Behind the Bench w/Syracuse Crunch Head Coach Rob Zettler

Behind the Bench with Syracuse Crunch Head Coach Rob Zettler
By Jessica Higham | A Exclusive Series

Every coach hopes that at some point in their career they will get the chance to head up their own team. It’s the goal. And that chance can come at any moment. It might come after extended talks during the off-season. It might come up after the wave of firings that comes at the end of every season for teams that did not perform up to par. In other cases, it might come mid-season as a replacement.

Syracuse Crunch Head Coach, Rob Zettler (credit Scott Thomas Photography)

Syracuse Crunch Head Coach, Rob Zettler (credit Scott Thomas Photography)

For Syracuse Crunch Head Coach Rob Zettler, the chance came when Jon Cooper was named as the new Head Coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL affiliate to the Crunch. Jon Cooper started as the Head Coach of the Lightning’s AHL affiliate in 2010-2011. In March of 2013, the Lightning fired their Head Coach and promoted Cooper to the position. Zettler, who had been Cooper’s assistant in Syracuse during the 2012-2013 season, was promoted to Head Coach.

“It was a thrill for me because I really enjoyed working for Jon (Cooper) and I learned a lot from him,” Zettler said. “I had been an assistant for close to 10 years and (being named Head Coach) was something I was striving for.”

Even though it was towards the end of the regular season, instead of at the beginning of a new season, Zettler did not miss a step. He did not stop to think about making the mid-season transition. He just focused on what he had learned in his years as an assistant.

“Every guy I’ve worked for or worked with has always said you have to be yourself. I didn’t try to be anybody that I wasn’t,” Zettler said. “I just tried to come in and be myself. I took the lessons I learned from guys like Ron Wilson and Jon Cooper and go from there. I tried to come up with my own style and message.”

Prior to being named Head Coach of the Crunch towards the end of the 2012-2013 season, Zettler was an NHL assistant coach from 2002-2012. That did not include the 2004-2005 season when the NHL locked out. The 2012-2013 season was Zettler’s first in the AHL. Although he took over the job towards the end of the season, he did not feel that it was difficult for him at all. The Crunch had a great team.

“I was really excited about the opportunity. The best part is that we had a really good team and really good people on the team,” he said. “It made the job a lot easier and it made the transition easier.”

Understandably, there are differences between being the assistant coach and being the man in charge. It meant a significant change in his duties and more responsibility. That did not just stop on the ice, but extended to what the players had going on in general. It was a welcome increase in duties for Zettler.

“It’s different because now you’re making the decisions, you’re not just offering suggestions. That carries a lot more weight. I think you wear a few more hats as a Head Coach in the American League,” he said. “You deal with guys more on a personal level, not just with hockey. You hear about all of the situations that they’re in and I really like that. Your vision gets a little broader. You have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. You look at what the guys need to do to be successful.”

Working with the players to understand what they had going on might have been different, but he certainly had the experience to relate to them. The Minnesota North Stars drafted Zettler in the 1986 NHL Entry Draft. He started his professional career with the 1988-1989 season. When he retired during the summer of 2002, he had 569 games in the NHL with the North Stars, San Jose Sharks, Philadelphia Flyers, Toronto Maple Leafs, Nashville Predators, and Washington Capitals.

Rob Zettler ended up being claimed twice during his career in expansion drafts. In 1991, the San Jose Sharks selected him in the dispersal draft to populate their team for their first NHL season. Then, in 1998, the Nashville Predators joined the league and Zettler was selected once again for the new team. He was playing for the Maple Leafs at the time.

After retiring in 2002, Zettler moved to San Jose. He was working with the Sharks doing some broadcasting and commentary. But, he had an amazing opportunity after 25 games of the 2002-2003 season. The Sharks fired their entire coaching staff and brought in Ron Wilson as the new Head Coach. Wilson was familiar with Zettler, having been Zettler’s coach previously. It seemed like the perfect fit.

