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Victoria's Carbery continues coaching rise by guiding Capitals to Stanley Cup playoffs

Washington takes on New York Rangers in opening round
Spencer Carbery was an assistant coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs before taking over the Washington Capitals last May. FRANK GUNN, THE CANADIAN PRESS

To think Spencer Carbery was thinking of leaving coaching 14 years ago to go into the financial business. The 42-year-old from Victoria, in his first season as an NHL head coach, has continued his dizzying career rise behind the bench by guiding the ­Washington Capitals into the Stanley Cup playoffs when few thought that was possible for this Caps team.

“It’s pretty surreal,” said Carbery, in his post-game media scrum Tuesday night in ­Philadelphia.

“I don’t think I ever actually conceptualized this moment.”

It came about because of ­lessons absorbed on the Island. Carbery has told the Times Colonist he still relies on what he learned from his Island hockey coaches: “They all helped mould my hockey mind.” He has cited Jack Hagen and Craig Didmon at the Racquet Club of Victoria, Pete Zubersky with the Peninsula Panthers of the Vancouver Island Junior Hockey League and Greg Adams at Cowichan Valley of the B.C. Hockey League.

Even more influential was his dad Bryan Carbery, the retired head coach of the University of Victoria golf team, who guided the Vikes to four Royal Canadian Golf Association university titles in his 13 years at the UVic helm.

Hardly surprisingly, Spencer Carbery knows his way around golf courses as well as rinks and was Lower Island age-group champion at 14 as a member of Uplands.

Carbery, the 20th head coach in Capitals history, joins ­Carolina Hurricanes mentor Rod Brind’Amour of Campbell River as the second head coach from the Island in this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.

“When it happens, you are a little bit taken back,” ­admitted Carbery, during his media scrum in Philadelphia, after the underdog Caps clinched a playoff berth.

“I’m just proud, really, really proud of the group. We found a way to get into the Stanley Cup playoffs. Our players are all in different stages of their careers and their lives. But you can tell how badly they wanted to find ways to win. Everyone’s going to say we’ve got no business being here. That’s the narrative. That’s fine. Now we want to make good on it and put our best foot ­forward.

“I know this group is not going to be content just showing up for the Stanley Cup playoffs.”

The ascension is far from complete — only hoisting the Stanley Cup would do that — but this is an important milestone along Carbery’s career path. He played NCAA Div. III and then as a pro in the ECHL with Fresno, Stockton, Bakersfield and skated against his ­hometown Victoria Salmon Kings. He closed out his playing career in the ECHL with South Carolina, the team that came to like his hockey mind, and offered him his first coaching job.

Carbery said coaching in the minors taught him about the pro game at the granular level. ­Picking up and dropping off players at the airport at all hours, after AHL promotions or demotions, was just part of the job. Carbery did all the gritty tasks required at that level and steadily worked his way up, coaching the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL to much success from 2011 to 2016 with a 207-115-39 record and a Game 7 appearance in the 2015 Kelly Cup final.

Carbery was named head coach of the Saginaw Spirit of the major-junior OHL in ­2016-17 and was assistant coach with Team Canada Black for the 2017 World U-17 Hockey Challenge. He jumped back to the pros as assistant coach in the AHL with the Providence Bruins and was named head coach of the Hershey Bears in 2018. Carbery accumulated an impressive three-season record of ­104-50-17 with the Bears and was named AHL coach of the year in ­2020-21, leading to a step up to the NHL in 2021-22 as assistant coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs under Sheldon Keefe.

Carbery was named head coach of the Capitals at the beginning of this season but those early lessons from the ECHL and AHL never left him: “We are drafting and bringing people in who are gamers. This organization prioritizes people and players like that.”

The Capitals will meet the New York Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup ­playoffs starting Sunday.

“[Rangers] are the best team in the NHL and we have our hands full for sure,” said ­Carbery.

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