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From AHL to the NHL, Warsofsky Leads From the Heart

#AHL | The path to the NHL for former @Chicago_Wolves coach Ryan Warsofsky began in @TheAHL. @FPHWolves chats with coach on the 2022 Cup run, Erik Karlsson, and what’s next

Ryan Warsofsky lifts the Calder Cup after leading the Wolves to a Game 5 victory over Springfield. Photo Courtesy: Chicago Wolves

From AHL to the NHL, Warsofsky Leads From the Heart

SAN JOSE, Calif. – It happened in the blink of an eye.

On January 18th, the San Jose Sharks hosted the Dallas Stars when a tipped pass went flying into the Sharks’ bench, clipping assistant coach Ryan Warsofsky just above the eye. Warsofsky was immediately helped into the dressing room, but the scratch on the head wouldn’t be enough to keep the North Marshfield, Massachusetts native from his spot behind the bench.

A couple of stitches later and Warsofsky was right back out there.

“Feels good.” Warsofsky said of the injury a couple of weeks later. “Couple stitches, black eye for a couple of days. No nicknames, but a couple of the guys wanted me to wear a helmet on the bench.”

The incident back in January was just another page in the legend of the young coach. At just 35 years old, Warsofsky has already risen through the coaching ranks from the ECHL, a couple of championship runs in the American Hockey League all the way to an assistant coaching spot in the National Hockey League. The former head coach of the Chicago Wolves has taken each day in stride, learning to live in the moment while crafting a locker room built on trust and humanity.

Buying In

Following the Charlotte Checkers’ 2019 Calder Cup Champion, Warsofsky – then assistant coach of the Chekcers – was promoted to the head coach of Carolina’s AHL affiliate. Taking over the duties as bench boss, Warsofsky was in command of a locker room of a multitude of personalities.

Following the Covid-19 stoppage and Carolina’s affiliation switch, Warsofsky’s role carried over to the Chicago Wolves. From his initial virtual press conference as Chicago’s head coach, Warsofsky carried one simple message: win or lose, this team was going to be hard to play against.

Were they ever. Chicago finished first in the Central Division in the Frankenstein of a 2020/2021 season played at the team’s practice facility in Hoffman Estates, Illinois. When normalcy started to return, the message was the same and the high level of expectations with them. Even with a different looking roster, the Wolves continued to dominate on the scoreboard in 2021/2022.

It’s not easy to get everyone to buy in. It’s a phrase we hear a lot in sports, one we hear at our own workplaces, but hardly consider the concept of putting it into practice. What happens when a former 1st round pick involved in trading away a former key piece to your franchise decides to up and go in Dominik Bokk? What happens when your veteran free agent acquisition agrees to a contract termination to return to Europe in Eric Gelinas? How do you get these personalities in the locker room to come together, forego the egos, and work together to a common goal?

For Warsofsky, it begins with who they are off the ice first.

“That’s what coaching is all about. For me personally, I want to let the players know that I care about them first as human beings, and second as hockey players. I want to help them reach their goals, and along the way win some hockey games. I want to let them know that I’m there to help them. It’s not me against you, we’re all in this together. I’m going to make mistakes along the way, they’ll make mistakes. I’m going to hold them accountable but at the same time I want to see them learn. ”

That was the message from day one – one that stuck with rookie center Jack Drury.

“He’s focused on the present moment.” Drury said of his coach leading into the Calder Cup Finals. “On the first day he said it’s not coaches vs. players, we’re all one unit. I think we’ve stuck to that all year.”

That philosophy, aided along by the likes of veterans like Stefan NoesenJosh Leivo, and captain Andrew Poturalski – who partnered with Warsofsky for the 2019 Calder Cup in Charlotte – helped pave the way for a galaxy of success for the Chicago Wolves.

Championship Pedigree

The 2021/2022 Wolves finished with the best record in the AHL with a 50-16-5-5 mark. They paced the league in goal scoring while avoiding back-to-back losses in regulation all season. Depth in all positions laid the foundation, and the leadership group led by their boss behind the bench steered the ship through the postseason with only a single regulation loss.

When the final horn blared on Game 5 of the Calder Cup Finals in Springfield, Warsofsky had reached the summit of the AHL for the second year in a row (barring Covid-19 related stoppages). Looking back on his accomplishment, coach had one memory that stuck out leading into the Game 6 showdown with the Stockton Heat.