“It was always something I was interested in. The situation kind of dropped out of the sky for me. The Sharks had just fired their whole coaching staff. I was in the area and had been following the team,” Zettler remembers. “Then, they hired Ron Wilson and I had played for him for 3 years. I ended up talking to him and it just kind of worked out. I ended up being his assistant and worked with him for 8 or 9 years. It was just a great opportunity. I didn’t have to move myself or my family. The stars kind of aligned.”

While Zettler was coaching with Ron Wilson, he got the chance to be an assistant coach with two teams he played for before retiring. He first coached the Sharks under Wilson before they moved on to coach the Maple Leafs. As Zettler will tell you, being a professional hockey player seems like the best job in the world. He had to make some adjustments when he first started coaching.

“It was a little bit weird. I think when you initially start coaching you still kind of see yourself in the light as being a player. You make the adjustment quickly. I think the biggest adjustment is the time you spend to understand the game as a coach to be able to teach it properly,” he said. “That was a big adjustment for me. It was kind of fun as a coach to get to come back coach some teams I had played for before. It was pretty cool.”

It was with Washington, during his final three seasons as a professional player, that Zettler played for Wilson. Coaching had been something that must have always been somewhere on Zettler’s mind. He showed initiative that other players did not and it was probably that initiative that made Wilson take notice.

Syracuse Crunch Head Coach Rob Zettler during a timeout in the game against the Worcester Sharks in American Hockey League (AHL) action at the Onondaga County War Memorial on Saturday, April 20, 2013. Syracuse won in a shoot out, 4-3 (credit Scott Thomas Photography)

Syracuse Crunch Head Coach Rob Zettler during a timeout in a game against the Worcester Sharks in American Hockey League (AHL) action at the Onondaga County War Memorial on Saturday, April 20, 2013. Syracuse won in a shoot out, 4-3 (credit Scott Thomas Photography)

“I would ask a lot of questions when I was playing. I had gone to a couple coaching clinics while I was still playing too. I guess somewhere in my mind I knew I wanted to do it,” Zettler said. “I ran into him there and watched a few of his presentations. I just started talking hockey and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed playing for him when I was a player. I thought it would be a good match and apparently so did he.”

Getting to coach with Wilson taught Zettler a lot that he has taken with him since the two parted ways. Some of those lessons have made a bigger impact than others. Either way, that time at Ron Wilson’s side was a great learning experience.

“He had great communication skills. He could take a long, drawn out, potentially complicated message and turn it into something short and to the point that’s easy to understand. That’s a skill that I admired,” he said, remembering working with Ron Wilson. “He also had a great overall knowledge of the game. Another great thing is that he was organized. He was very organized with his time and very organized with the team as far as scheduling.”

Not only did Zettler have 569 NHL games, he also played 245 OHL games as well as 290 minor league professional games. That gave him a good understanding of hockey at all different levels. He understood what a player needed to do to get call ups, even after they had been sent down. He went through all of it and that gave him a great perspective.

“Without a doubt it was helpful to play professionally. I’ve kind of seen all sides of the fence as a player. I was in the minors for a while and I was in the NHL for a good amount of time,” Zettler said. “I was sent down from the NHL to the minors and then managed to get called up again. I saw a lot of different sides to the game. Those experiences have helped me as a coach and have helped me to understand what certain individual players are going through at different times.”

So much of the job is great as far as Zettler is concerned. Getting the chance to be a Head Coach has made everything even better. But, that does not mean the job is without any difficulties. There are hard decisions that have to be made and usually those decisions fall on him. The AHL does not have the same rules capping their rosters at 23. That can be great when it comes to flexibility

“Line-up decisions can be tough. Sometimes you’re sitting guys out that don’t deserve to be sitting. That’s just the name of the game sometimes. Certain people are at a developing stage and they have to play to potentially get to the next level. Those are tough decisions,” Zettler said. “Here, at the American League level, it can sometimes be tough coaching because everyone thinks they can be in the NHL. That’s why they’re here. They’re very responsive to coaching and open to new things.”

