SAN DIEGO — The itch to take a stab at coaching professional hockey and retire from a lucrative NHL playing career was scratched only when Mike O'Connell was offered what he says is a great opportunity in San Diego.
The still unnamed International Hockey League expansion team in town introduced O'Connell, 34, as its new coach Wednesday at a press conference at the San Diego Sports Arena. A Chicago native, O'Connell has no coaching experience. He was an NHL defenseman for 12 years, playing for the Detroit Red Wings the past four and also Boston and Chicago.
"The big reasons to get into coaching were the San Diego opportunity and the way the game has changed," O'Connell said. "I had an itch to coach, but with the way the game has changed, the reasons to coach have become more clear."
O'Connell said the evolution of pro hockey from a goon game to one of grace is a primary difference and that San Diego will try to emulate that style.
"It's become a fast and exciting game," he said. "The intimidation element has somewhat left the game. It's a highly speed-oriented game. That's why I made it to the NHL. Being the kind of player I was (he is only 5-feet-9) I think I can adopt that style easily as a coach."
Don Waddell, director of hockey operations for the San Diego Hockey Corporation, chose O'Connell over 21 candidates Monday but had to work out a deal with Detroit for his release. O'Connell had one year remaining on his playing contract.
"He has a lot of good ideas," Waddell said. "I think his philosophy of coaching will be a tremendous help to this situation."
In the past three years, O'Connell said, his role had expanded from player to guidance counselor to acting coach and that the next transition shouldn't be too rocky.
"When you become older, you're expected to lend a hand to the younger players. I'll let them know they have a few guidelines to go by, but we want to create something, have some fun out there."
O'Connell's signed a one-year contract ending June 15, with a one-year option that can be exercised by either party.
The first thing O'Connell and Waddell must do is find a mix of veteran and younger players to fill a roster of 30 that will report to training camp between Sept. 18-20.
"We need both," O'Connell said. "The distractions out here are different than the distractions in Muskegon (Mich.). We have to make sure there are some players who know what it takes to show up every night and play hard."
O'Connell's father, Tommy, was a quarterback for the Cleveland Browns in the 1950s. His brother, Tim, played for the World Hockey's League San Diego Mariners in the 1970s.
"I watched a lot of hockey growing up," he said. "I absorbed things. I got that from my dad."