CLEVELAND — On April 30, 2022, the Cleveland Monsters announced that head coach Mike Eaves would be stepping away from his bench duties following the completion of the 2021-22 season. Outside of the organization, speculation immediately started about why the decision was made and what caused Eaves to want to step away. However, it didn’t shock those within the Monsters or their NHL-affiliate Columbus Blue Jackets. In fact, the announcement, from the content to the timing, was in the plan from day one. What wasn’t in the plan were multiple seasons riddled with changing pandemic regulations, an injury to the now-former head coach, and plenty of stories, wonderful memories, and relationships he’d form in his three seasons with the Monsters.
Recently, Eaves sat down with me to discuss his tenure with the Monsters and what is up next for the 35-year coaching veteran. He was smiling and bright-eyed, just as he had been in many previous interviews and media scrums. Laughing, he shared that he was fresh from a vacation with his wife, Beth, where they spent time with their grandchildren. It was the first time they had seen them since last summer.
“We drove down there and went long enough to disrupt everything and then left them,” Eaves said with a chuckle.
Off that lighthearted note, we jumped right into the pressing topic: why is he stepping away, and why this specific season?
“That Part was Fun”
Before being announced as the sixth coach in Cleveland Monsters franchise history on June 18, 2019, Eaves met with Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekäläinen and then Monsters GM Bill Zito. According to Eaves, Kekäläinen and Zito were “very honest and upfront,” presenting a three-year coaching opportunity. Once those three years were up, they wanted to sit back down to see what other opportunities may be available at that time.
Eaves’ tenure went along with that plan completely. However, the final year of Eaves’ coaching term with the Monsters probably wasn’t anywhere near what they had anticipated. Of course, everyone was still navigating pandemic rules, but Eaves had extra hurdles on top of it all. What started as an injury before the NHL Prospects Tournament in Traverse City in September 2021 culminated in a season where everything was far from ordinary.
Ultimately, he wasn’t around on the ice and amongst the team as much as he would like. Though, Eaves had the tools and drive to adapt and evolve along with his personal struggles, fulfilling his coaching duties simultaneously. Eaves explained his role this past season and how he still was able to lend his expertise and experience to the young Monsters roster and assistance coaches:
“It kind of evolved to the point where I would watch games at home, take notes, and give them (assistant coaches Trent Volgelhuber and Mark Letestu) observations from up above. I’d then give that to Trent and Testy (Letestu). They didn’t use everything I gave them but they would listen at practice. I would watch practice and give feedback to the coaches about that. The part that kind of grew for me in this role that I had was being able to sit down with guys. My primary job was one-on-one feedback with the players on the team. I watched all the games on the road on AHLtv, which they do a very good job. And John Hamre, our video coach, had a stat package for me. So, I would get the stat package, so I could see the numbers on guys… That’s where I think my time was most valuable, was in those one-on-one situations in talking to the young guys and pointing things out from my view up in the stands. So, I really enjoyed that part. That part was fun.”
The joy of working with young professional athletes is actually what brought Eaves back into the American Hockey League after coaching the previous 17 seasons in the collegiate ranks. For Eaves, it was about helping to raise young men into great people and even greater players.
“I came from coaching division three student athletes, and coming back to the American Hockey League, where you’re working with professionals, this is their job. It was it was fun to be in that environment again where these guys didn’t have school. They weren’t worried about the social aspect as much. Hockey is their job. They’re at this level, because they have some skill and ability and athleticism. It was really fun to be in that environment, again, where they came to work, ready to go to work and have the skill set to do some of the things you wanted to implement. At the same time, we were able to, especially with the younger guys, break things down in an attempt to make them better, so they could reach their dreams.”
— Deana Weinheimer (@FPHMonsters) November 18, 2021
Perhaps Eaves’ legacy will be best felt in time when players that came up through the Monsters under his tutelage make their mark on the NHL. This season alone, fans saw players like Carson Meyer, Jake Christiansen, and Trey Fix-Wolansky get their first chances on NHL ice; all three also scored their first goals in the NHL this season. Of course, all three began their pro careers in Cleveland, with Eaves at the helm.
“A Gradual Letting Go”
Perhaps Eaves not being able to man the bench and take over the typical head coaching duties was the best for the organization in the long run. After all, the plan was that he would be stepping away at the end of the season. This allowed Vogelhuber and Letestu to step up into other duties, like taking post-game interviews, running practices, and the like.
But, that never altered a great relationship based on learning for Eaves and his assistant coaching staff:
“You know, the young guys that I’ve had the pleasure to work with, mostly it’s been Steve McCarthy and Trent Vogelhuber, with Mark Letestu, coming in this year, was really fun, because they’re young coaches. We were kind of opposite ends of the spectrum: they’re young, I was old. I learned from them as I’m hoping they took something away from what they saw me do.”
As the head coach of @monstershockey, Mike Eaves wears several hats.@DMaetzMedia illustrates how Mike's role in Cleveland requires some skillful juggling.#CBJ | @BlueJacketsNHL pic.twitter.com/C5kvXJ5OL9
— Bally Sports Columbus (@BallySportsCBUS) February 8, 2020
Those lessons and relationships were put to the test this season without Eaves involved in gameday action. Due to self-described health issues, he could not be in the forefront as much as he would have liked to be. But, his coaching staff rose to the occasion and proved that they were ready for whatever direction the organization decides to go:
“Maybe that was a pre-emptive (look at) what was coming, you know. It was kind of a gradual, letting go after 35 years. But the people that we work with, and not just the coaches, but the medical staff, with (head athletic trainer) Tom Bourdon and (equipment manager) Dusty (Dustin Halstead), and (assistant athletic trainer) Seth Campbell, and all the other people. The care that our athletes got here in Cleveland was the best I’ve seen in pro sports… From the player side, I think one measure of how successful we are at this level is when the people, especially the young people we work with get called up to the Blue Jackets, and how do they fare? We think in looking at them, probably not subjectively, we thought they did pretty good. They went up there; they did their job.”
