Most big-name hires eventually become big-name firings.
That’s just the way the coaching game works.
For the Kelowna Rockets and Jason Smith, the latter occurred on Monday morning.
A bombshell to some and a surprise to many — that the former NHL defenceman and captain would be fired in the same month the Rockets were awarded hosting rights for next season’s Memorial Cup in 2020 — but general manager Bruce Hamilton addressed the media at Prospera Place and said this decision had been in the making for some time.
Hamilton added that a replacement is expected to be named and possibly introduced on Tuesday ahead of the Rockets (4-10-0-0) hosting the last-place overall Swift Current Broncos (1-11-0-0).
“That has something to do with some of the timing, but I’m still working on that and hopefully by tomorrow or before the weekend we’ll have somebody in place,” said Hamilton, surrounded by a half-dozen reporters peppering him with questions — the biggest one being why.
“Any time that you are doing something like this, there’s no fun attached to it at all,” said Hamilton, “but, at the end of the day, how this hockey club does sits on my shoulders and this isn’t a decision, nor something that I just thought of this morning. It’s been on my mind now for a few weeks. I just felt that we were getting to a point where a decision needed to be made. . . .
“I just don’t think we’re going where I think we need to go,” he later added.
That question — why — was asked in a handful of different variations without a definitive answer.
Some of the reasons pitched to Hamilton ranged from the team’s poor start — the worst in franchise history — and underachieving players, to a bad home-ice record (currently 0-6) and sagging attendance, to Smith losing the room 14 games into his third season as Kelowna’s head coach and struggling to relate to today’s youth in his first head-coaching opportunity and first job at the junior level since retiring in 2009.
Hamilton didn’t necessarily agree with or highlight any of those reasons, though he did speak to establishing more of a home presence under the new bench boss. He also spoke of culture, character, discipline and bite.
Yes, bite. It seems the man nicknamed Gator for his hard-nosed playing style lacked that in cutting his coaching teeth.
“I know what I want. I want somebody that has got a little more bite to them,” Hamilton said in discussing Smith’s replacement. “Our team needs to play with a little more up-tempo, and it probably needs to be the personality of the coach somewhat too.”
Speculation swirled following Monday’s announcement, with the focus shifting from “why” to “who” would be taking over. Several names surfaced as potential candidates, including Adam Foote, whose sons Cal and Nolan have been developing here with the Rockets — Cal captained last season’s team before turning pro this fall and Nolan is now in his NHL draft year for 2019. Adam Foote was quite similar to Smith as a player but could perhaps bring more of that bite as a coach.
Craig MacTavish, a longtime friend of Hamilton who has been employed by the Edmonton Oilers, and Josh Gorges, who captained the Rockets to a 2004 Memorial Cup win on home ice and has yet to formally announce his retirement despite not signing this offseason, were two other names in the rumour mill.
The possibilities could also include the last two coaches to eliminate the Rockets from the WHL playoffs — Steve Konowalchuk, who guided the Seattle Thunderbirds to the Ed Chynoweth Cup as league champions in 2017, knocking off the Rockets in the Western Conference final, and Mike Williamson, who led the Tri-City Americans to the third round this past spring by sweeping Kelowna and then Victoria.
Williamson stepped down in the summer and hasn’t resurfaced, while Konowalchuk, who left Seattle to join the Anaheim Ducks as an assistant coach in charge of their power play, was fired following last season and is presently scouting for the New York Rangers.
“I’ve got a couple of guys that I’ve zeroed in on and I’ll probably have a good idea by tomorrow,” said Hamilton, insisting his mind wasn’t made up as of Monday evening. “I’m dealing with a couple people and hopefully by tomorrow we’ll have somebody in place — whether they’ll be here or not by then, time will tell.”
Reality is, the Rockets are now building towards the Memorial Cup in May 2020 and every decision is made with that big picture in mind.
So, although the Rockets appeared to be turning the corner and gaining traction under Smith as of late — winning three of their last five games to close within three points of a playoff spot in the B.C. Division, with two winnable home games on tap this week — Hamilton says there was no turning back on his plan.
“I made my mind up a while ago, but it’s working to find somebody that is going to be the replacement,” he said. “If you’re going to make a change, we’re better off making the change now than waiting until the end of the year and starting over. Whoever is going to coach the team from here on in, I’ve got to believe is going to be the coach next year and that’s probably a good thing from our perspective. . . .
“There’s all kinds of guys out there that want the job, but it’s whether it’s the quality of person that we want.”
Smith was in a contract year — hired to a three-year deal in July 2016 — and there was no talk of an extension, according to Hamilton. Kelowna’s assistant coaches, Kris Mallette and Travis Crickard, are also in contract years, having both been hired under Dan Lambert back in 2014.
The new coach will have a say in his assistants going forward, confirmed Hamilton, who called Mallette and Crickard ‘very capable’ but didn’t commit to them long term.
Asked about breaking the news to Smith, Hamilton said: “He was surprised, he was disappointed. It wasn’t a very long conversation and it usually isn’t in those situations.”
Smith did not respond to requests for comment via text or voicemail. His replacement will be Kelowna’s fourth head coach in five seasons following the one-year tenures of Lambert (2014-15) and Brad Ralph (2015-16).
Coaching stability has been an issue here since Ryan Huska went pro in June 2014, but Hamilton met with the players to explain his rationale.
“I think they’re probably disappointed,” said Hamilton. “I don’t think there was anybody in the room that had any animosity towards the head coach at all. . . .
“It’s not a great part of the business, but I’m sure being young guys, they’ll bounce back.”
After making a few recent trades — for Lane Zablocki, Dalton Gally and Michael Farren — that seem to be paying dividends in a small sample size, Hamilton is optimistic that the Rockets can take off under a new coach.
“Yeah, I hope so,” he said. “We need to make the playoffs. It’s very, very important to me that we make the playoffs because we’re going into a season next year where we have to have a little bit of experience in what we’re going to go through.
“In our division . . . there’s still time, and that’s another reason why now is probably a more logical time to do this than later.”
In saying that, Hamilton was shouldering his share of the blame for the Rockets’ current record, which was 1-8 prior to last weekend.
“I want to be real fair to Jason here, the talent is part of it. He was doing the best he could with what we had,” said Hamilton. “This all comes back to the trade for Leon Draisaitl and Josh Morrissey, when we gave up picks, and eventually you pay for that. That’s no excuse, Lorne Frey and myself, our job is to make sure we get players in here and that’s what we’re working on feverishly now.”
Regardless, Hamilton and Frey didn’t feel Smith was the right man — for whatever reasons — to lead the Rockets into a Memorial Cup season. As they continue to retool the roster, they wanted a different voice in the room.
“One of the things that has concerned me now, for a while, is we used to have a culture in our dressing room for many years here through the Ryan Huska era, that everybody coming into Kelowna to play us knew that they were going to have their hands full,” said Hamilton. “I just have sensed for the last couple years for sure and probably more than that, that it started to leave the room. . . .
“I really hope the person that we bring in is going to bring a little bit of character back in there somehow.”
That will be one of the challenges, along with getting better discipline from a group that leads the WHL in penalty minutes, as well as getting more offence from the forwards once the new coach settles on his line combinations.
“I think we’re all disappointed that we don’t have a better record, and yet I’m the first to be realistic with this, in that we have a young group that we’re trying to mould into a better team,” said Hamilton. “We’ve got some real high talent and it’s just taking some time to get them over the hump, and I’m hoping a new coach will bring them along even faster.
“We’ve started to get some mileage out of some of our young guys, they’re going pretty good and the new guys are fitting in, but there’s still lots of work to be done here.”