Before the Florida Panthers season started, Andrew Brunette and his wife discussed plans for a nice ski vacation during the team’s break for the Winter Olympics.
The team would have a few weeks off and, as an assistant coach, Brunette would have the time to get away for a little bit.
Yeah, about that.
Brunette, as you may have heard, got a big promotion earlier this season.
When close friend and mentor Joel Quenneville stepped down in the wake of the Chicago Blackhawks’ sexual assault scandal, Florida general manager Bill Zito named Brunette the interim head coach of the Panthers.
Instead of flying out to Vail or somewhere like that, Brunette and his wife will board a plane headed to Las Vegas on Thursday morning.
It’s a work trip.
Brunette, you see, may be the interim coach of the Florida Panthers — but he will also be the head coach of the Atlantic Division team at NHL All-Star Weekend.
As Ferris Bueller once said, “life moves pretty fast.”
“We’re going to Vegas and it should be a lot of fun,” Brunette said Wednesday night.
For the next few days, at least, Brunette will be able to take a few moments to contemplate the past few months.
They have been, to put it simply, a whirlwind.
In a matter of days, Brunette went from being an assistant coach on an up-and-coming team to being thrust into the role as interim head coach of what could be the best squad in the entire National Hockey League.
It was not just the job change which was the biggest challenge to Brunette, but the manner in which it all went down.
Wednesday, he spoke to Florida Hockey Now about his feelings toward having to replace Quenneville — “it was awkward” — and the pressure the new job entails.
And, he talked about that “interim” tag which will follow him to Las Vegas.
According to Zito, it will stick until the end of the season.
It has been a busy few months for Brunette as he has adjusted to his new life as head coach of a very good NHL team.
Being named the head coach was not something Brunette thought of nor was expecting.
As the Blackhawks scandal exploded — and Quenneville’s knowledge of the events came to light — things did indeed move pretty fast.
Quenneville coached the Panthers on Oct. 27 in a 4-1 win against the Boston Bruins not long after Kyle Beach’s emotional interview hit Canadian airwaves.
There was an outpouring of outrage at Quenneville being behind the Florida bench.
After the game, Zito spoke to the media instead of the team’s coach.
The next day, Quenneville traveled to New York for a face-to-face meeting with NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
Zito and team president Matt Caldwell were there as well.
Quenneville resigned not long after the meeting concluded.
Zito went to Brunette and, as he put it at the time, asked Brunette if he would step in and “help out” as the Panthers were in a tight spot.
Make no mistake: It was not only a tough time for the Panthers but for Brunette as well.
“Totally weird,’’ Brunette said of having to replace Quenneville. “It still feels a little weird, awkward especially with how it went down. We were so excited about what we were building and Joel was the figurehead. It was his culture.
“But in three years, our group has bought in and the culture has changed. They saw some success and they want more of it. Then this threw us for a big loop. I was thrown the keys and asked to keep it between the lines. … It was a messed up situation but we had to keep it moving in the right direction.”
Brunette said Quenneville helped pull him from team management to getting back into coaching in the first place.
Quenneville coached Brunette in Colorado and Chicago.
One of Quenneville’s first hires when he took the Florida job in 2019 was Brunette, who was available after losing his job as an assistant GM with the Minnesota Wild.
Paul Fenton, who let Brunette go, is now in the Florida front office as a senior advisor to Zito.
“I thought, ‘maybe I will try coaching again’,’’ Brunette said. “I did it before and decided if I was going to do it again, I was going to go and learn from the best. I was fortunate enough that (Quenneville) gave me the opportunity.
“So, you know, you kind of feel guilty the whole time because you are going in for the guy who brought you along and you look up to as a coach. A lot of my vision of how the game should be played comes from Joel.
“It has been awkward.
“I am mindful that this is kind of Joel’s team and you don’t want to change what he was doing because it was working. It’s a balancing act and I don’t know that I am great at it.”
The Panthers have hit a few bumps in the road since Brunette took over, although after a 7-0 start under Quenneville, anything but going 82-0 would be considered a downturn.
Yet Brunette has handled things as well — or better — than anyone may have hoped.
“If you want a barometer, look at the personnel on our team and ask yourself if they are playing as well as they could play,” Zito told FHN.
“Are they playing as close to or at their potential? When I look at these players, are they doing what I think they can be doing? To a man, they are.”
It was a tough situation to be put in, but one Brunette had been primed for.
As a player, Brunette logged over 1,100 games in the NHL. Upon retirement, he worked in the Wild front office and behind the bench.
He has spoken to a number of his former coaches such as Barry Trotz — and, more than likely, Quenneville as well — for guidance as he is now in a position of power most simply do not know anything about.
Brunette’s mentors, the people he looks up to, know the situation he is in. They know the traps and the pressures which come with such a high-profile gig and suddenly being in charge of a team with the high expectations this one does.
