Daniels, Checkers eager to get going

Coach excited to be in Charlotte

Staff writerSeptember 27, 2010 

— Jeff Daniels has a place to live in Charlotte.

All he needs now is a hockey team to coach.

Daniels, 42, is the head coach of the Charlotte Checkers and eager to get started. The Checkers, the Carolina Hurricanes' new American Hockey League affiliate, begin preseason training camp today in Indian Trail, and with expectations of being a competitive, entertaining team.

"There's a lot of unknowns going into this first year but also a lot of excitement," Daniels said. "When I was in Charlotte this summer the people were excited about the team being there, although they have a tradition in hockey and you're not going into a new market.

"I think they're excited about the Hurricane connection. I think people in Raleigh are excited about going down to see the prospects, and I think the people in Charlotte will be excited about watching the future of the Carolina Hurricanes."

Who will be on Daniels' team? The Hurricanes reassigned 13 players to Charlotte on Saturday. Another five were sent to the Checkers on Sunday - forwards Jerome Samson, Jared Staal, Jon Matsumoto and Riley Nash, and defenseman Bryan Rodney - as Carolina reduced its roster to 26.

"It's going to be a good year for that [AHL] franchise to start there," Hurricanes president and general manager Jim Rutherford said. "We're going to have several players there who eventually will play for the Hurricanes.

"The fans there have to understand it's a development league. It's like [major-league] baseball and Triple-A. But we should have a good team there."

The Canes ended their affiliation with the Albany (N.Y.) River Rats after last season. The Rats reached the Calder Cup playoffs but were swept by the Hershey Bears in the second round.

Goaltender Mike Murphy, 21, played 20 games in his first professional season in Albany last year but is excited about the AHL franchise being in Charlotte.

"I had a couple of friends who played in the East Coast [Hockey] League last year there, and they said they really loved it," Murphy said. "They bring in a lot of fans. Last year in Albany we didn't get a lot. So this will be fun."

In Albany, the team played in the 20-year-old Times Union Center. It's a functional, no-frills arena and nothing like the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte.

"We're looking for some nice crowds," Murphy said.

Murphy will compete against Justin Pogge to be the Checkers' No. 1 goalie this season. Pogge, 24, is big in net with his strong safety size - 6 feet 3 and 204 pounds - and has more AHL experience.

Samson, 23, was the River Rats' leading scorer last year with 37 goals and 41 assists while also playing seven NHL games for Carolina. It was his second season with Daniels - and what a two years they proved to be.

In February 2009, the team bus skidded off an icy Massachusetts highway returning from a game. No one was killed in the late-night crash, but a few were badly injured, including defenseman Casey Borer, who suffered a broken neck, and forward Nicholas Blanchard, who had severe lacerations.

Those who were on the bus have a special bond. It drew Daniels and assistant coach Geordie Kinnear even closer to the players.

"We've been through a bumpy road together," Samson said. "There was the bus accident and the injuries. Some people might say we didn't do great that year, but we came together as a group, and last year we were pretty good.

Daniels played 425 games in the NHL and wasn't a star, but the forward put his name on the Stanley Cup in 1992 with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He later played for the Hurricanes for six seasons, often as a fourth-line grinder, getting by on his wits and persistence.

"I think that's what makes him a good coach," said center Patrick Dwyer, who split time between the AHL and Hurricanes last season. "He knows what the grind is about and what it takes to make it."

Retiring as a player in November 2003, Daniels joined the Canes coaching staff and helped in Carolina's run to the 2006 Stanley Cup. Make it another championship ring for the native of Oshawa, Ontario.

The next step for Daniels was becoming head coach of the River Rats in the 2008-2009 season as former head coach Tom Rowe moved behind the Hurricanes' bench as an assistant.

"Jeff caught on to coaching very quickly when he retired as a player and made a good contribution," Rutherford said. "But being a head coach is much different than being an assistant coach, and [going to Albany] was a big step in his career.

"He continues to do really good things for us as a coach in the development area and in coaching the team, and, in time, putting himself in position to being a head coach at this level."

The NHL, that is.

"I feel more comfortable as a coach in what I'm doing," Daniels said. "At the same time there's more room to grow. It's no different than being a player - you're trying to learn every day."

But for now, what Daniels is concerned about is his first training camp in Charlotte, his first Checkers team.

"I think whatever trickles down to us, we'll have some good players," Daniels said. "A lot want to be [with the Canes], but at the same time they need to play. They need to be with us and develop.

"And they'll only be a car ride away from being back up top."

chip.alexander@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8945

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