Coach Mike Stothers is a straight shooter. But don't take my word for it, take Mike Futa's, "He is an honest, straight shooter...His players will know exactly where they stand with him."
However, nine seconds of silence greeted my question about his impressions of a 19-year-old Evander Kane, who he coached in Atlanta in 2010-11. So Stothers is a careful shot.
"He's got all the talent and ability in the world. He does everything. He skates. He shoots. He's tough. But it always seems to be that there's something surrounding him. So hopefully in time, he'll grow up and become a good teammate.
"Soon as he learns to become a good teammate, I think the world's going to be his oyster."
As we ambled through Stothers's path as coach, this relative candor was a constant. He was effusive with his praise and guarded in his criticism, but I was never left with any mistake about his overall feeling.
One player the coach has absolutely no reservations about is John Stevens. Yes, the same John Stevens who is now the Kings' associate head coach.
Stothers actually played with him in the late '80s, when both were hard-nosed defenders for the Hershey Bears. He remembered Stevens as a kid who kept "his mouth shut back in the day when that was what was expected out of a rookie. Earned all the veterans' respect with how hard he worked. There was a bus to be loaded, he's packing the bus, helping out."
Stothers transitioned to Bears player-assistant coach in 1991-92, which he discussed at length in my earlier retrospective of his playing career. The next season, the 30-year-old retired and took on a full-time assistant's role with Hershey.
Meanwhile, the younger Stevens moved on to skate for the Springfield Indians, figuring into some games with the Hartford Whalers along the way. A few years later, he and Stothers were reunited in Philadelphia, and they raised a Calder Cup together with the Phantoms in 1998.
Stothers has called Stevens "the best captain I've ever had." He highlighted how Stevens lived up to that vision:
"He's the guy bringing the young guys over to the house and making sure they're getting home-cooked meals, helping them find places, and helping them open up bank accounts.
"He's very, very loyal and supportive of his coaching staff. That's what I noticed. There's going to be times where...it's a work day, and there's going to be some skating done. The players all dread it.
"If one of his teammates was on the ice and we're doing a bag skate, and they ask, 'Why are we doing this?' He'd just say, 'Because they want us too.'
"It's how it's received and how it's perceived by your captain. He's always the hardest-working guy on the ice."
It should come as no surprise that current Reign captain Vincent LoVerde compares favorably to Stevens:
"Vinnie has got an awful lot of similarities. Great, outgoing personality. Well liked by his teammates. Well respected. He just comes to work, and he's a good example for everybody.
"You know what, he's done it the hard way. He played here [in Ontario] in the ECHL, earned himself a life in the AHL. He's not out of the woods of maybe playing in the NHL.
"We as a coaching staff can count on Vinnie to take care of the room before it gets to us."
Speaking of Stevens and LoVerde and from 23 years of playing and coaching in the AHL, Stothers emphasized, "There's a lot of guys who have been talked about as great leaders—Mark Messier and stuff like that—there's just as many in the AHL that don't get the credit that a Mark Messier does."
In 2000, after a decade in the AHL as an assistant, Stothers finally earned some shine from the NHL once again, as the Flyers charged him to work with the team's defensemen under interim head coach Craig Ramsay. There, he and Philadelphia brass dealt with a "good problem" child:
"When [Justin Williams] came in, he was supposed to go back to play junior. He was only 18 years old, and that was the biggest hurdle...we had: 'What's better for Willie? Go back and play junior or step in and play in the NHL?'"
Philadelphia was a veteran team that fancied itself a Cup contender, so the bar was set high to stick with them. And the teen was surrounded by vets who took to him:
"Maybe it was just a right fit at a right time.
"He was refreshing...Guys kind of latched on to him because he was this fun-loving kid. He was quiet, but you could just see how much fun he was having on the ice.
"You got to be a pretty special player [to make it as a teenager]. Justin Williams is a pretty special player."
Stothers added, "I think he's just a good athlete. I don't think he's just a good hockey player. He's just a good athlete."
However, there was one key player in the Flyers locker room that most of the team did not take to. Stothers flashed a naked disdain at his mention:
"He was very unpopular. I got nothing to say about Roman Cechmanek.
"He was a good goalie. But he certainly wasn't a good teammate.
"He tried to take himself out of games. What kind of teammate is that?"
Stothers then asked, rhetorically, "Where's he playing now?"
Here, of course, the coach was being a little tough on the now 44-year-old netminder. But his general point was clear: One of the most consistent regular season goalies in recent history lasted just four years in the NHL and was out of the league at only 33.
Stothers himself paid a very personal professional price after the most infamous of Cechmanek's meltdowns. In the first round of the '02 playoffs, the goalie expressed his dissatisfaction with his teammates' play by standing "at center ice, yelling at his teammates and gesturing to the bench that he wanted out." At the next practice, teammates responded by intentionally firing shots at the keeper's head.
