Collected wisdom: Barons coach Todd Nelson

Interviewed by John Rohde, jrohde@opubco.com Published: September 3, 2011

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.