So much of what Derek Armstrong showed as a player – a staunch work ethic, persistence and unbridled enthusiasm – he fully invested into his work as the head coach of the CHL’s Denver Cutthroats.
Guiding the second-year club that boasts a Colorado Avalanche affiliation to the CHL finals, Armstrong and the Cutthroats settled as runners up following a season in which he was named the league’s Coach of the Year.
He’s now investing the same passion he showed as a player in the team’s business operations following a January shake up in the front office in which he was named team President in addition to his coaching and player personnel duties. He’s shed his hockey operations responsibilities for now – “I’ll continue to coach eventually,” he said – and is now focused on the club’s business endeavors.
“As a player, I think I was kind of an all-rounded player,” he said. “I could play fourth line, first line, second line, third line – I could do whatever I needed to do to help the team, and that’s what I’m trying to do on the business side as well. I’ve learned coaching, I’ve learned scouting, I’ve learned to be the GM, I’m going to learn all the sponsorships and the ticketing and what it takes to run the rink, so I’m just trying to be an all-around hockey person – but obviously my first love is coaching and developing the players.”
He’s also aligned with a pair of franchises that, like many, have shown a proclivity towards hiring alumni in front office roles. Armstrong never played for the Avalanche – the Cutthroats’ parent club – but has worked closely with Assistant General Manager Craig Billington in the construction and development of Denver’s roster since the franchise’s expansion into the CHL in 2012-13. Colorado has been generous in its assignment of its players to a league that has existed in its modern state since 1992 and has been rumored to be nearing a merger with the ECHL. The Avalanche also have development agreements with CHL teams in Allen, Texas and Fort Wayne, Indiana.
“They had trust in me right away,” Armstrong said of Billington and those in Colorado’s hockey operations. “I had no experience as coach, nothing. I had never done anything in my life like that. I took a team from expansion, they gave me nine players their first year, and every single one of their players got a chance to play in the AHL.”
Both Los Angeles and Colorado’s front offices could field awfully strong alumni teams comprised of playoff rivals from 2001 and 2002. There’s Joe Sakic, Patrick Roy and Adam Foote in Colorado, and Rob Blake (an Avalanche Stanley Cup winner), Luc Robitaille, Glen Murray and Nelson Emerson in Los Angeles. Sean O’Donnell, Mike Donnelly and Billington are also alumni of the clubs they have returned to work for.
If there is indeed a concentrated push around the league to incorporate former players back into the front office fold, the Kings and Avalanche have clearly shown to be at the forefront.
With Armstrong’s new title and a more broad business and operational background, he’s hoping his versatility could eventually lead him into a similar role with a National Hockey League club – and perhaps one that he used to work with.
“He’s got a ton of energy, and he’s willing to learn,” said Luc Robitaille, Kings President, Business Operations. “Derek, when he was more at the farm team level, when he was playing in the AHL, he was a leader on his teams. I think he’s a quick learner and he’s a great listener, too.”
Robitaille, who Armstrong referred to as “one of the best people you ever meet in your whole entire life” – noted that Armstrong had attended business meetings even while he was playing in Los Angeles, an investment that has paid dividends in 41-year-old’s acclimation to his post-hockey career. But teams don’t simply hire ex-players just to have alumni around, and Armstrong, though he has found success in a hockey operations capacity during his post-playing career, is still relatively young. He last played professionally in the 2009-10 season.
“It’s not an easy transition,” Armstrong said. “You struggle after playing for so long and live in a bubble your whole life. You’re thinking things are just going to kind of fall into place, and then they don’t fall into place as much as they have.”
But through the relationships he built up with his ex-teammates – with Robitaille, Rob Blake, and former King and current AHL-Bridgeport coach Brent Thompson – he’s vying to reinforce his own business credentials.
The itch to coach still exists – and he ably served his duties while working in hockey operations in Denver.
“I just feel at this level, obviously I won Coach of the Year, and the last two years we put 21 guys in the AHL, which is part of what I love doing.”
Working with the players is a perk of the job, and even though he’s roughly 15 years past the median age on the Cutthroats, he’s still able to relate to those he develops.
