The Oklahoma City Barons have seen many callups over their four, now going on five seasons, but yesterday was the biggest callup of all — Head Coach Todd Nelson was reassigned to the Edmonton Oilers. After a brief interval with Craig MacTavish at the helm of the Oilers, Todd Nelson will step in as Interim Head Coach near the end of the year to receive what is basically an on-the-job interview to finish the season. For OKC fans who have watched Nelly since the beginning of the 2010-11 season it is a bittersweet moment of pure joy for Nelson who is very deserving of the new job, but there is also great sadness as fans realize we will no longer be able to watch him on the Barons’ bench for the remainder of this season and most likely ever again.
It has been a great joy and an honor to watch Todd Nelson coach in Oklahoma City. He is a very approachable fellow as players and likewise OKC fans have discovered. He can be very tough on his team, but he knows when to lighten up and let them have fun as well, as I’ve witnessed from watching a great many practices the past three seasons.
In February of 2012, immediately following Ryan O’Marra’s trade, the team took a shellacking from Milwaukee that next night and had an extraordinarily rough weekend of games. It was obvious that the trade had hit the boys hard, not only on the ice, but off the ice as well. Trades are acknowledged to be part of the business but it doesn’t make it any easier on a team to lose a teammate and friend under such conditions.
Nelson held a team meeting that Monday and I don’t know exactly what was said, but the team reacted as if a lifeboat had been sent for them. The palpable tenseness that we had witnessed since that trade had suddenly lifted. When the team reconvened practice on Tuesday morning the mood was much more relaxed, and as practice progressed Nelson gave the boys much more leeway, laughing and joking to ease the situation even more. By the end of practice the boys were like playful puppies, sliding across the ice, popping pucks at one another, just enjoying some lighthearted fun.
I had never witnessed a practice such as this, but it made perfect sense. Nelson had diffused an incredibly tense situation with the boys by letting them relax and have some fun, even though the team was scheduled to face the Texas Stars the following night. And how did that game go you ask? The Barons decisively beat the Stars 5-1.
An unnamed coach who has competed against Todd Nelson in the AHL told Craig Custance in his most recent article that Nelson has “a strong hockey mind who gets the most out of his players.” The coach went on to say “I think he’s really good. He plays a game where he’s able to create offensive space for his guys better than other people.”
Yesterday Nelson explained to Mike Baldwin, a reporter for The Oklahoman, that “because I’ve coached a lot of them it will make the transition easier. Even the handful of players I haven’t coached, some of the free agents they signed, I got to know them during [Edmonton’s] training camp before we started our camp here in Oklahoma City.”
Nelson went on to talk about the Oilers, “there already are some really good pieces to the puzzle. There are some really talented hockey players on that roster. My focus will be to get the guys to play hard for one another, but first I must go earn the players’ respect.”
Respect has always been key for Nelson and you can see this in a tweet from Jonathan Willis:
Neal Livingston wrote a wonderful piece on Nelson over at Tend the Farm, and he expressed feelings that many of us are having right now. This OKC team has grown and developed under Todd Nelson and all of us are a bit melancholy about his departure right now, but we are also tremendously excited about his much deserved callup.
Jonathan Willis has written a number of articles on Nelson yesterday and today (see the Sportsnet article linked below), as well as a highly recommended five-part interview with Nelson from last season while Willis was spending much of the season in OKC reporting on the team:
| Oilers Hiring Todd Nelson Was a Smart Move (Sportsnet)
“Nelson is also a compelling figure because he’s stepped into a dysfunctional organization and had success before. That dysfunctional organization? The Oklahoma City Barons, otherwise known as the Edmonton Oilers farm team, a club which was as bad in the AHL prior to Nelson’s hiring as the Oilers have been in the NHL.”
| Jonathan Willis’ Todd Nelson interview series:
- Part 1: Communication is critical
- Part 2: First-year Europeans a unique challenge
- Part 3: Do Oilers and Barons play the same system?
- Part 4: Nelson on his coaching philosophy
- Part 5: Nelson modeled his coaching style on Barry Trotz
All the best in Edmonton, Nelly! You might even make a few of us Oilers fans over the long haul.