The future Columbus Blue Jackets defenseman didn’t know what to think of his new coach.
“I came from Michigan, where we had Red [Berenson], who’s a very old-school guy,” said Werenski, who won the 2016 Calder Cup with Bednar and Lake Erie. “I walked into the coach’s office the first day I get to Lake Erie, ‘Bedsy’s’ sitting in there with sweatpants on , his has backward. I’m kind of like, ‘Where am I? What did I get myself into?’ I’m not really sure what the American League is all about. From that moment on, I just felt like he’s one of us and he’s in this together with us.”
The Colorado Avalanche coach has earned the description of being a relatable players coach since he guided South Carolina in the ECHL prior to Lake Erie. He’s earned a lot of success, winning the Kelly Cup (ECHL) with South Carolina in 2008-09 and the Calder Cup (AHL) seven seasons later.
Bednar could become the first coach to win those two league championships and the Stanley Cup. The Avalanche will play the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2022 Stanley Cup Final with Game 1 at Ball Arena in Denver on Wednesday (8 pm ET; ESPN+, ABC, SN, CBC, TVAS).
One NHL player has won all three. Arizona Coyotes forward Jay Beagle won the Kelly Cup with Idaho of the ECHL in 2007, the Calder Cup with Hershey of the AHL in 2009 and 2010 and the Stanley Cup with the Washington Capitals in 2018.
“My focus is on this cup, so, I mean, I want to add it,” Bednar said with a laugh. “I want our team to finish the job and most importantly, I think just because I’ve seen firsthand the work from Joe (Sakic, Colorado general manager) on down that our organization’s put into trying to accomplish this goal.
“I want everyone that’s involved in it, especially families included, to get rewarded for the sacrifice and hard work that we’ve put in over the time that I’ve been here. I don’t know what’s been consistent. I don’ t know, just my approach to the game and the focus on the process of what I feel we need to do to be successful.”
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It’s been a long road for Bednar, whose coaching career began as an assistant for South Carolina from 2002-07. Those who have worked with or played for Bednar would love to see him complete the Kelly, Calder and Stanley Cup trifecta. One is Cail MacLean, Bednar’s assistant with South Carolina in 2008-09 and now an assistant for the Calgary Flames.
“He’s put a lot into his profession, and he’s done a really good job and treated people well along the way,” MacLean said. “You’re always really happy to see people who helped you in your career and you’ve been a part of things with them. From the outside, myself and many Stingrays alumni are really happy.”
Bednar coached South Carolina for two seasons, winning the Kelly Cup in his second season after going 42-23-6. Former forward Ben Boudreau played 24 games for the Stingrays that season and said Bednar treated everyone with respect, even when mistakes were made.
“I was on the ice for a goal, and it was a crucial goal against,” Boudreau said. “I was the 10th forward. I wasn’t playing a lot of minutes. I knew the next day when we had a video session. It wasn’t going to be something I was looking forward to.”
“The more we looked at it and the more we talked about it, he took my side of it and he was very human rather than coming down on top of you. He made you feel comfortable to the point where both guys understood when you were leaving the office.”
The approach and success continued for Bednar in Springfield, which hired him June 16, 2014. After missing the playoffs that season, the team moved to Cleveland to become Lake Erie and went 43-22-11 en route to the Calder Cup.
Blue Jackets forward Oliver Bjorkstrand had 16 points (10 goals, six assists) in 17 playoff games that season and won the Jack A. Butterfield Trophy as the most valuable player of the playoffs.
“He has a good balance between holding guys accountable on the ice but being a good coach as far as getting guys to play their best hockey, especially at the end of the season,” Bjorkstrand said. “We noticed that part. We just squeezed in the playoffs but in the playoffs, we found our game. A lot of that comes from his coaching ability of getting the best out of guys.”
Bednar is relatable on all subjects. Trent Vogelhuber, named coach of Cleveland on June 8, played for Bednar and Lake Erie in 2015-16 and said Bednar is a movie buff who liked to talk to players about the latest releases. Former South Carolina forward Travis Morin used to play cards with Bednar, trainers and other players on road trips. Morin, now an assistant for Texas, the AHL affiliate of the Dallas Stars, said Bednar would get involved in friendly on-ice competition, too.
“My last year in South Carolina, we had a thing after morning skate, where the team would have a shootout,” Morin said. “We had a yearlong competition between me and him. Whoever scored, we’d keep track and I’m pretty sure I beat him in the end. Just things like that, a way to keep it fun and not create that divide between coach and player. He had a good way of bridging the gap.”
Bridging the gap was probably needed more than ever when Bednar was named Avalanche coach Aug. 25, 2016, less than a month before training camp began. The Avalanche had the worst record in the NHL in 2016-17, finishing 22-56-4 with 48 points. One season later, they were 43-30-9 with 95 points, qualifying for the Stanley Cup Playoffs before a six-game loss to the Nashville Predators in the Western Conference First Round.
Vogelhuber signed a two-year contract with the Avalanche on July 1, 2016 and saw Bednar’s influence grow exponentially from his first training camp to the second.
“It was a team full of veteran players,” Vogelhuber said. “So for a young, first-time coach to come in that late, I can’t imagine how difficult it was trying to earn trust from some players who had been in the League 15 years. That first season was a grind, but he was relentless and stayed the course and I’m glad they stuck with him.
“Second year training camp, he came on stronger. Having gone through that, the second year he meant business. He was fed up with losing the way that they did, and it was as intense of a training camp as I’ve been through . When he had more time to prepare, he made sure everybody was on board and ready to go.”
Bednar is 240-168-46 with the Avalanche and has led them to the playoffs in five consecutive seasons, including three straight second-round appearances before getting to the Cup Final. He has a chance to make history, and those who have been with him along the way hope he does.
“It’s a really good hockey team, a good coaching staff and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re in this position a few more times in the next few years,” Werenski said. “It’s always fun to see. You root for guys that you’ve had success with, and you root for your friends. I feel like from a young age, when I was Cleveland, he taught me a lot in a short amount of time . I always root for a guy like that.”
NHL.com columnist Nicholas J. Cotsonika contributed to this report
Photo courtesy of: South Carolina of the ECHL