“I think that Stockton series was probably the toughest. They were the best team we faced all season and in the playoffs. We just lost two in a row in Stockton heading back home for Game 6. Obviously, we wanted to close them out there and not want to have to go back home. All of the coaches are walking through the airport and I remember Pots and Stefan say ‘hey, don’t worry about it, we got Game 6.’ And it was not cocky, it wasn’t arrogant, it was a very calm and confident leadership group. Andrew played his best game of the season that night. That just told you what kind of leaders we had on that hockey team.”

Poturalski would end up scoring the insurance goal with just over a minute left to send the Wolves to the Calder Cup Final, where they’d win four straight after dropping Game One to take home the Cup.

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Warsofsky celebrates with his team in the dying seconds of Game 5 in Springfield. Photo Courtesy: Chicago Wolves

Now with two Calder Cups in his back pocket, it was only a matter of time before NHL teams would make the call. Warsofsky’s track record of winning at all levels and his engagement with the players made him one of the hot commodities of the summer, with several media outlets naming him on their wish list.

Eventually, the San Jose Sharks would be the one to offer Warsofsky a spot on David Quinn’s staff as an assistant coach. Warsofsky would be just another in a long list of pieces from that Calder Cup team that would move on from Chicago, joining that leadership group of Poturalski, Leivo, and Noesen that inked one-way deals with NHL clubs over the summer. Despite the distance, Warsofsky remains in touch with his former champions, further proving that its about more than hockey for the former head coach.

We’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

Warsofsky’s first year in San Jose has been all about taking in as much as he can at the National level. While the Sharks sit firmly outside a playoff spot in the midst of a rebuilding trend for the franchise, Warsofsky remains committed to his philosophy that got him a job in the NHL.

“Not really. Just little adjustments.” Warsofsky said of his style changing from one league to the next. “Assistant coach is a little different than head coaching. I’m coaching the defense, and I’m trying to spend time with the 6 or 7 guys we have here. Get to know them and work together. Those relationships take a long time to develop. Myself, Coach Quinn, we came in not really knowing their backgrounds. For us, we had a common goal to get to know them in order to help them. A couple things here and there that are probably a little different and I’m trying to figure them out. Right now I’m focused on doing my job and getting the defense and penalty kill to play hard.”

Despite San Jose’s position in the standings, Warsofsky’s acumen for penalty killing has the Sharks’ unit in the top five in the NHL – the same position the Wolves were in last year. After leaning on guys like Max Lajoie and Jalen Chatfield to step up on special teams, Warsofsky oversees the career resurgence of Erik Karlsson, who was all but dismissed heading into the season and now is seeing a return to form and potentially a career year at 32 years old.

“I don’t know if it’s anything I did.” Warsofsky chuckled. “We had some conversations with him about how to get back to where he was a few years ago.  I think getting healthy is the most important thing for him. We want him to play the style he’s comfortable with. Some mistakes are going to happen. We give him some freedom to play, let his skill set come out. It’s similar to what we did in Chicago, and Quinn and I are together in the process.”

Through the growing pains of a rebuilding NHL team, Warsofsky remains committed to his station and focused on his job. He remains in the moment, not looking ahead to a potential head coaching future in this league or thinking about past mistakes or successes. Admittedly, though, he wouldn’t mind having a couple of those 2022 Wolves in the bay area.

“I love all those guys. We could certainly use a young goaltender in [Pyotr] Kochetkov over here. I’d love to have Poturalski, I think he deserves a legitimate shot. Obviously, Stef’s doing well up there in Carolina and Leivo’s found a spot with the Blues. There’s a lot of guys, I can’t just pick one.”

Staying in the moment has been what’s led Warsofsky to where he’s been, and it’s what’s going to lead him to further success in this league. After watching names like Jon Cooper and Jared Bednar lead their teams to championships in the AHL and then the NHL, it’s hard not to see Warsofsky doing the same. His intensity radiates through the lineup, and his heart for his players has them sacrificing it all on the ice for their coach. They buy in for him, and he buys in for them.

With the lessons learned and honed in Chicago, the sky is the limit for Warsofsky at the next level.

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    Andrew Rinaldi covers the Chicago Wolves for Field Pass Hockey. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @FPHWolves.

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