They did their job quite well, in fact. Mainstays from previous seasons like defenseman Andrew Peeke graduated from the AHL to the NHL this past season. He was one of two Jackets skaters to play in all 82 games. In fact, the players he’s coached since he started in Cleveland accounted for 303 total man-games, 27 goals, 52 assists, and 79 points this season. This doesn’t account for players who were assigned to Cleveland on conditioning assignments or were short-term loans, like Yegor Chinakhov. Contributing to those numbers were Peeke, Meyer, Fix-Wolansky, Eric Robinson, Justin Danforth, Gavin Bayreuther, Gabriel Carlsson, and Liam Foudy.
“The Things That will Transcend All the Wins and Losses”
Ultimately, the key words of the release by the organization addressing Eaves’ departure are “stepping away from his bench duties.” Does that mean that after 35 years, Eaves is stepping away from coaching for good? If so, how would he sum up his coaching career? Despite the plan put into place three years ago, Eaves hadn’t pondered what stepping away from coaching would mean and what it all meant to him. However, he had a lot to share about the people he’s met and the support from his family along the way:
“35 years. You know, I was really blessed. I played (professional hockey) eight years, and concussions made me retire. I was able to step right into a head coaching job 35 years ago at University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire. And I got to find out if that’s what I wanted to do. I mean, at that level, you do everything: skate sharpening, we built a we built a new locker room, I drove the bus, painted the walls, but I discovered that this is what I wanted to do. Being able to go from playing to your next position and have it for 35 years is not very common. And I was also very blessed that my wife and I have moved 30 times, and and it’s crazy. It’s a crazy business. And for her patience, I mean, she’s the best mover I’ve ever seen. She says you become better at it, but it’s never any more fun. I’ve had a great partner along the way. and I’ve enjoyed it… I wouldn’t say it’s gone fast, I think that would be funny to say that. But we have met some incredible people, lived in incredible places. Right now as we step out of it, I think the thing that we take, and I think this is important when you coach, is that you learned that it’s not about the championships that you win. Those are great moments, but it’s about the people you meet along the way. I know I sound old, you know, because I’m older I can make that statement. But no, it truly has been about relationships. Even here the last couple days, I’ve been able to have coffee, like yesterday with with Simso (Monsters captain Dillon Simpson) and just catch up on his family. Those are the things that will transcend all the wins and losses. It’s been a great journey and and now we’re ready for a new chapter.”
Speaking of family, it’s been at the forefront and a special focus throughout Eaves’ career, especially during his time in Cleveland. Though, hockey tends to be a small world, small enough that Eaves has found family members as co-workers more than once. Eaves and his wife have a term for when that happens: “Bonus time.”
Eaves has had quite a bit of bonus time over the last few years with his son, Ben Eaves, who currently serves as the Cleveland Monsters’ Strength and Conditioning Coach. Though, this wasn’t the first time the Eaves duo had served on the same coaching staff:
“Well, this wasn’t the first time we had done it. At the St. Olaf College, actually, Ben was the guy, a young man that gave me the heads up that that (head coach) job was open. We, in our family, we call it a bonus time: the fact that we get to be together and have this time to work together. And it’s funny when I see Ben at work, here in Cleveland, I walk into his weight room and he’d say, ‘Hi, coach.’ And I snapped back with, ‘Hi, coach.’ I mean, we were two coaches working with young guys trying to make our team better.”
Now that this chapter is coming to a close, his family will be at his side as he mulls the next step in his long career. Eaves and his wife are packing up their Ohio home, getting ready to move back to their permanent home, a “little hole in the wall” house on a lake in Minnesota. That’s their next immediate phase, according to Eaves. First, though, I asked him to look back one final time on his time in Cleveland, especially the fans, the people, and the organization. Not surprisingly, he had nothing but positive things to say:
“What a great place to play in the American Hockey League. The folks down at Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse, and the people that run our program there. I mean, where else in the league are you going to, on the last game of the season where nothing is at stake, going to find 12,000 screaming people enjoying the night out on the town. I mean, they do a tremendous job of making it family friendly, even dog friendly on one night a year. You know, they just make it fun for folks to come out. And I can tell you, as a player, it’s way more fun to play in front of people with energy than not. And for our guys, it doesn’t go unnoticed. They appreciate that. So, for the city of Cleveland and the fans and the organization, it’s a special place to play in the American Hockey League. And I hope that continues.”
Up next, aside from finishing the move from Ohio to Minnesota, is another conversation with Kekäläinen. According to Eaves, that sit-down will come after Kekäläinen returns from the IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship currently being held in Tampere and Helsinki, Finland. After that, the pair will talk more about their thoughts and if there is a possible fit moving forward with either the Blue Jackets or Monsters.
Whether he stays with the organization or goes some other route, his professionalism, kindness, wisdom, and care will ensure that he will leave a lasting positive impression on someone there.
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