After three seasons in the Hurricanes’ front office, new Checkers head coach Mike Vellucci is ready to take his organizational familiarity and get back behind the bench.
The 50-year-old Michigan native, who will remain Carolina’s assistant general manager, was introduced in his new coaching role at a press conference Thursday afternoon at Bojangles’ Coliseum after he was hired last month.
“Obviously I’m very excited to be here today,” said Vellucci. “I’ve already talked to the players and I know most of them. I’ve been working with them over the last few years and I‘m excited to start working with them here.”
“That’s a very exciting part of this,” said Hurricanes general manager Ron Francis, who was on hand for the event. “Part of his duties were to be in touch with the Charlotte staff and their prospects and also work outside of the umbrella of the Carolina Hurricanes to deal with prospects and coaches who were throughout North America and Europe. So when the players come into camp here they’re going to see a very familiar face and I think that makes it a lot easier as we transition a new coach in here.”
The coaching vacancy opened up in Charlotte after Ulf Samuelsson joined the Chicago Blackhawks as an assistant coach last month, but it did stay that way for long, as Francis quickly found his solution.
“Mike and I have had this discussion a few times over the years,” said Francis. “I think for him this is the year where we started looking at the candidates that were out there and he said, ‘Well maybe I should consider it.’ And I said, ‘If you want to do the job, you go right to the top of the list’ based on what I know about Mike as a person and a coach. Once he made the decision that he wanted to put his hat in the ring, it was a very simple decision at that point. Like I said, it made the most sense to have someone who knows our players and is a proven coach and wanted the opportunity.”
Checkers owner Michael Kahn was immediately on board with Francis’ choice.
“I thought it was an excellent hire, especially from the standpoint that he knows the organization and he knows the players,” said Kahn. “I think we’re going to hit the ground running and it’s going to be a smooth transition because he doesn’t really have a whole lot to learn other than what [Hurricanes head coach] Bill Peters wants him to implement down here.”
Vellucci is no stranger to the coaching world, having spent 14 seasons behind the bench for the Ontario Hockey League’s Plymouth Whalers, but it’s been three years since he’s been in that position. A quick stint helping out the Checkers last season seemed to awaken his drive to coach, though.
“I talked to one of our scouts, Bob Luccini the other day, “said Vellucci. “He answered the phone “Hey coach.” It’s been three years since I’ve heard that so it was exciting. I want to coach, there’s no doubt about it. I filled in for two games [as an assistant coach with the Checkers last season] and I was on the bench and I said that I wasn’t going to say anything for the first period. But five minutes into it I barked at the ref a little bit and felt pretty good. The guys got a chuckle out of it. But I’m excited to coach again.”
Having already built a relationship with most of the players he’ll have next season, Vellucci’s sights are set on continuing the growth he’s been following since day one.
“I’m here to help them improve and get better every day,” said Vellucci. “One of the big things we’re going to talk about this year, we want you to wake up every day and say ‘I’m going to be a better person and a better player.’ It’s not just about being a better hockey player, it’s about being a better person. We’re going to develop that in them this year.”
Vellucci is now the fifth head coach in Charlotte’s AHL franchise history. He’s also the fourth in four seasons, though that turnover can be misleading.
“When you look at it, we’ve had some turnover in the coaching ranks but it’s been for good reasons,” said Francis. “Mark Morris got his dream job up in St. Lawrence where his wife and family were living and working. Ulf Samuelsson really had a tough decision. We’re really close friends and it was a tough decision. I think if it was anyone other than Joel Quenneville, who is another good friend of ours and a guy that he feels is one of the best coaches in the NHL to work underneath, I don’t think he would have left. So it’s not like guys are leaving because they don’t want to be here. They got good opportunities to move up in their career in their eyes. I think having Mike come in here hopefully gives us that stability as well. It’s not like we’re taking a step backwards, we feel like we’re equal or moving ahead in making this decision.”
As far as his coaching philosophy, fans can expect an up-tempo nature from Vellucci’s Checkers.
“Passion and energy,” said Vellucci of the biggest aspects of his game plan. “I like to play the game fast and I like to practice fast. We did that this week in Development Camp and I know Bill Peters does the same thing. I like to run 45-50 minute practices, hard pace, not standing around drawing pictures on the board, I like to get it going. Practice hard, play hard. I’m going to make sure we’re doing everything with a fast pace.”
While the exact group that will end up in Charlotte remains to be seen, there is certainly reason for fans to get excited.
“Talent wise, I think it’s going to be the best we’ve had in a while,” said Vellucci. “It’s going to be younger, so it’s going to be a growing experience, but we’re going to want to get better every day and make sure that by the end of the year we’re peaking.”
“I think it’ll be the deepest team that we’ve had,” said Francis. “We have a lot of competition for jobs in Carolina, but we also have a lot of competition for jobs in Charlotte and the guys have seen that. They have to come in ready to earn one of those spots.”
For Kahn, the hope is that that promising group led by Vellucci will translate into more success.
“Making the playoffs last season was a taste,” said Kahn. “Next year we’re going to sit at the table for a while.”