it to New Jersey…you could bring it anywhere, why bring it back home?
Haviland: “All my family is here, my kids, my mom and dad. I grew up in New Jersey, and a lot of my lifetime friends are all here. I grew up playing youth hockey here and it was rightfully so, this is where it belongs to come. If I’m fortunate enough to win maybe one or two more, then certainly I can move it around, but this one here is awful special. With all my family and friends here, this is certainly where it needed to be.”
Mike Ashmore, mashmore98 AT gmail.com