Interview Part II: The Anatomy of an ECHL Team

In this second of a two-part Q&A with Grizzlies’ Head Coach Tim Branham, we talk about some of the finer details of what goes into assembling an ECHL team.

Starting with a question that has perplexed many ECHL hockey fans…

Namiko Hitotsubashi: Why 10 forwards?

Tim Branham: The ECHL is a business as well as a developmental league. Dressing 10 forwards saves money, and it allows the players to get more ice time to develop.

NH: Going back to something we’d talked about earlier: future considerations. You’d said they were kind of just a gentleman’s agreement, but when you trade for future considerations, do you specify after the season you can take this kind of player? How does that work?

TB: You usually do that before the trade is made, you agree on what it is. Sometimes it’s a player to be named, like it wasBradford and Daly, say, sometimes it’s that, or sometimes it’s hey, you can protect five players from your protected list, and then I can pick from there. It’s kind of just whatever you make up. Like, sometimes it’s just like if you’re good buddies with another coach, it’ll just be an agreed upon player before the end of the year, or something. It can be anything.

NH: Something someone from the Booster Club wanted to know, when guys are weighing the options between playing here and playing in Europe, for example, what can you offer in competition with a European league? Do you have any insight into what would make a player choose the ECHL over some place else?

TB: I always ask the player what do you want out of your hockey career? So it’s different if it’s a kid coming out of college, or if it’s a guy that’s been here a long time. What do you want out of your hockey career? Do you want to make the NHL or the American league? Then you have to play in the ECHL. If you want to have an experience, maybe go make some more money, then go over to Europe. So really, it just kind of depends on what the player wants to do, what they’re looking for. Do they still have that dream? Or is it more of a place for me and my girlfriend or wife to go to have fun and to travel the world. It just all depends. But that’s basically all it is. I mean, you can’t generally offer more money than Europe at this level, cause over in Europe, everything’s usually tax free, and everything like that, they’ll give them an apartment, and a car, or whatever, I mean, we give them apartments, but it generally comes down to what they want. What do you want out of your career right now.

NH: When you’re looking to build a team for the next season, do you start with an idea of what you want? Cause last year, not last season, but the season before, the Grizzlies were a crazy skilled team. This year you had a lot more grit, you had a guy like Travis Howe, you had a Michael Pelech. Do you go into the season thinking “I’m going to build my team like this” and then find guys that fit, or do you find guys that you want and see what works around that?

TB: Sometimes both, but in those instances, I had a lot of skill returning. So my first two years came, and then I thought my second year we had a really good playoff team. We were tough, we were physical, we had guys that could score, and then that third year, just the guys that I had coming back were really skilled, and I was just like, you know what, I want to score goals next year. I want a really skilled team. And that’s what we put together. And we had an insanely skilled offensive group, forward group. Sometimes it’s hard to find. I lost out on three defensemen that were top-notch, that really could have contributed on the offensive side, so I was going for everybody to be real offensive, but you can’t always find the players. And then we had Gallant though at the beginning of the year, we had Alex Gallant. And he’s just like Travis Howe, who can change the momentum of a game, keep the other team settled down, and then he got called up to the American League, and I never replaced that kind of player, I never brought a Gallant or a Travis Howe back in.

I was like, ah, we can do it by committee. We had some pretty tough guys, but we didn’t have that yet. Looking back, we probably could have, but that’s why I made the Cody Ferriero trade. I needed a tough, physical, grinding right shot centerman, and I traded for him. And then he comes in and six, ten games in, he gets a concussion, and is out for the year. But we needed that player, cause we needed a little bit of toughness going into playoffs.

And then I was like, I want to put together a playoff team. So I feel like that’s what I did. I put together a playoff team, had to re-put it together, cause guys got called upor injured, so I had to make a bunch of trades, it was really nice getting Pelech, just being able to trade for a guy like him, your team instantly just controls the game so well, with faceoffs in important situations, he just does a really great job.

Last year was a real challenge, just trying to rebuild that one position. Forwards are everywhere. You can bring in a ton of forwards. Trying to find D that can play in the league, in January or later? I brought in like four or five of them, it’s hard to do. But that’s why I had to make those trades to bring in Verpaelst. It’s like aaaaahh I just want to make playoffs. I don’t care about next year. So that’s what goes into that. And everybody wanted him. Guys after, teams were calling me going “How did you get him??? What did you give up??” I’m like I don’t care what I gave up! I’m worried about this year, not next year.

NH: With the affiliation of the NHL teams, how does that work? Is there anything beyond developing some of their players? Is there more involved?

TB: We get so many camp spots, to send players for training camp to San Diego, we have to, and this is league wide, so they count at $525 on the cap, those players. We have to pay Anaheim that $525 a week. Other than that, there’s no ‘you have to play this guy, or you have to play that guy, but we enter into an affiliation together because they know I’m going to do everything I can to ensure their players can develop.

NH: So in terms of impacting the running of your day to day team not really?

TB: No, no. I can’t enter into an affiliation with another team, but no, as far as who I bring in, and who I can’t, they have nothing to do with that.

NH: So even if they send you a Kevin Boyle, say, you don’t have to play him a certain amount?

TB: I don’t have to…

NH: But he’s there under the understanding that he’s going to play.

TB: Yeah. Under the understanding that he’s going to play. That’s why they have the affiliation, especially for goaltenders, cause goalies have to play. And so in order to keep a good relationship, you work with them.

NH: One of the things you always stress is character on and off the ice, and with the league being what it is, is it again a word of mouth kind of thing that you find out who is going to be a good fit?

TB: Yeah, and it’s always one of the questions that you ask, whether you’re talking to the coach or one of the players, you gotta do your homework on these guys, how are they? How are they off the ice? Cause I don’t want to deal with hooligans off the ice, so yeah. You always try to find out as much as you can about them. It’s extremely important. Especially here. I mean, this organization has been around for a long time. And they’ve been around a long time for a reason. They do a good job. And if we want our fanbase to continue to grow, we have to get out in the community. The Jon Puskars get out in the community. The guys that don’t care are the guys who don’t get out in the community. So it’s like, well, I don’t want you on my team, because you not going to bat for the guy next to you. It kind of goes hand in hand. I want to make sure that those guys are coachable too, that they have fun coming to the rink, and not have any issues.

Thank you, Coach, for taking the time to sit down and answer all these questions. Best of luck to you and the Grizzlies in the upcoming season!

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