Having been in professional hockey as a player and then a coach for 25 years now, Rob Zettler knows what it takes for a player to be successful. Obviously there will never be a replacement for sheer talent. But is that the only factor in the players that make it as opposed to the ones who don’t?

“The intangibles are huge. Talent, the work ethic, and the passion are all critical. Passion is so important. If you don’t have the passion, unless you’re somehow ridiculously talented, you’re not going to make it. If you don’t have the work ethic, you won’t either,” Zettler said. “There are a lot of talented hockey players that never make it to the NHL or the AHL, for that matter, because they didn’t have the work ethic or the passion to make it happen. You have to be willing to put in the time to make it happen.”

This season, Rob Zettler will be spending his first full season as a Head Coach in the AHL. He lead the charge for the final 11 regular season games in 2012-2013 and 18 playoff games. The Crunch found themselves back in the Calder Cup Finals. This came after the Tampa Bay affiliate won the Cup when they were in Norfolk for the 2011-2012 season. Unfortunately, the Crunch lost the series in game 6 to the Grand Rapids Griffins, affiliate of the Red Wings, but it was still an amazing season.

This season got off to a little bit of a slower start than the Crunch fans might have been expecting. But, Syracuse has won their last three, including a shootout win over Utica and are now 4-2-1-0 so far this season. A number of guys that were instrumental during last season are currently on the Lightning roster.

“It’s a little bit different right now, we’re a young team. We have a few first year players that are trying to figure it out right now,” he said. “What I’ve seen so far is some up and down hockey. We’ve been really good at times and we’ve looked not as good other times.”

The Crunch have a really young team this year, with 8 guys that are playing their first full season in the AHL including one of their goalies. There is a curve to get used to when playing your first full year as a professional. This is especially true in the AHL when teams frequently play three games in three nights over the weekend. This is also a group of players that has had a lot of success recently between wining the Calder Cup in 2012 and making it to the Finals in 2013.

“You have to learn how to play every night. That’s the biggest thing these guys have to learn as a young team is bringing your work ethic and commitment to the table every night. I think the guys look back on the success the team has had over the past couple years. There’s certainly a high standard to keep,” Zettler said. “It’s my job to keep that bar high. I believe a big part of their development is winning hockey games. Guys that win are comfortable and willing to try new things or be creative out there. The standard we’ve set over the past couple years is important for these guys to keep up with.”

It’s still very early in the season. The Crunch have played just 7 games out of their 76 game season. There is still plenty of time to make adjustments as necessary. But, the team has also played enough games to give Zettler an idea about where the strengths and weaknesses lie.

“It’s early, but our defense is pretty strong. We’ve got some veterans back there mixed with some young guys. That’s a nice mix. We’ve got some talent up front that shows itself some nights and doesn’t show itself as much other nights,” Zettler said. “The veteran presence we have on the back end will help counter some of that. Our offense might be sputtering but we shouldn’t have any problem getting back going when our defense is our strength.”

In his first full season as a Head Coach, Zettler is something of a rookie himself. But he is not acting that way at all. Having the chance to work with coaches like Ron Wilson and Jon Cooper has given Zettler the tools and confidence he needs to be the one in charge. He wants to see his team back in the playoffs and continuing with the success that they have seen recently. That is not a job that rests solely on the players, but on the coaches as well. It is the coaches job to guide their development and help them win games to progress as players. Coach Zettler will hope to keep Syracuse’s recent win streak rolling.


About Jessica: Associate Editor of The Pink
A New England girl, born and raised, Jessica Higham has grown up loving few things more than hockey. Although she has never considered herself to be a good skater, she fell in love with hockey back when boys still had cooties and that love has only grown since. She genuinely wishes she had been alive to enjoy ‘Miracle on Ice’ and considers it to be one of the greatest moments in US history. Nothing compares to the feeling of September coming and signaling the start of a new season, complete with a whole new set of ups and downs. After having been an avid reader and occasional writer, Jessica wanted to try putting the two loves together and writing about hockey. Aside from hockey, Jessica also loves music, going to concerts, animals, and walking on the beach.
(From The Pink website)

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