The Mercurial Rise of Peter Laviolette

By Andrew Podnieks
Special To
May 6, 2004

PRAGUE, Czech Republic – Team USA head coach Peter Laviolette woke up Thursday morning a new man, a coach who updated his resume Wednesday night with perhaps its most important piece of information–semi-finalist at the 2004 World Championship. But like any band that makes it to number one, any 20-something star of the silver screen who shoots to fame and fortune “overnight,” as they say, Laviolette’s rise has actually been steady and impressive over a number of years.

In the beginning, there was Peter the Player, not to be confused for even a nano-second with Peter the Great, that Forsberg superstar who will represent Tre Kronor in the semi-finals on Saturday. No, Peter the Player was a lumbering defenceman born in a piece of Smalltown, USA called Franklin, Massachusetts a little more than 39 years ago. He played his first serious hockey at a place called Westfield State College (1984-86), hardly a hockey joint where NHL scouts hang out looking for the Next Big Thing.

Surprise, surprise, Laviolette was never drafted, but that didn’t stop him from pursuing a career in the pro game anyway. After a starter season in the IHL, he joined the American national team for the 1987-88 season, a year which included participation at the Olympics in Calgary in February 1988 and a non-Miracle, seventh-place finish.

He had his one and only taste of life in the NHL for exactly 12 games during the ’88-’89 season, with the New York Rangers, but beyond that Laviolette spent about a dozen years in the minors playing for teams such as the Binghamton Rangers and Providence Bruins. He was not a top prospect, not a player the big club looked to as a callup or emergency replacement. He was a minor leaguer in every sense of the word.

Along the way, though, Laviolette also played for Team USA at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics where he captained the team to an eighth-place finish. Laviolette appreciated the importance of international hockey because it was a place that welcomed him, a world where he could play. He retired in 1997, and without missing a beat became head coach of the Wheeling Nailers in the ECHL. It was a job, a start, and nothing more.

Funny thing, though. Peter the Coach did well. After just one season he earned a significant promotion, becoming head coach of the Providence Bruins in the AHL, one level below the NHL, the league that had always rejected him as a player. In his second season there he took the team to a Calder Cup victory and was named Coach of the Year, and in 2000 he was named an assistant to Pat Burns with the parent team in Boston.

The next year, Laviolette was interviewed for the head coaching job with the New York Islanders, and GM Mike Milbury liked him so much he hired him. This was the summer of 2001, some 17 years after that faceless kid walked into Westfield State with a stick and hockey bag looking for ice time.

Laviolette coached the Islanders to two successive trips to the playoffs and accumulated a record of 77-68-19. That, however, wasn’t good enough for Milbury, and Laviolette now became a bona fide member of the coaching fraternity–in other words, he was fired. For the next several months, he stayed at home, relaxing, rolling around on the living room rug with his infant daughter, not looking for work, not panicking, not feeling depressed.

Along the way, he did manage to squeeze in one very important piece of coaching. He took a US select team to the Deutschland Cup, going a perfect 3-0-0 and winning the tournament at the Preussag Arena in Hanover. Funnily enough, players on that team included Blake Sloan, Erik Westrum, Alex Westlund, and Andy Roach, all members of the current USA team here in Prague.

In mid-December, the phone rang, and it was GM Jim Rutherford of the Carolina Hurricanes, asking Laviolette to replace Paul Maurice as the head coach of a floundering team. Peter the Coach said sure and made his way down to Raleigh, hoping to light a fire under a talented but struggling group. Laviolette’s job has only just begun, and the team’s 20-25-5 record down the stretch indicates he has his work cut out for him.

Nonetheless, on March 31, 2004, Laviolette was chosen to coach Team USA at the IIHF World Championship. All of a sudden, he looks like a veteran, given his coaching experience and his ties to American participation in international hockey going back to 1987.

He came here with a group of middle-of-the-pack NHLers, a minor leaguer here and a Euro-American there, and has created a “team” in no short order, something Russian head coach Viktor Tikhonov said he hadn’t had the time to do himself. Laviolette has made the team believe. He has helped his players get by all the talk of top-flight NHLers saying no to their country. He has turned all the negatives about last year’s poor showing and the desperate need to qualify for the 2006 Olympics into positives. He has made a team of no-names and unknowns that most believed would be hard-pressed to get into the Qualifying Round into a team that now has an excellent chance for a medal.

After last night’s extraordinary shootout win over the Czech Republic, Lavilolette woke up today and met with his coaches to plot a strategy for its semi-final game against the Swedes on Saturday.

The Swedes are by far the better team and are the prohibitive favorites to win. They have more talent and more experience and more success. They have Peter the Great Forsberg arriving today to help take Tre Kronor to the gold medal, and they’ll have hordes of media and thousands of fans on their side inside the Sazka Arena.

All that could make the Americans a very dangerous team, indeed.