Last Saturday, after the Avalanche’s morning skate at the Pepsi Center, when Jared Bednar at the tail end of his availability briefly talked about the tragic crash of the Humboldt (Saskatchewan) Broncos’ team bus that left 15 dead, his emotion showed.
Bednar, the son of a Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, explained that he lived a significant part of his nomadic childhood in Humboldt and dreamed of playing for junior hockey’s Tier II Broncos.
Actually, I talked about his Saskatchewan background — and more — with him at length in 2016, shortly before the the Avalanche opened training camp in advance of what would be a horrific 48-point season in Bednar’s first season as Patrick Roy’s replacement as Colorado’s head coach.
That season was a trial by fire, and only general manager Joe Sakic’s concession that Bednar was in a rough situation with a franchise in transition prevented the Avalanche from succumbing to the NHL tradition of quickly scapegoating coaches under such circumstances.
Here we are a year later, with the Avalanche set to open a first-round playoff series against Nashville Thursday after an improvement to 95 points. Bednar likely will finish second to the Vegas Golden Knights’ Gerard Gallant in the NHL broadcasters’ vote for the Jack Adams Award as the league’s coach of the year.
Indeed, the man from Saskatchewan who paid his dues in a major way has done a terrific job this season.
And his story remains compelling.
I don’t mind telling it again as the Avalanche steps back in the spotlight in this market and is drawing new fans — or drawing back old ones.
Born in Yorktown, in eastern Saskatchewan and about 100 miles from Regina, Bednar spent his early childhood in tiny Elbow. There, the grain storage elevator was the tallest structure in the village and population was around 300.
But then, thanks to his father’s frequent transfers, the moving around began.
“In rural Saskatchewan, you live, breathe, eat, sleep hockey,” Bednar told me in an office at Family Sports Center, the Avalanche practice rink. “That’s what you do. So it didn’t matter what time of the year, you found a way to play, whether you’re playing street hockey on the pavement or ice rinks or outdoors on ponds. That’s all we did. Well, we played other sports as well, but we found a way to make sure we were getting our hockey in every night — that and watching ‘Hockey Night in Canada.’ ”
After moving on from the Broncos, Bednar — a big, tough defenseman — played four seasons of major junior in the Western Hockey League with the Saskatoon Blades, Spokane Chiefs, Medicine Hat Tigers and Prince Albert Raiders. No NHL team drafted him during his eligibility.
His coaches had contacts in what then was called the East Coast Hockey League, and he caught on with the expansion Huntington (W.Va.) Blizzard, who won 14 games in their 1993-94 inaugural season.
“I didn’t know anything about the league,” Bednar said. “I’m 21 years old, I’m leaving Saskatchewan and Western Canada really for the first time to jump in my car and drive down to West Virginia and play hockey. I had no idea what it entailed. We were awful my first year, just awful. And then I went back and we had a decent second year, and I played with some of my best friends to this day on that team.”
Bednar was popular with crowds and his teammates because he dropped the gloves to avenge and defend.
“It was something I could contribute to help my team, so I did it,” Bednar said. “I wanted to play and I loved my teammates.”
In Huntington, the home of Marshall University, Bednar met and started dating the woman who later would become Susan Bednar. Then, in his third season with the Blizzard, he was traded to the Charleston-based South Carolina Stingrays.
“I was crushed,” Bednar said.
He said it helped that his teammate, roommate and best friend, Dan Fornell, was traded with him, and they quickly became valuable members of the Stingrays.
“We always referred to him as ‘Bedrock,’ ” Rob Concannon, a Stingrays teammate who now is president of the ECHL team, told me. “He had a cool persona about him, and at one point he had the long hair and an earring. … We find out that we’re getting Jared Bednar and Dan Fornell from the Huntington Blizzard and we said, ‘Let’s look at the guys’ stats!’ That first (expansion) year, Jared was minus-82. Minus-82! So of course we were all saying, ‘Who the hell are these two guys?’ And then they came to town.
“I played a kind of antagonistic role and Jared would turn to me and say, ‘Coocs, you go out there and do whatever you want, I have your back.’ That’s what he was. He always had your back.”
Jason Fitzsimmons was the Stingrays’ goaltender.
“He was a great teammate,” Fitzsimmons told me. “He stood up for his teammates, he spoke with his actions and he held people accountable. I think those are things he has taken over to the coaching side.”
The Stingrays won the league’s Patrick J. Kelly Cup twice when Bednar played for them, in 1997 and 2001. In between, he had brief stints in the AHL with St. John’s and Rochester, and then was with the International Hockey League’s Grand Rapids Griffins for 1998-99.
“I was at the age where I was really fitting in,” he said of that season at Grand Rapids and the IHL. “I knew I could play there. I was playing forward and ‘D’, usually in a sixth-D role, or the 11th, 12th forward and fourth-line role. I killed some penalties. I found a niche providing a physical presence at times, so I was looking forward staying in that league and making a career of the IHL. But then they got an NHL affiliation and the league was getting ready to fold, so it kind of kicked me back to Charleston. I was 26 and getting married. I went back and played another three seasons.”
He enjoyed his stints with the Stingrays.
“I went down there and we were drawing 10,000 fans a game, selling out our building and they’re treating us like we were an NHL team,” he said. “We were Charleston’s team, South Carolina’s team and the fans were great.”
