Preds coach Laviolette ‘buying into’ Nashville franchise, community

In his first full seasons with the Hurricanes and Flyers, Peter Laviolette advanced to the Stanley Cup final

Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Much in the way Wayne Gretzky would rake in converts in Southern California nearly a generation later, Bobby Orr spread a mania for hockey throughout Massachusetts in the 1970s.

The popularity of Orr and the Bruins’ 1970 and ’72 Stanley Cup-winning teams created a fervor for the sport that penetrated down to the grassroots level. It would be partly reflected in the composition of the gold-medal-winning 1980 U.S. Olympic team, roughly half of whose players hailed from the Bay State.

Some high schools built rinks that were covered and still had some walls but were unheated and, as a result, considered to be "outdoor." Municipal rinks, sharing the same cookie-cutter blueprint, sprouted up here and there.

One of those municipal rinks sits atop a hill next door to the high school in the small town of Franklin, Mass., about 40 miles southwest of Boston. The rink opened in June 1973, when Peter Laviolette was 8 years old. Laviolette, named the coach of the Nashville Predators last week, grew up about two miles away, near Art’s, a corner store that his father and his uncles ran and which was named for Laviolette’s grandfather.

Nine years after that rink opened, Laviolette would captain Franklin High School to its first state hockey championship game. (They lost but would win the following year.) After he graduated, Laviolette attended college at a small Division III school less than an hour from the New York State border, Westfield State, where he played hockey.

"I was thinking about getting a degree in business and trying to find a place where I thought I could just play some hockey," Laviolette told this correspondent, also a Franklin High graduate, before he coached the 2006 U.S. Olympic team. "What’s happened wasn’t even on the map."

One might say that initially at Westfield State, Laviolette’s hockey career wasn’t even on the map — or, at least, a magnifying glass might have been necessary to find it. Owing to his work ethic, he improved over time, but he was still never drafted. When he finished college, he was signed by the Minnesota North Stars. He eventually played 12 NHL games, all with the New York Rangers in 1988-89, never recording a point and finishing with six penalty minutes.

In the minor leagues and in international competition, he showed something of an offensive upside. In 1992-93 with the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League, he totaled 13 goals and 42 assists for 55 points in 74 games. His minor league career lasted 11 years and he competed on two Olympic teams in 1988 and 1994. The second time around he was nearly 30, much older than many of his teammates who were fresh out of college. He captained the team, which included future Predators goalie Mike Dunham, then 21, and current New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow, who grew up one town over from Laviolette in Wrentham.

Laviolette’s teammates on that team called him "Gramps." But he wanted another shot at a gold medal after the talented ’88 team failed.

"Pete Laviolette is here because he wants to be," 1980 U.S. Olympic team captain Mike Eruzione told then-Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser back in ’94. "He’s not here to get an NHL contract or for the money — nobody’s going to give him any endorsements. Pete Laviolette and Dan Jansen personify what we want our Olympic athletes to be."

The U.S. failed to medal.

Sweden would win gold, with Peter Forsberg’s shootout-winning goal over Canada later memorialized on a stamp.

In 1997, Laviolette went directly from playing to coaching. He started in the ECHL (Class AA) with the Wheeling Nailers. Last week in a conference call with media, he noted how his first son was born in West Virginia. (This was in the same breath as when he mentioned that his daughter’s turtle, named Frank, hailed from Philadelphia, Laviolette’s coaching stop prior to Nashville.) The Nailers won 37 games that season and advanced three rounds in the playoffs.

Clearly showing promise, Laviolette was nabbed by his former team, the Providence Bruins, the affiliate of the Boston Bruins, to coach their team the next season. In his first season at age 34, he won the league championship, the Calder Cup.

A coaching star was born.

Laviolette said he learned his competitiveness from his high school coach, Bob Luccini. While coaching Providence, located about 30 miles from his hometown of Franklin, Laviolette hired Luccini as a scouting and coaching assistant. Later, after winning the Stanley Cup with Carolina, Laviolette helped Luccini to get a job with the Hurricanes as an amateur scout, a job he continues to hold.

"He burns with passion," Luccini said before Laviolette’s stint as the U.S. Olympic coach in Turin. "You can see it on the bench, even if he doesn’t show it outwardly. … Nobody loved the game more and worked as hard as he did."

Laviolette continued to move up the ladder, earning a promotion as an assistant with the Bruins in 2000. When Pat Burns was fired early that season, the Bruins passed over Laviolette for Mike Keenan, who had won a Stanley Cup seven seasons earlier.

To get his first NHL head coaching job, however, Laviolette had to leave the parent organization with which he had spent seven years, the one he grew up a fan of. The New York Islanders hired him to start the 2001-02 season and he helped to end a seven-year playoff drought. The Islanders also earned a playoff berth the following season but again lost in the first round. In the madness that was the reign of Islanders general manager Mike Millbury, Laviolette was dismissed after the 2002-03 season.

When the Carolina Hurricanes faltered 30 games into the 2003-04 season under Paul Maurice, general manager Jim Rutherford tabbed Laviolette to coach the team. The Hurricanes missed the playoffs by 15 points that season as Laviolette went 20-26-6. Coming out of the lockout that canceled the 2004-05, Laviolette reached the pinnacle of the sport, guiding the Hurricanes to the 2006 Stanley Cup with a Game 7 win over Edmonton.

Back in Massachusetts on July 4 of that year, Laviolette’s hometown threw him a parade during his visit with the Stanley Cup. He went on to coach the Philadelphia Flyers for parts of five seasons, bringing them to Stanley Cup Final in 2010. The Flyers, the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, lost to Chicago’s budding dynasty in six games.

In hiring Laviolette, Predators general manager David Poile noted that Laviolette had brought every one of his teams to the playoffs in each of his first full seasons, regardless of the level. In Carolina and Philadelphia, he brought his teams to the Cup Final in each of his first full seasons. In Providence, he won a championship in his first season and in Wheeling he advanced deep into the playoffs.

The Predators should be so lucky.

Laviolette said the Nashville market is very similar to Carolina and he intends to become a part of the community.

"My wife and I, from a non-hockey point of view, we’re really excited to become part of the Nashville community," he said. "We’ve been embraced and embedded ourselves everywhere we’ve been. … I think one of the things my wife and I, everywhere we’ve been — and we made this pact a long time ago that we would not separate, we would not keep the kids somewhere or move somewhere else or be split apart — we would go to whatever community it was and we would 100 percent buy into the team, buy into the fans, buy into the players and buy into the community.

"It’s important for us to do that and when you’re able to build something special, and we had that opportunity in Carolina, it’s so meaningful. It really is because you feel like you are a part of it. You just didn’t steer it. You were actually a part of what the community was able to give and the players and the families and the fans, that’s what really makes being successful special."