"Perhaps the players were a little justified...Every one of them shot the puck at his head. That pretty much tells you everything you want to know right there."
Head Coach Bill Barber started backup Brian Boucher in the following game, but Philadelphia was eliminated, and the entire coaching staff was axed.
Fortunately, Stothers immediately found a new home, as then-Owen Sound Attack GM Futa gave him his first head coaching job.
This is one way Stothers differentiates head from assistant coaching, "A head coach can come in and get things all fired up and light a fire under somebody. An assistant coach comes along and says 'Settle down. This is what he wants you to do. This is what he needs you to do.' You can joke around with the players more too."
Bobby Ryan was one of Stothers's Owen Sound stars. More recently, longtime hockey executive Brian Burke said of the 2005 second-overall pick, "He can't spell intense."
However, Stothers never had any particular concerns about the Sens sniper's intensity. In fact, he praised Ryan's growth from Owen Sound to Ottawa:
"Perhaps earlier on in Bob's career [at Owen Sound]...Maybe his work ethic wasn't quite where it could've been. Maybe his conditioning wasn't where it was needed to be...he certainly applied himself to improve in that area. He deserves credit for that.
"He needed to work on his conditioning. His strength and his foot speed. But there was no resistance to it. He was just a young kid. You can say that about almost every kid that gets drafted. They think they're training hard. They think they're working hard. But they have to be pushed, and they have to be shown.
"There's probably moments that Bob maybe resorts back to just relying on his talent alone. But you know what? The last time I saw Bob, which is not too long ago...I was in Calgary and I saw him after, and he looked great. He was lean.
"He was a great kid for us at Owen Sound. I think where he got drafted...second behind Crosby? He was legit. He was that good. He's that good a hockey player."
After five happy years in Owen Sound—so happy, in fact, that Stothers still spends his offseasons there—he was offered his first professional head coaching gig with Detroit Red Wings affiliate Grand Rapids.
One of his assistants was Jim Paek, perhaps best known for winning two Cups with the Mario Lemieux-led Penguins, and current leader of South Korea's men's ice hockey entry for the 2018 Winter Games. But when asked if he had any thoughts about his former assistant, Stothers gave a telling "Nope."
2007-08 was Stothers's only year with the Griffiths, but he didn't care to elaborate. That season was not without highlight, however, as he was called up with select Grand Rapids players and staff to help the parent club during their Stanley Cup run.
"I didn't do anything.
"Listen. We just basically went up and skated the extras. In the grand scheme of things, we contributed nothing. That was all the Red Wings, Babcock and his staff and their players.
"They call up extra guys in case...Their coaching staff is busy preparing. So basically, after practice you're skating the extras and trying to keep them game-sharp if they're called.
"I didn't do anything other than the organization was terrific enough to reward all of us with at least recognizing us and giving us that."
Did Stothers even touch the Cup?
"I was not a part of it. I spent the year in Grand Rapids. You're on the ice, it was in Pittsburgh. That's the time for the players that have been putting their time in all season long, that staff that had been putting their time in all season long.
"You don't touch the Stanley Cup until you've won it or you deserve to. So, still waiting for that opportunity to hoist it above my head."
After being let go, Stothers took a couple years off from coaching, before Ramsay called again for assistance. This time, they faced the singular challenge of trying to guide a young Atlanta Thrashers squad—beset by constant relocation rumors—to the postseason.
"I think we had a pretty good nucleus, which is what you're now seeing in Winnipeg. We got [Dustin Byfuglien and Andrew Ladd]...from Chicago after they just won the Stanley Cup. We had a good goalie in Pavelec. You know, the makings were there."
But if the makings were there, there would be no help from above.
"We didn't make any changes or acquisitions to make sure we were going to get in the playoffs. So it was hard. The team itself wasn't spending any extra money."
Stothers concedes, "The handwriting was kind of on the wall...It was difficult to keep everything focused."
It was to be the Thrashers' last season in Atlanta. However, he hasn't given up on hockey in the ATL, "I still think a team can make it. I still believe that. With the population they have...I mean, there's three million people there or something.
"I don't know why it wouldn't work. I know they've got basketball and football and everything else, but it should work.
"A beautiful rink. They had everything!"
Well, everything except a winner. But that's what Stothers helms now with the defending Calder Cup champs. As we closed, he cited that triumph as one of his career highlights, among others:
"Getting drafted in the first round by the Flyers. Getting traded to my favorite team, the Toronto Maple Leafs. Playing in Maple Leaf Gardens. Standing at center ice for the national anthem during Hockey Night in Canada. That was pretty special.
"The championships. One as a player in Maine. One as an assistant coach in Philly. One as a head coach in Manchester. Won a Stanley Cup with Detroit.
"But I think the biggest thing is just the friends I've made. The teammates. Love the game. Love my teammates. So I think that's the best thing."