NHL head coaching gig part of natural progression for Canucks' Travis Green

New Vancouver Canucks head coach Travis Green was laying the foundation for a successful career in coaching long before deciding to pursue it. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

More than 20 years before being named head coach of the Vancouver Canucks, Travis Green was a likeable, talented, happy-go-lucky center for the New York Islanders at the start of a 970-game career for five teams in the National Hockey League.

Though he was proficient on the ice – he recorded two 20-goal seasons and posted a career-best 25 goals, 45 assists, and 70 points in only 69 games during the 1995-96 season – and popular in the dressing room, Green is best remembered by his former Islanders teammates for his passion and devotion to the sport of hockey.

“The first thing you noticed about him was that he loved the game,” Green’s Long Island roommate Marty McInnis told Yahoo Canada Sports. “Whether it was practices or games, preparing, lifting with the guys, or just talking about the game, Greenie was always into it, always loved it. I always knew he’d stay in hockey. He just loves it so much.”

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Back in the day, Green would always be among the first players to arrive at the arena for practices, morning skates, and games, eager and impatient to get going, talking hockey non-stop.

“We had our routine where we’d go to the rink together really early,” recalled rugged former defenseman Rich Pilon. “We’d be driving in together and always critiquing the team, breaking things down. He had a really good hockey mind, and the things he said made a lot of sense. Many times, our coaches did things long after Greenie brought them up to me on our car rides. He was coaching already back then.”

Other Islanders saw the same thing Pilon did.

“He liked to be prepared, liked to be involved with it all, liked to talk about the other team and the game,” noted McInnis, who also was Green’s teammate in Anaheim. “He had a great grasp of the game. It’s no surprise to me he’s had success coaching.”

The Vancouver Canucks promoted Travis Green from the American Hockey League’s Utica Comets, and put the franchise’s retooling in his hands. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward)

Part of Green’s pre-game routine was to take part in a long stretching session, up to a half hour sometimes, with the team’s equipment manager at the time, Joe McMahon. Even then, his intensity for the game was obvious.

“There were some games where, after I would stretch him, he would have to change his shirt because he was so fired up and intense that he’d perspire through his clothes,” said McMahon, who remains Green’s close friend to this day. “He’d say to me, ‘Joey, I am so hyped up, I can’t wait to get out there.”

Green masked much of that intensity to outsiders with a certain cockiness, swagger, and sarcastic wit. Fans and media thus often misunderstood Green, characterizing him as aloof or non-caring, which was far from the truth.

“He never lacked confidence in who he was, or what clothes he wore, and always had the good hair going – that great curly hair and mullet,” said retired forward Ken Belanger with a laugh. “But he was always a good team guy. And that confidence is a trait that separates people from who get a job or not, and who get the job done. People who are confident and show confidence are the ones who lead, like Travis.”

That confident, cocky air did not sit well with Islanders general manager and head coach Mike Milbury, however. Milbury never saw eye to eye with Green, and never quite got him, either.

Milbury eventually ended Green’s tenure on Long Island in 1997-98, trading him to the Mighty Ducks (as they were called at the time) after six seasons with the Islanders.

In one final salvo, Milbury called Green a “gutless puke”.

“Greenie was witty, a great teammate, but Mike absolutely hated Travis,” Pilon explained. “He was confident and easy going, so his attitude was like he didn’t (care); but he actually cared a lot, and we all knew that. Greenie was a great teammate and always competed out there.”

Belanger adds, “Greenie was always smiling and staying positive, and that probably bothered Mike even more because (Milbury) was under such pressure with his job and all of the ownership changes and what not. That upbeat attitude just didn’t go over well with Mike.”

Fortunately, Green had some excellent relationships with other men who coached him in the NHL, including Hockey Hall of Famers Al Arbour and Pat Quinn. Last week at his introductory press conference, Green referenced how much he learned from those two coaching legends

“That structured environment playing under Al Arbour to start his career, and that loyalty and caring for each other, that really influenced Travis,” said McMahon. “He was a lot of fun to hang out with away from the ice, but when it came to the rink (Green) was all business because Al wouldn’t accept anything else, and that lesson stayed with him.”

Near the end of his playing days, another head coach with serious pedigree, Paul Maurice, suggested Green take up coaching. Green did just that, of course, first in major junior, then in the American Hockey League, and now in the NHL.

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“He played for a lot of teams and a lot of coaches, and that was helpful, too, in his current career, I think,” offered McInnis. “He can pick and choose the styles he likes, tips he got. He understands all types of players and coaches because he was around so many different ones. That’s probably a big benefit to him.

“At the end of the day, though, he’ll succeed because he’s always worked hard, took the game seriously. He was always committed to his craft, was a good team guy, and always, always, was a professional.”

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