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New York Islanders Learning About Assistant Coach John Gruden

WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 10: John Gruden #17 of the Washington Capitals stickhandles the puck against the Los Angeles Kings during the game at MCI Center on November 10, 2003 in Washington, D.C. The Kings defeated the Capitals 3-2. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON - NOVEMBER 10: John Gruden #17 of the Washington Capitals stickhandles the puck against the Los Angeles Kings during the game at MCI Center on November 10, 2003 in Washington, D.C. The Kings defeated the Capitals 3-2. (Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images)
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The New York Islanders hired former Hamilton Bulldogs head coach John Gruden to be an assistant coach to Barry Trotz. Who is he? And what has he done?

Who is New York Islanders new assistant head-coach John Gruden? Aside from having the same name as the head coach of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders (minus the ‘h’).

What should we know about John Gruden as he takes the next step in his hockey coaching career and walks into the NHL to backup a Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz?

Expect hard work. And a lot of honesty.

From Flint to Hamilton

John Gruden’s coaching career started well before the OHL, but its where everyone knows him from. Gruden started his OHL career behind the bench of the Flint Firebirds.

The Firebirds were a new-ish team. They were relocated from Detroit to Flint on February 2nd, 2015. In November of 2015, some eight months later, that’s when trouble started brewing for the Firebirds and specifically for Gruden.

In November Gruden assembled his players and told them the honest truth. That changes were going to happen on the ice.

"According to principals, including NHL scouts and agents with clients on the team, the players knew that there was a storm gathering before last night’s game. With the exception of Hakon Nilsen, they met with Gruden and his staff and the coach laid out there were going to be some switches in the lineup and that he couldn’t sugar-coat the reason for the move."

It seems that the owner, Rolf Nilsen wasn’t pleased about how much ice-time his son, defenseman Hakon Nilsen was getting. So he instructed the coach to play him more.

Gruden seemingly obliged by playing him way more than Nilsen should be based on his skill level. Nilsen even saw power play time. That apparently wasn’t enough for the owner, so he fired Gruden and his entire staff. The players didn’t like it.

(Gruden denies this was the reason he was fired or that anyone, including Rolf Nilsen, ever spoke to him about his players playing time.)

On November 8th, 2015 every single player on the team, including Hakon Nilsen, marched up to the team’s office tossed their jerseys to the ground and quit after John Gruden was fired.

The players responded to Gruden’s honesty with an act of bravery and solidarity for their bench boss. Gruden was reinstated the next day after the player walkout.

Gruden was fired again a few months later in February of 2016. The second firing “shocked” Gruden who seemed to believe everything was fine with the owners. Until the team’s Director of Hockey Ops delivered the news.

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Honesty the Best Policy

Four months later in June of 2016, the Hamilton Bulldogs of the OHL hired Gruden to be their new head coach. In his first season, he had the Bulldogs in the OHL playoffs. By year two they won the OHL Championship and finished third for the CHL’s Memorial Cup.

During his team’s run to the memorial cup, Gruden was interviewed by Sportsnet after a win. What’s striking about his appearance was just how honest he is. Sure, you hear a few cliché lines here and there, but on a few occasions, he gives you a peek behind the curtain.

Like how he told Robert Thomas to calm down. And how his attitude is something Thomas is going to have to work on. This was his star player, a kid that put up 75 points in 49 games.

Gruden wasn’t throwing Thomas under the bus or unfairly criticizing him. He was sharing what occurred between him and his player. You don’t see or hear that often.

How about this example, again from the Bulldogs run-up to the memorial cup. Bulldogs team captain Justin Lemcke recounts his first interaction with then new head-coach John Gruden. [Scroll to the 1:00 minute mark.]

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Of course, when he gets to the Islanders he won’t be put in front of a microphone. That’s all Barry. But what this shows is how Gruden interacts with those around him.

His honest approach is why his players love playing for him. Why they’d be willing to quit their team to stand with him in a difficult time.

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