By Tris Wykes
The Virginian Pilot
NORFOLK, Va. – Rick Kowalsky’s nickname may be “Killer,” but the Norfolk Admirals assistant coach has found new life behind the bench.
Less than 10 months after ending a 12-year playing career capped by an ECHL title, the former Hampton Roads Admirals star has made great strides, and Norfolk coach Mike Haviland predicts that the 33-year-old Kowalsky is only a few seasons away from running his own team.
“Some guys are made to be head coaches and some aren’t, and I think he is,” Haviland said of Kowalsky, whose tongue-in-cheek nickname refers to former pro wrestling legend Walter “Killer” Kowalski.
Kowalsky coaches the defensemen and orchestrates Norfolk’s penalty-killing unit. He breaks down video and serves as a buffer between Haviland and the players. He’s the “good cop” when Haviland comes down hard, and he’s the small voice in his boss’s ear when he sees a regrettable situation developing.
“I’ve found out the X’s and O’s are the easy part, because I’ve known that my whole life,” said Kowalsky, who earned a reputation as a cerebral player in the ECHL, AHL and Europe. “The challenge is managing people and getting them to fit into their role.”
A Simcoe, Ontario, native whose father was once that town’s mayor, Kowalsky filled many different roles and experienced countless situations as a player. He helped the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds win the 1993 Memorial Cup as Canada’s major junior champions and later averaged nearly a point a game in 240 ECHL Admirals regular-season games.
At a little taller than 6 feet and roughly 200 pounds, Kowalsky also played parts of five AHL seasons with Cornwall and Portland, skated a season in Britain’s pro league and finished with five more ECHL seasons, split between Roanoke and Trenton.
Kowalsky captained the last Hampton Roads Admirals squad in 1999-2000 and was called up for one game with the AHL Admirals during the 2001-02 season. Cut from Norfolk’s 2001 training camp, Kowalsky said Admirals general manager Al MacIsaac offered him a chance to return two days later, but that his AHL salary couldn’t compare to what Roanoke paid him in the lower league.
In addition, Kowalsky already was pondering a career in coaching, and Roanoke had offered him the chance to play and have instructional input.
That wasn’t formally the case last season when he played for Haviland at Trenton, where the coach won his second ECHL title in three seasons and Kowalsky his first title since juniors. But when Trenton’s assistant moved on early last summer, Kowalsky was offered and accepted the job as the replacement.
Weeks later, Haviland was hired to coach the Admirals and Kowalsky came along.
“His hockey mind, his professionalism and his character are the reasons he got the job,” Haviland said. “He played at this level and he’s been through the wars, the grind, the dog days and the bus trips.”
What Kowalsky hasn’t done is formally lead. There’s a difference between exhorting your peers and demanding excellence as the boss.
“With all eyes on you, you’d better make sure you know what you’re talking about, because the players can see right through you if you don’t,” Haviland said.
Kowalsky sits in on every meeting and strategy session and is being taught how to expertly study game tape.
“Havi didn’t play the game a long time, but he learned a lot from other coaches,” said Kowalsky, who played for future NHL coaches Ted Nolan, Jacques Martin, Bob Hartley, Brian Trottier and Barry Trotz. “He just knows the game so well and conveys that to his players. I’m pretty privileged to be here this season.”
Two of Haviland’s former assistants are ECHL head coaches, speaking to his success as a mentor. And to that end, Kowalsky is usually the lone coach at team workouts on game days and addresses the players before they leave the ice.
“I want him to learn to be his own man for when he becomes a head coach,” Haviland said.