After three seasons in the NHL, Gene Ubriaco returned to the game as the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1988.
In 1994 he moved on to become the first head coach of the Chicago Wolves, then part of the International Hockey League. The team is now a part of the American Hockey League and Ubriaco is the Director of Hockey Operations.
In Part One of a two-part interview, Scott Charles speaks to Gene Ubriaco about the AHL and the state of the Chicago Wolves.
How would you describe the AHL as a league?
It has been a great league to work with. It is unfortunate we are not able to use the AHL as well as we can.
It has been a great league for some of those kids. But the young kids who sign a three-year entry level deal sometimes need the three years. Unfortunately, for some players, they are rushed along because they were drafted in the first round.
A lot of players need more time in the AHL to have a long career in the NHL. Teams do not do a good job of being direct with them.
Players just want to know how long it is going to take them. Just give me a program, and I’ll be able to follow it.
A lot of times, teams rush people because executives do not want to look bad when a high draft pick is in the ECHL. Many players have been ruined because they got pushed too much and expectations were too high.
The Wolves have been one of the best franchises in the AHL. How do you account for that?
I think it is just the people around the organization. If you want to have a good franchise, you have to have the ability to run things properly. You have to make a commitment to winning on and off the ice.
Our owner Don Levin has accomplished both now. He has all the prerequisites of what an owner should be. One in particular is having a sportsman’s mentality. That means a fellow that gets in the game for the right reasons. Directing a meaningful operation and making the franchise more than just a hockey team has been very important to him.
For me personally, it is great to work for someone who runs a team that way. I have been involved with many start up teams, this is my eighth from scratch. We are lucky that we have an owner like that.
How has the new partnership with the St. Louis Blues worked out?
It has really been coming along. It is kind of ironic because the club we had before was Vancouver. I say it is ironic because those are both rivals of the Chicago Blackhawks.
It is kind of neat to be involved with a team that is a good club. They sold their American League franchise and came on board with us.
How is it competing against the NHL’s Blackhawks in the Chicago hockey market?
We never felt we really competed against the Blackhawks. When we came in, a lot of people had doubts about us.
Having been involved in hockey for so long, I looked at it as an opportunity to provide great hockey for the right price. I also thought eventually we would put the best show on in town for the money. That is the way we approached it.
We knew we had to get out and be fan friendly. Instead of just making fans we went out and made friends. I think the friends stand by you a little longer than fans. We have a good set up with a lot of friends who are Wolves fans. Our owner treats them like family.
We certainly feel we wouldn’t be around without them and we try to prove that by the way we operate.
What is the biggest challenge you have faced going from player to executive?
I think every player has the same problem. That is looking at the game from a different perspective.
As a player you might react emotionally. I think that takes time to get over that.
I got a little lucky in that before I became a hockey coach I was in sales for two years. During that time I learned a lot, most importantly if you want to score you have to get a lot of shots on goal. If you want to sell any product you better knock on a lot of doors.
I had some good teachers and I think that really helped me. I looked at every player as his own program. I know I am never going to win every game but if I get players to improve, you can get a lot of success out of that.
We have had the best of both worlds with the Wolves, with players improving and the team winning.
Has there been anyone in particular you have learned from?
I learned a lot from a lot of people. One person who stands out was Frank Mathers when I spent some time with the Hershey Bears.
He was a great coach and an even better person. In our day you did not get many hugs you got a lot of tugs. But I learned from Frank that I was working really hard for the players who tugged me and if I was smart I would work harder for the players who hugged me.