ANAHEIM, Calif. (AP) — Greg Cronin spent 36 years coaching at nearly every level of hockey before he finally got his first chance to be an NHL head coach.
He believes the struggling but talented Anaheim Ducks will be worth that extraordinary wait.
General manager Pat Verbeek hired the 60-year-old Cronin on Monday to lead the Ducks’ rebuilding effort out of the worst five-year stretch in franchise history. Cronin is a former NHL assistant and a former head coach in both the AHL and at Northeastern, earning widespread praise for teaching strong principles and leading young players.
For Cronin, who spent the past five seasons leading the Colorado Avalanche’s successful AHL affiliate, the Ducks’ combination of bountiful young talent and a patient organization are ideal — and as a surfer and long-distance runner, he should fit into Orange County’s lifestyle as well.
“I think this is right (in) my wheelhouse as a coach,” Cronin said during a news conference at Honda Center. “I’ve worked my tail off to get to this point, and I can’t emphasize enough how happy I am to be here.”
Cronin has 12 years of experience as an NHL assistant with the Toronto Maple Leafs and in two stints with the New York Islanders. The Massachusetts native with a pronounced Boston accent also played an important role in the creation of the USA Hockey National Team Development Program in the late 1990s.
When Cronin’s hiring became public, he began receiving texts from players he had helped across his 3 1/2 decades in the profession all the way back to the 1980s at the University of Maine, where he coached Ducks Hall of Famer Paul Kariya. Cronin has relationships at every level of hockey, and his knowledge and experience were just some of the reasons Verbeek called him “a tremendous fit” to take over a rebuilding team.
“I personally think this has been long overdue for (Cronin),” Verbeek said. “He brings a passion and an energy that is contagious. I was looking for someone that could develop a culture with high standards, work ethic and accountability. Greg has an outstanding track record in those areas.”
Cronin replaces Dallas Eakins, whose contract wasn’t renewed in April after the Ducks finished their fourth consecutive losing season of his tenure. Anaheim finished last season in last place in the overall NHL standings at 23-47-12 and got the second overall pick in the draft lottery.
Cronin knows he’s starting near the bottom, but his experience and preparation make him confident it will work.
“There are certain things that are very doable,” Cronin said. “Everybody is going to compete at an extraordinary level. That’s kind of my mantra. And then you’ve always got to attach your compete level to your brain. You’ve got to be smart about how you do it.”
Just how long has Cronin been in this game? He briefly coached Eakins with the Islanders, and then he coached current Ducks center Ryan Strome during his second stint as an assistant on Long Island 15 years later.
But Cronin only got his first interview for an NHL head coaching job last year with his hometown Boston Bruins. He immediately wowed Verbeek in their first conversation last month, a scheduled two-hour interview that lasted five hours.
“I was looking for both a teacher and a coach,” Verbeek said. “Old-school principles, but new-school methods of teaching.”
Among several mentors and influences on his coaching style, Cronin cited his former Isles bosses, Mike Milbury and Butch Goring, along with Randy Carlyle, the longtime Ducks head coach who employed Cronin with the Maple Leafs.
Cronin said Milbury’s no-nonsense style influenced his own dealings with players. He recalls a formative moment in the cavernous hallways under old Nassau Coliseum when Milbury confronted him about his worries over delivering tough instruction to a player.
“He brought me in the doorway and said, ‘If you’re going to sugarcoat a message, then just get in your car and drive right back to Boston,’” Cronin recalled. “That hit me right between the eyes. He followed up with: ‘It doesn’t matter where you came from or how old you are. Players want to know you care about them, you’re honest, and you’re going to give them a positive message.’ That stuck with me. Mike would say all the time, ‘Get into a player’s soul.’”
Cronin is taking over a franchise near its nadir, but with a relatively promising future.
The Ducks never finished higher than sixth in the Pacific Division during Eakins’ four years in charge. They’ve missed the playoffs in a franchise-record five straight seasons, and Anaheim was the NHL’s worst defensive team of the 21st century by several measures during the just-completed season.
But Anaheim also is loaded with young talent, with the No. 2 overall pick in the upcoming draft joining one of the NHL’s best farm systems. The Ducks’ foundation includes playmaking center Trevor Zegras, two-time All-Star Troy Terry and promising forward Mason McTavish, along with several additional prospects expected to become solid NHL players.
While Cronin said he hasn’t extensively evaluated the Ducks’ talent base, he referred to Terry, Zegras and McTavish as the “pillars” of the new team.