Coaching younger players reminds him of the same fire he saw in Dustin Brown and Anze Kopitar, both of whom were rookies when they played with Armstrong; Kopitar was a roommate of Armstrong’s early in his accomplished career.
“They give you a different perspective on life. Now they’ve become NHL veterans and NHL world class superstars,” Armstrong said. “From my perspective looking on the outside now, it’s amazing to see how far they come and how they’ve developed as human beings. Their hockey playing skills and the way they’ve taken over the LA Kings and gone to the championship, it’s truly amazing. I really enjoy the young aspect.”
“This generation with Kopi and Brownie, they love the rink, and it’s hard to find people who love the rink. I think that’s what Dean’s done a good job of. He’s found people who love the rink and love to play hockey and not just love the beach scene.”
Silver and black (and perhaps some purple, a dominant color during his Los Angeles tenure) runs through his veins.
“I’m obviously a King at heart. They’ve given me a wonderful life,” Armstrong said.
“It was tough, bittersweet for me,” he said of the end of his NHL tenure. Armstrong last played in the 2009-10 season, which he split between St. Louis and Peoria. A King from 2002-09, he totaled 202 points over six on-ice NHL seasons with Los Angeles but never played in one Stanley Cup Playoff game in his career.
“I wished I was five years younger at that time, because I had been [in Los Angeles] a long time and put a lot of work in with those guys,” he said. “But you’re proud of them. Stolly, Greenie came in, Williams came in, they all came in at the tail end of my career, and it was good to watch them gel as a unit. Obviously they’ve done a superb job. They’ve always been good teammates with each other. Even when I was there, they always got along in the dressing room. It’s like a big family, and that’s credit towards Dean Lombardi, who’s brought the right people in here. He’s been the masterpiece behind all this. But all the guys bought in. He’s had a system in place. It’s been trouble for people to play in a beach setting in a hockey atmosphere, but he brought the right people in that can learn how to manage the beach life as well as being a professional hockey player. All those guys have done an incredible job. You tip your hats to them. But when I sit there and watch them raise the Cup, it’s a proud moment for me as well watching on the couch. I wear my Kings jersey and cheer them on. To see how far those guys have come and how hard they’ve worked, it’s a pretty cool feeling that I get to enjoy inside as well.”
And for all the competitive spirit so inherent in the former athlete, there will come a time in which he’ll need to step back and allow for the clear delineation of roles, should he continue to enhance his business duties.
Robitaille, who would seem to be an archetypal example of transitioning from a playing career into becoming a driving force behind running a successful business, shared what type of advice he would offer Armstrong.
“Just remember, you’re not a player anymore, and hire the right people that can help you,” Robitaille said of the advice he’d share. “The biggest thing with his job right now is he’s got to make sure he really manages the business well versus just getting involved on the hockey side. When you’re a hockey player you still think that you really want to get involved with that, and I think it’s more important probably that he manages his business properly and let his coach and his hockey people handle the hockey, and he should just come in as an advisor to them versus trying to get too involved.”
Because of the variety of roles he’s held in his post-playing career, and because of the relationships he’s maintained with friends and ex-teammates, Armstrong hopes to continue to unearth possibilities that could one day lead him back to the National Hockey League.
“It took me eight or nine years to get to the NHL, but when I got there, I wasn’t going to leave,” he said. “I’m just learning as much as I can. Everyone’s been helping me, and hopefully one day I can assist an AHL team developing players and learning. Even Nelson Emerson – he’s been great. Glen Murray, Sean O’Donnell – they’ve been awesome. And to learn the transition phase from being a player to being in management and in coaching, it’s a big adjustment. Those are the steps I’m trying to take now.”
“But my ultimate goal is definitely to get back to the NHL and assist in some capacity.”
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ROCKY MOUNTAIN HIGH
Derek Armstrong is expected to be among the Kings alumni on hand at the Battle of the Broadmoor, a fundraiser in Colorado Springs that combines a golf tournament and celebration around an October 2 preseason game between Los Angeles and Colorado at the Broadmoor World Arena. Proceeds for the event will benefit the USA Hockey Foundation. For more information on this event, please visit this page at LAKings.com.
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