“I’m ready,” said the new head coach of the Peoria Rivermen. “There’s always things to learn. It happened quicker than expected, but here it is.”
Here it is: Just turned 38 in late September, Payne is the youngest head coach in the AHL.
He’s on a one-year contract with the parent St. Louis Blues as the 15th head coach in Peoria’s franchise history.
He inherits a team that has gotten younger, while the need to win in Peoria has grown critical with the fanbase.
Payne’s dry sense of humor is perfect for the occasion.
What does he plan to do with a college degree in biological sciences?
“Hopefully, nothing,” Payne said. “Because if I’m using that, it means I’m not coaching anymore.”
Payne has made a science out of developing players.
He was runner-up for the vacant Peoria head coaching job in the summer of 2006. The Blues hired him as an assistant coach in Peoria in 2007-08, and tabbed him as head coach for 2008-09 after watching his player development skills in Alaska and Peoria.
“I really believe that a coach should find common ground with each individual player, to help them reach their potential,” Payne said. “There are a lot of ways to reach that common ground.
“That, to me, is the fun challenge of coaching. How you can make each player better, then make him fit into the team so the whole unit is better.”
Payne was born in Thunder Bay, Ontario, where he learned to skate as a toddler. He grew up in Kamloops, British Columbia, playing every sport there was before settling on hockey because “everything else I either wasn’t interested in, or wasn’t good enough at it.”
Payne played 22 NHL games for Boston and more than 500 games at the ECHL, IHL and AHL levels during an eight-year pro career as a winger.
He played for Bob Francis and Peter Laviolette, two coaches he points to today as great influences on his approach to preparation and setting up practices.
He made his NHL debut with Boston in a 1995-96 game at Buffalo.
“They put me in the starting lineup with Adam Oates and Cam Neely,” Payne said. “That’s two pretty good linemates. I had a couple of scoring chances, and a fight, with Bob Boughner.
“The whole thing was a thrill.”
Payne was nearing the end of his career, playing for an IHL San Antonio team in 1997-98 (that was co-owned by Bruce Saurs) when he first thought about coaching.
“I was talking with (teammate) Dave Smith, and he was saying how he had been giving a lot of thought to coaching after his career,” Payne said. “That was the conversation that first put me in the thought process about coaching.”
After the season ended, ECHL Greenville head coach John Marks signed Payne as a player-assistant coach.
“You want to play at the highest level you can,” Payne said. “But I decided to play in the ECHL because the chance to begin that coaching path was there.”
His second season there was pre-empted by a torn achilles tendon.
“I tried to come back from that the next year, at midseason, but the joy of playing was just gone for me,” Payne said. “It was time to move to the bench fulltime.”
At Christmas time, he was offered the head coaching job at ECHL Pee Dee.
“And away we went,” Payne said. “There were times, emotional times, when I missed playing, when I wanted to play. But coaching was such an exciting new challenge.”
One he has taken by storm. He has never had a losing season as a head coach.
In seven seasons as an ECHL head coach at Pee Dee and Alaska, Payne’s teams never failed to make the playoffs.
He led the Blues’ class-AA farm club to the ECHL’s Kelly Cup in 2005-06.
The ECHL’s Coach of the Year in 2006-07 took Alaska to the conference finals three straight seasons, one of only two coaches in league history to do so.
“We should be a gritty team that capitalizes on opponents’ mistakes, and can apply pressure to force those mistakes,” Payne said of his Rivermen. “I think we’ll have more size, be able to grind on teams. Be more physical. Strong work ethic. I like teams like that.
“I’m excited to be the Blues’ guy. It’s an opportunity I’ve been waiting for.”