In 2002, he was pondering whether to play another season when Fitzimmons, the former goalie, moved up from assistant coach to head coach. On the night of his hiring, Fitzsimmons asked Bednar, who lived two blocks away, to come to his house for a talk. He asked Bednar to retire and become his assistant.
“I wanted to stay in hockey and I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do that as a player,” Bednar said. “Probably the biggest factor in me deciding was I had played one way my whole life. I wasn’t the most talented, but I was real competitive. I had some anxiety at certain points in my career about fighting, but generally I fought because I was in the moment and wanted to do it. My last year, that kind of went away. I was at a spot where I had my son and I didn’t feel that I battled to the point I did the rest of my career.”
He was torn. He told himself he wanted to play one more season, return to his passionate role and go out that way. But he told Fitsimmons yes.
His coaching career had begun.
“I fell in love with it,” he said. “It gave me a chance to work and learn and make a lot of mistakes.”
Bednar and Fitzsimmons coached together for five seasons.
“Even though I was the head coach and he was the assistant coach, I viewed it as being co-coaches,” Fitzsimmons said. “I learned a lot from him. I knew I was pretty green and we were both young kids and I knew that being an ex-goaltender, I used to talk about the game with him and I knew we had the same philosophy. I think I kind of talked him out of playing another year and I think now, 15 years later, he’s probably thankful I did that for him.”
In 2007, when Fitzsimmons moved on to the Washington Capitals as a professional scout, Bednar became South Carolina’s head coach. In Bednar’s second season, the Stingrays won the Kelly Cup again in 2009.
Next, he signed on as an assistant to Jim Playfair, a former NHL defenseman who was the head coach of the AHL’s Abbotsford Heat.
“I quickly realized that first and foremost, our personalities connected,” Playfair told me. “There just weren’t many loose parts in his coaching and his disposition as a person. His connection to the players. His attention to detail. His preparedness. I was just really impressed that coming out of the East Coast League, that he was as well-versed in handling video tape and teaching structure and getting his point across to the players.”
Playfair recalled a conversation with Bednar after the Heat was eliminated from the playoffs and the coaches and players were in the Calgary airport.
“I said, ‘Look, you are past being an assistant coach at this level. I think you’re good enough to be a head coach,’ ” Playfair said. “I made some phone calls to different general managers that I had relationships with that I thought might be looking for a good, solid, young coach.”
The St. Louis Blues hired Bednar to be head coach of their AHL affiliate, the Peoria Rivermen. So he had gone from ECHL assistant to ECHL head coach, from AHL assistant to AHL head coach and he was on the path to the …
Not so fast.
The Rivermen were 81-63-12 in his two seasons, but Bednar’s contract wasn’t renewed.
Perhaps that’s another reason Bednar didn’t mind that it was the Blues that fell to the Avalanche in the Saturday showdown for the final Western Conference playoff berth.
“It was disappointing,” he said. “I’d put a lot into that and I felt like it was my chance. I’m a competitive person. I want to win and we didn’t, but I thought our staff and myself put a lot into that team and I felt we did everything we could with the group we had. … I think deep down I worried a little bit that that was my chance as an American League head coach. But I’m of the belief that everything happens for a reason.”
The Columbus Blue Jackets hired him as the second assistant for their AHL franchise, the Springfield Falcons. After two seasons, Falcons head coach Brad Larsen — a former Colorado winger — moved up to the Blue Jackets’ staff, and Bednar was a head coach again. The Blue Jackets’ affiliation switched to the Lake Erie Monsters in Cleveland for 2015-16, and the Monsters stormed through the AHL playoffs and won the league’s Calder Cup.
“After the move, we were two hours now from Columbus, and management and scouts and everyone could come in and have their hands on our players,” Bednar said. “It was just a dream setup really. We had a lot of young kids turning pro as first year guys, and we had a handful like that from the year before. So we were going to be young, with great leadership, and it was kind of the perfect storm.”
On June 12, 2016, the Blue Jackets’ young Danish prospect, Oliver Bjorkstrand, scored with 1.9 seconds left in the first overtime to give the Monsters a 1-0 win over Hershey and a four-game sweep of the Calder Cup Finals. Bednar got to lift a championship trophy for the fourth time — and the second time as a head coach.
“The effort that our players played with, and the attention to detail they had, when you see them get rewarded, it’s terrific,” he said. “In the celebration afterwards, you could see there’s the mutual respect between me and the players, between our staff and the players, between the players themselves. It was so rewarding to see, from watching the players and how much they earned and deserved it, it was just a humbling experience.”
Bednar signed a new two-year contract with the Blue Jackets’ organization, but after Roy’s stunning Aug. 11, 2016 resignation, the Avalanche interviewed Bednar and hired him Aug. 25.
He has turned out to be the right man for the job.
* * *
Terry Frei of the Greeley Tribune writes two commentaries a week for Mile High Sports. He has been named a state’s sports writer of the year seven times, four times in Colorado (including for 2016) and three times in Oregon. He’s the author of seven books, including the fact-based novel “Olympic Affair,” about 1936 Olympic decathlon champion Glenn Morris and “Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming,” about the landmark 1969 Texas-Arkansas football game and the events swirling around it. His web site is terryfrei.com and his additional “On the Colorado Scene” commentaries are at terryfrei/oncolorado.
E-mail: [email protected]
Terry Frei’s MHS Commentary/Story Archive:
Magazine: Gateway High Olympian Stephen Garbett