I could talk hockey, and life in general, all day with Pascal Vincent. You won’t get any canned, cliché soundbites from the Manitoba Moose head coach, but rather thoughtful and honest answers and insight on pretty much any topic under the sun.
So with not a lot going on for either of us right now — I needed some column fodder and he won’t be behind the bench any time soon thanks to COVID-19 — I figured there was no time like the present for our latest chit-chat. Not surprisingly, Tuesday’s phone call was a lengthy affair, covering plenty of ground.
First up was addressing the potential elephant in the dressing room. Specifically, was the vacant Winnipeg Jets assistant coach job that went to Dave Lowry on Monday his for the taking? After all, Vincent occupied that role for five years until he was sent to the farm to run the show beginning in the fall of 2016. After four seasons in the AHL, and a temporary return to the NHL to help the short-staffed Jets inside the Edmonton playoff bubble last summer, were the big league fires starting to burn again?
The answer is yes and no.
"Paul (Jets head coach Maurice) and I are pretty close and pretty direct to each other. There’s no games. So when (former Jets assistant coach Todd Woodcroft) left, Paul and I had a conversation. Without saying ‘I’m offering you the job’ he was asking me if I had any interest. I told him probably not but give me a few days to think about this. And we spoke a few days later and I told him I’m really happy where I am right now. He said ‘I figured so but needed to talk to you about it,’" said Vincent.
Don’t confuse that as being content with the status quo. Vincent readily admits his ultimate goal is to return to the NHL — but only as a head coach.
"At this point in my career I feel this is where I should be. Being an assistant in the NHL is an amazing privilege, but I really like what I’m doing and going back to the NHL as an assistant coach right now is not an option," he said.
And so Vincent will wait for his chance, just as he’s patiently waiting and planning for an upcoming season that might never come to fruition. The AHL needs ticket-paying fans to be profitable, and the prospects of that happening any time soon are remote even with good news on the vaccine front in recent weeks. The latest target is a Feb. 5 start to an abbreviated campaign, but that’s certainly not etched in stone, especially in Canada with the border restrictions.
"I’m crossing my fingers that we’re going to have a season, but in a positive way. Not at all costs where people are exposed dangerously. And even for the fans, what’s the plan there? I have no clue when and how that’s going to work," Vincent admitted.
"We may have to realize at some point guys may have to lose a year of hockey. It’s not impossible that that could happen."
Vincent is using the NHL’s successful return to play for the Stanley Cup as a reminder that what seemed impossible at one point could be accomplished, hoping recent history can be repeated even if the COVID-19 numbers are getting worse, not better these days.
He’s trying to keep busy by broadening his horizons, including video study, reading and listening to podcasts about hockey and business-related topics, while also juggling duties as a stay-at-home dad to a young daughter.
“My days go by really quick but I miss the most important part of my working life, which is the connection and being around hockey people." – Pascal Vincent
"My days go by really quick but I miss the most important part of my working life, which is the connection and being around hockey people. The intensity of the games, the adrenaline, the practices. Trying to find solutions to the problems and getting better. I miss that part very much and can’t wait to go back. But I can’t tell you I’ve been bored since it stopped," he said.
For his live hockey fix, Vincent is keeping close tabs on about a half-dozen Jets prospects on loan to European clubs until NHL training camps open. That includes highly touted forward Kristian Vesalainen (four goals, four assists in eight games) and defenceman Ville Heinola (one goal, 12 assists in 16 games) who are on different teams in Finland’s top men’s league.
"Kristian Vesalainen seems in real good shape, he’s moving his feet, he’s on the puck, staying on the puck, shooting the puck. For me, it’s about the way he finished last season for us, building his confidence and being more of a difference-maker at even strength. Now he’s in that phase where he’s building that confidence," said Vincent.
"And Ville, I think the confidence is as high as it can be right now. For me, that’s as important as the physical aspect. You can be in top shape but if you’re not in a positive mental state it doesn’t matter. Not losing strides right now for those young players is a real advantage. We’re excited they’re able to play games."
Vincent believes the prospect pool is in good shape, especially with former Moose players such as Kyle Connor, Jack Roslovic, Mason Appleton and Jansen Harkins already graduating to regular NHL work.
"Jansen is such a great story that teaches so many lessons to everybody. The improvement curve with him was not as fast as we wanted or expected. But the pro game is very different. I always remind myself, even more so now, of Jansen Harkins," he said.
"Since Day 1, if there’s one part of our organization that’s been very strong it’s drafting. So I’m excited to see the next generation and see where that’s going to lead us."
Vincent said his brief return to the Jets in the summer was like "going home," especially with many of his former players now in the fold. And the overall experience, despite a quick preliminary-round exit at the hands of the Calgary Flames, was terrific.
"I learned a few new things. And it was like Christmas time for coaches. You could go to the rink and watch three NHL games a day. You had good food, and a gym, and a room you didn’t have to pack in and pack out of for travel. For a coach, what more could you want?" said Vincent.
Of course, that was then, and this is now. And with the real holidays fast approaching, Vincent would love nothing more than being able to get his hands on a shiny new hockey season.
"There’s the vaccine that seems to be around the corner. But I don’t know, I really don’t know. That’s the tricky part. I’m really working hard at keeping my mind busy on what I can do rather than what might happen or what could happen," he said.
"There’s so many questions still. I do know a lot of smart people are working to find solutions and I trust them."
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.