By Tim Pigulski
On Monday the Thunderbirds announced that Matt O'Dette will be filling the assistant coaching vacancy created when Darren Rumble was named the head coach of the QMJHL's Moncton Wildcats.
O'Dette joins the staff after two unsuccessful seasons as the head coach of the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors. From 2011 to 2013, the Condors compiled a 44-85-6-7 record, the worst in the league during that time. However, the poor record is difficult to place entirely on O'Dette's shoulders, as Condors president Matthew Riley admitted that it wasn't an easy situation that O'Dette was brought into.
Hired mid-summer prior to his first season, O'Dette didn't have much time at all to assemble a roster. He thought he'd have better luck heading into his second season, but the NHL lockout complicated things. As one of only two ECHL clubs without an NHL affiliation, Bakersfield wasn't able to reap the benefits from the trickle-down of NHL players into the AHL that would eventually push a number of AHL players down into the ECHL. Instead, the team found itself facing an even stiffer level of competition for the first half of the year than it had the year prior.
"[Bakersfield] was in a bit of a cost-cutting scenario, which made it difficult to recruit players," the former AHL defenseman said. "Basically, I was starting from scratch with no returning players. The ECHL is unique in that it's a recruiting league and you have to have a great destination to attract players. Despite the financial restraints ... I felt that I built a pretty good team going into my second year, and sure enough the lockout hit. We received no benefit, while most other teams were having six or seven American Hockey League caliber players sent down to them."
It appears that O'Dette, who stands 6 feet 5 and had a playing weight of 228 pounds, will focus primarily on working with the team's young defense. Known during his playing days as a hard-nosed defender, O'Dette logged over 100 penalty minutes 12 times during stints in the OHL, AHL, and ECHL.
"When I played I was a physical, stay-at-home, shut-down type of defenseman," says O'Dette, who last played for the ECHL's Stockton Thunder during the 2009-10 season. "I think my foundation would be that style, but I know the game is evolving and nowadays you need defensemen that can get involved offensively, move the puck, skate, and help set the offensive tempo of the game.
"My foundation will always be that hard-nosed, tough-to-play-against, defensive-minded style of play. I'd like to instill that in the young defensemen here."
Along with his head coaching duties, O'Dette was also the director of hockey operations for the Condors. Transitioning to a role as an assistant with the Thunderbirds, however, is an opportunity that has the 37-year-old is looking forward to, especially working alongside a former professional in Steve Konowalchuk, as well as general manager Russ Farwell.
"I had a few different opportunities come up, but I was really impressed with their approach and their philosophy on running a Major Junior hockey operation," O'Dette said of Konowalchuk and Farwell. "Getting to see the facilities and the city blew me away. Outside of the NHL, I haven't seen a facility or an operation that stacked up to it. For me it was a no-brainer that this was the place to get involved in junior hockey."
O'Dette went on to further describe the relationship that he foresees he and Konowalchuk having as he takes a step back from having essentially complete control over his roster.
"Having that head coaching experience as well as being an assistant at a high level, I know the difference between the two dynamics. My personality isn't one where I need to be the center of attention," says O'Dette, who immediately transitioned into a role as an assistant with the Stockton Thunder in 2010-11 after he was finished playing. "Steve and I will be able to work well together. He's a real down-to-earth type of guy as well and I'm ready to help the club and Steve out in any way that I can. My experience in both positions will let me help Steve out with some of the decisions he has to make because I've been in his shoes before."
Rumble, who was with the T-Birds for two seasons, leaves after making a positive impact on both the staff he worked with and the players he coached. His playing style seemed to be that of a more offensive-minded defenseman, so seeing how the players respond to a more traditional approach such as O'Dette's will be an interesting storyline to keep an eye on as training camp approaches.
While there is still sure to be some shuffling of the Thunderbirds' roster before the season begins, O'Dette's main focus will likely be working with the team's bigger defensemen -- guys like Jared Hauf and Taylor Green -- and teaching them how to utilize their size and physicality on the blue line. I would expect to see serious improvements, especially in Hauf's game, as they work with their new coach.
Follow Tim on Twitter @tpigulski.