The air travel in pro hockey has been replaced for Kelly Buchberger by the grimy road miles of bus travel in junior.
But he’s enjoying the ride so far as head coach of the Tri-City Americans, who play the Victoria Royals tonight and Saturday in Western Hockey League action at Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre.
The four-season captain and two-time Stanley Cup champion as a player with the Edmonton Oilers took the Americans job after a stint last season as assistant coach of the New York Islanders in the NHL following 12 years as assistant coach, development coach and director of player development with the Oilers.
“You get used to riding the bus, and working with the kids this season has been great. It’s been fun being around them every day,” Buchberger said.
“The passion for the game always stays with you.”
It is Buchberger’s first trip back to the Memorial Centre since he was a regular in the press box scouting Oilers prospects and potential free-agents during Victoria Salmon Kings ECHL days. He said the transition from working with older players in pro hockey to juniors has been smooth.
“We have a good core leadership group that makes it easy to manage the room,” Buchberger said.
What made the opportunity most appealing for Buchberger is that it allowed him to step up as head coach after spending so much time in the pros as an assistant. His only previous head-coaching gig was one season as bench boss in the AHL with the Springfield Falcons.
“I’ve been an assistant coach most of my career and this was a chance to get back to being head coach, and I’m loving it,” he said.
The personnel on both the Americans and Royals has changed dramatically since last spring’s second-round playoff series in which Mike Williamson’s NHL-prospects loaded Tri-City team swept Victoria to advance to the Western Conference final it lost against Everett.
“These are different teams than last season,” acknowledged Royals head coach Dan Price.
This season’s rebuilt Americans (25-18-3) are more a reflection of Buchberger, who came unheralded out of the WHL’s Moose Jaw Warriors as a lowly 1985 ninth-round draft pick to forge a hard-charging, straight-ahead 17-season NHL career with 1,182 games played. He also a gold-medal-winning player for Canada in international competition.
“We’re not the most skilled team in the league. But we have a willpower that gives us a chance every night,” Buchberger said.
The same could be said about the Royals (24-20-2).
“Victoria is a fast team that plays hard and with good structure,” said Buchberger, 52.
Price said every inch of ice has had to be earned this season in a tough Western Conference.
“The entire conference is physical with heavy, grinding games each night, with Tri-City being no different,” said the Victoria skipper.