By Neil Stevens
Davis Payne vividly recalls the pass.
He sent the puck to Ray Bourque, who skated up the ice and set up a Boston Bruins goal. That was nearly 10 years ago, and it resulted in the only point Payne picked up during his 22 games in the NHL.
Now, at age 35, the native of Kamloops, British Columbia, is coaching one of the winningest teams in pro hockey, which makes him the latest example of a fringe player emerging as a top-notch coach. His Alaska Aces were 45-8-4 for 94 ECHL points at last look.
“It’s a combination of a lot of things,” he says of his team’s success. “We’ve got good goaltending and, No. 2, we’ve got a very good group of defensemen who move the puck very well and defend very well.
“When you start with those two things, you’re ahead of the game. We try to be a very good defensive club that transitions very well, and we have enough skill to finish off plays.”
Add veteran leadership from men such as captain Keith McCambridge of Thompson, Manitoba, young colts with fast blades, a good work ethic, and Payne has a lineup that wins most games.
“It’s really been about strong individuals buying into the team concept and working hard within it,” he says.
Good coaching is a factor, too.
Payne played U.S. college hockey at Michigan Tech. After his freshman season, he was selected by the Edmonton Oilers, 140th overall, in the 1989 NHL draft.
The 6-foot-2 left wing wound up playing for ECHL, IHL and AHL teams before getting a shot at the NHL with the Bruins. He played seven games in 1995-96 and 15 in 1996-97. His stats line for those 22 games shows he did not score a goal and earned one assist while taking 14 minutes in penalties.
“I hit three posts but nothing went in,” he recalls.
It was an exciting time.
“The first charter ride was such a great sense of accomplishment,” he recalls. “It’s every kid’s dream.
“I certainly wish I’d been good enough to stay longer but playing with great players such as Cam Neely and Ray Bourque was really special.”
As brief as it was.
It was back to the minors but, as it turns out, Payne was being led to where he is today. Bob Francis was his coach with the AHL team in Providence, R.I., and Francis had an impact on Payne’s progress.
“Something struck me about playing for him, how professional he was and how prepared and knowledgeable he was,” says Payne. “How he dealt with each player … (Coaching) all started to make sense to me.
“Seeing how effective he was at it … I grasped some of his motivations and methods and way of teaching and I thought this was something I would like to do. Throughout a hockey career you see good, bad and everything in between, and seeing how good Bob Francis was motivated me to give it a try.”
Payne left the Bruins organization when former NHL defenseman John Marks offered him a player-coach role with the ECHL club in Greenville, S.C. A torn Achilles tendon prompted Payne’s retirement from playing ranks in 2000 at age 29.
He coached the ECHL’s Pee Dee Pride for 2 1/2 years and then joined the Aces when they moved to the ECHL. Payne enjoys the hockey environment in Anchorage, population 300,000, which is pretty much like that in Canadian cities.
“Our guys are treated really well here by the fans,” he said. “The support we get is outstanding.”
Mike Scott of Calgary is the leading goal scorer with 27 goals. Scott and Alex Leavitt of Edmonton each have 71 points.
The Aces fell five wins short of winning the title last spring.
“We came close last year to winning the championship,” says Payne. “Those are the five games we want to make sure we win this year.”
He’d eventually like a shot at an NHL coaching job.
“I don’t have a time frame on it but, hopefully, continued success will open doors for me,” he says. “As a player, I grew from the ECHL to the NHL.
“It would be the ultimate to accomplish that as a coach as well.”
That would be something.
“Maybe it’s as simple as that we had to pay more attention to the details to close the gap on those who were more gifted,” he reasons when asked why players who were nothing special often emerge as the best coaches.
The ability to communicate is important, too.
“It’s something good coaches have – a sense of what works for your players and for your team. I’m sure there are great players who have it, but in this day and age the great players don’t have to work again.”