In his 21 seasons as a professional hockey player and coach, Oklahoma City Barons coach Todd Nelson has advanced to the playoffs 18 times and won five minor league championships — two as a player, two as a coach and one as an assistant.
In their debut season as the American Hockey League affiliate of the Edmonton Oilers last year, the Barons finished 40-29-2-9 and lost in the opening round to Hamilton.
Nelson might be the only player in NHL history to appear in more playoff games than regular-season games. Chosen by Pittsburgh in the fourth round of the 1989 NHL Draft, Nelson played three regular-season games with the Penguins and Washington Capitals and saw action in four playoff games with the Caps in 1994.
A defenseman, Nelson excelled his entire minor league career, was inducted into the AHL's Portland Pirates Hall of Fame and was a two-time IHL All-Star with Muskegon and Cleveland. He also played professionally in Hershey, Grand Rapids, Rochester and overseas in Berlin and Helsinki.
Nelson's first two seasons as a head coach resulted in back-to-back United Hockey League titles with Muskegon in 2004-05. He came to the Barons after two seasons as an assistant with the NHL Atlanta Thrashers (now Winnipeg Jets).
Hockey was my main passion growing up, but I touched a few different sports. In the summertime, there's a short baseball season in Canada. I played until I was 14. I was involved in junior high sports like basketball and volleyball, stuff like that. Once I got into high school, I was pretty much just focused on hockey.
I was a bad baseball catcher. My short career ended in the provincial finals, which is kind of like the state finals here. A guy was stealing third base on me. It was a right-handed batter and when I went to throw him out, my right (throwing) shoulder dislocated. The ball went flying over the shortstop's head, the run scored and I was out of the game. After that, I didn't play much baseball.
I can't throw a baseball very far right now because my range of motion is gone. A few years later, I had surgery on both shoulders and they're both real tight.
Where I was from, hockey wasn't played year-round like it is down here. They took the ice out and we had to do other things. I like water sports. I like water skiing, fishing. I've always been around the water — frozen and wet.
The NHL was always a dream for me, I guess since 5. I started skating when I was 2 1/2. My influence as a kid was Bobby Orr. It's kind of ironic that I work for the Oilers now because that was the team I watched growing up. There were so many great players in that 1980s era, obviously Wayne Gretzky being one of them. The guy I liked following was Paul Coffey. I really enjoyed the way he played.
It really didn't click with me that I was going to go anywhere in hockey until I was about 14. I grew quite a bit around then and started to believe I could play. There are steps to get to the NHL and junior hockey is a big steppingstone. It's probably the equivalent in Canada to college football is down here. We don't get 100,000 fans coming to our games, but it's really big.
The first game I got called up to the Penguins, Mario Lemieux was the first guy to walk over, shake my hand and welcome me to the team. I've got to be honest, with all the players they had on that hockey team, you tend to get a bit star-struck. These guys were the elite. On those two championship teams (1991-92), there had to be at least eight hall-of-famers, including Paul Coffey, my boyhood idol.
That game I played with them was a blur to me. You're nervous. You want to do well. It was a Saturday night and the team didn't play again until Wednesday. After the game, some of the players told me the guy I replaced would probably be coming back by Wednesday. They said, “They're probably going to send you down. If I were you, I'd go hide in the bathroom so they can't send you back down tonight and you'll get one more day's pay.”
I didn't know any better. I was a young greenhorn. I was hiding in the bathroom with my feet up and could hear the assistant coach call my name to see where I was at. The guys kept telling me, “Stay in there. Stay in there.” I got caught while I was walking out the door. They gave me a one-way plane ticket to play at Fort Wayne. It was a pretty cool experience. I didn't get the extra day's pay, though. It didn't roll over. It wasn't midnight yet. It was like 10:30 at night when they got me.
Mario and those guys treated me so nice. He could have been a guy who had his nose turned up in the air, but he was great to the young guys. That's why he led those guys to the Stanley Cup twice. I have nothing but respect for him. He's a terrific icon for hockey.
I'm glad I got to the NHL, but there was frustration it wasn't for longer. At the time I got drafted, Pittsburgh was winning back-to-back Stanley Cups and it was pretty tough as a young kid to crack that lineup. I was always one of the first call-ups, but for me to get an opportunity in Pittsburgh, something would have had to happen to quite a few guys. You can't look back and say, “What if?”
Hockey is a bit different in Helsinki and Berlin. There are subtle differences. European hockey is more puck possession, a bigger ice surface, a different style of play. Over here, there are smaller rinks. It's a lot more harder-hitting and definitely rougher.
It was pretty neat playing in Berlin. Germany is big into soccer, so we kind of had a soccer crowd there cheering us on. It was a really cool atmosphere and exciting to play there, but the NHL is the top league in the world.
You like certain coaches, and other coaches you don't see eye-to-eye with. I don't know what it was at the end of my playing career, but I was doing all I could to impress the coach. It didn't really work out in my favor, but it taught me a lot of things. It taught me there has to be a better way to motivate your players than just beating them down every day.
Sometimes as a young player, you get an ego. That kind of knocked me down a peg. I learned from that. As I got a bit older, I had to retool my game. I became more defensive-minded so I could play more years in the AHL.
I wanted to make sure I had fun as a player, and losing is not fun. Hoisting the (Colonial) Cup in your last hockey game, that was a nice way to go out. Just like Jerry Seinfeld, I guess — go out on top.
I love sports movies where someone overcomes tough odds. That's why “Remember the Titans” is my favorite sports movie. “Seabiscuit” is another.
I'm a firm believer that you can make people winners. Going through that experience has certainly helped me out. In Atlanta, I didn't make the playoffs either year, and that was very new to me.
Your first year after becoming a head coach, you really want to make an impression. You're driven, you want to do everything right. We won every playoff game in all three series my first year — 11 games in a row. That was a remarkable feat. I've been blessed to have such good players.
After winning a second straight title, I always had high expectations from that point forward. Right after you win a championship, you've done it so you think it's always achievable. You always think you can do it again.
Once you get that taste of winning, you crave it. Then you start thinking back to how you did it, and it's such a fine line. You have to play for each other, but you also have to have the hockey gods on your side. You have to have them point in your favor. Bounces can go one way or the other. A quarter-inch on the post is a goal, or no goal.
I think the sports pulse of Oklahoma City is excellent. There's a very passionate group of fans here for all sports. Obviously, football is huge. The Thunder has tremendous support. It's a very exciting time here in OKC.
I think we can get a lot better, all the way around. The people here are so nice it's been a very easy transition from Atlanta to come here. It's been a wonderful time.
When you have success, it breeds success. That's what we're trying to do here in Oklahoma City. We're going after the Calder Cup. Last year was a step in the right direction, but in my book, that's not good enough.