The Kelly Cup champion Alaska Aces of the ECHL are hunting for a head coach again after Brent Thompson today was named the new bench boss of the American Hockey League’s Bridgeport (Conn.) Sound Tigers.
Thompson, 40, guided the Aces to the ECHL championship in May, taking the club to its second title in five years. The 2010-11 season was just Thompson’s second as head coach of the Aces – and just his second overall as a head coach – and proved a remarkable turnaround from his debut campaign.
In Thompson’s first season, the Aces were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs for the first time in their seven ECHL seasons to that point, and Thompson came under criticism from Aces fans.
In his next go-round, though, Thompson turned over nearly his entire roster, with a particular emphasis on youth. He engineered several key signings and made a handful of deft trades, all of which helped the Aces craft the best regular-season record on the minor-league circuit (47-22-3). In the playoffs, the Aces went 12-1, beating the Kalamazoo Wings 4-1 in the best-of-7, Kelly Cup Finals.
Thompson was voted ECHL Coach of the Year by his peers.
“I pat him on the back and wish him well,’’ said Terry Parks, the Aces’ managing partner. “A big piece with him is he understood the young guys and knew how to get the best out of them.’’
Parks said the club has known Thompson was moving on for more than a week and has already been actively searching for a replacement.
“We’ve got it narrowed down to about five guys, and I’m still working the phones,’’ Parks said. “And now that it’s public, we’ll probably get a few more guys interested.’’
Parks said the team is seeking a coach in Thompson’s mold, “a guy who is hungry and isn’t sitting back on his laurels.’’
The Aces announced Thompson's move in a press release this afternoon.
Thompson is a former NHL defenseman who prior to arriving in Anchorage served as an assistant coach for AHL Peoria for three seasons. Bridgeport is an affiliate of the NHL's New York Islanders.
The Aces have a history of coaches moving up to the AHL, one step above the ECHL on hockey’s ladder, and just one step below the NHL, the world’s best league.
This marks the third time in four years the Aces have sought a new coach because their bench boss was plucked by the AHL.
Davis Payne coached the Aces to the 2006 Kelly Cup and in 2007 became an assistant coach in Peoria, which like the Aces, is an affiliate of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues. Payne eventually ascended to head coach at Peoria and is currently head coach of the Blues.
Payne’s replacement was his assistant coach, former Aces defenseman Keith McCambridge, who captained the 2006 Cup winners. McCambridge served two seasons, taking the Aces to Game 7 of the 2009 Kelly Cup Finals before accepting a job as an assistant coach with AHL Manitoba.
The Aces’ head job is a coveted position because the organization owns a track record of giving its coach the institutional support required for success. Also, the club owns a winning history that is a powerful recruiting lure and is supported by a passionate fan base.
Jerry Mackie’s one of the Aces’ co-owners, said the ownership group is confident they will have a strong field of candidates to replace Thompson.
“My feeling is there are no shortage of people who would like to coach the Alaska Aces,’’ Mackie said.
Thompson’s work last summer and early in the season served as a springboard to seizing the Cup.
He signed veteran sniper Wes Goldie, who led the league in goals and was named its Most Valuable Player. He orchestrated the AHL deal that landed Gerald Coleman, who became the ECHL’s Goaltender of the Year. He also traded for third-year winger Scott Howes – the Aces gave the Stockton Thunder “future considerations,’’ which in the ECHL often means a couple hundred dollars, at most – and Howes went on to be the playoff MVP.
Bridgeport, meanwhile, went just 30-39-11 last season, the second-worst record in the 30-team AHL.
Check out Wednesday's dead-trees edition for more on this story, including comments from Thompson.