Brunette’s past experiences should help him moving forward as well.
“He was assistant GM but we had lots of conversations and lots of good times,” said Vancouver coach Bruce Boudreau, who was coach of the Wild when Brunette was working in the team’s front office.
“He is a really good person and I was really happy he got the job because he is extremely smart. … I thought it would go seamlessly when Joel was not there anymore.”
Added Zito: “Andrew is very cerebral, he understands the game so well. He makes adjustments and is able to see things from a different perspective. He makes my job so much easier. Having a guy like that around, I can bounce ideas off of him as well. He worked so closely with Joel, understands and embraces the systems that were already in place. That means there would not be a lot of dramatic changes”
As for now, the ‘interim’ tag stands as the Panthers went into this two-week All-Star break with the best record in the NHL.
When Quenneville first left, there was plenty of speculation — from here as well — on whom Zito would go after to take over this talented team.
There were a lot of big names tossed around, Boudreau included, but Zito always said he was going to give Brunette a “long runway.”
That has not changed.
Brunette has not been given the job full time — and he says it is not something that bothers him nor thinks about much — but Zito certainly has not created any search parties, either.
“Never,” Brunette said. “I don’t really care. I think we’re all interims, anyway. You could be called ‘head coach’ but you are really just day-to-day, especially in today’s coaching world. We see it in the NFL and every sport, really.
“I haven’t had a conversation about it and haven’t put any thought into it. I’m just into the every day grind of trying to get better. I really love our team. It’s more about just getting through this season. There are going to be challenges going forward, puzzles going through my head. I don’t have time to think about next year or the future. That’s 100 percent honest.”
Even though Brunette says this is still Joel Quenneville’s team, it is his now.
“I think he has earned it,” Zito said. “I can tell you, I am not in the market for a coach right now. We will address everything at the end of the season.
“But I reiterate, I am not looking. I am pretty comfortable with our All-Star coach.”
Brunette is finding his way as a rookie head coach and starting to feel comfortable enough to put his fingerprints on the team.
The Panthers had a run of injuries and an outbreak of Covid which had the team playing unevenly at times.
But they pulled themselves out of their mini-funk and came out of the Christmas break gangbusters.
Florida went 14-2-1 from Dec. 29 until Monday night, a run capped off with an 8-4 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.
“He is poised, willing to make strong, confident decisions,” Zito said. “And he doesn’t back down.”
It’s easy to coach a team during the good times (and the Panthers have had plenty of those) but Brunette has shown a willingness to call out his team when he sees something he does not like.
It took him a little while to find his voice in such a way — sometimes assistant coaches do become a little too close to players — but it is there now.
“As an assistant, you spend more time with the players and as head coach, you’re running all sorts of different things,” Brunette said.
“You feel guilty if your forward play or power play starts slipping because you’re not putting as much time in it as you did before. It’s kind of managing, getting your ducks-in-a-row to do what you do with all the different challenges and responsibilities. It’s a learning experience, for sure.”
Even in blowout victories, Brunette is not afraid to make clear certain areas could have been better.
And, perhaps as important, he does not unnecessarily pile on following losses.
It’s a fine line to walk.
“I broke it down into stages,” Zito said. “The first is, immediately when he took the reins it was almost like he wasn’t a coach, he was a leader. It was hard. All of a sudden he went from having breakfast with his peers, they’re all assistant coaches. He goes to bed and now he’s their boss.
“His friend and mentor leaves and he takes over for him. It would have been hard to change things and it wouldn’t have been appropriate nor would it have worked.
“That segued into the next step when he’s putting his own fingerprints on it and he’s the coach. It took days and weeks for that transition to come about it. Some games, really. It just naturally occurred as he became the coach and then Sasha got hurt. He is such an integral part of the team and we had all the Covid, all of those obstacles. We were more a MASH unit than a team. ‘How do I keep this group of men moving forward?’
“He did a great job managing the chaos, keeping them focused and winning. It was really only after the holidays where he was able to come in as the coach with a regular lineup and was able to change things up. He has been fantastic.”
As for coaching some of the best players in the NHL this weekend, Brunette said it he is still “in disbelief.”
Brunette never made it to the All-Star Game as a player although he admits he came close a few times.
He has played on some good teams (Washington, Colorado, Minnesota, Chicago) and some pretty bad ones as well.
Brunette is a rarity in the NHL in that he played on not one expansion team, but two in as many seasons.
The summer after he scored the first goal in the history of the Nashville Predators, Brunette found himself traded to the expansion Atlanta Thrashers, starting over again.
- (Bonus trivia: Brunette led the Thrashers in scoring with 50 points in their first season. He also played for the Wild in its second, but not expansion, season. More? That first goal for the Preds came in their second game. The Panthers spoiled the opening game in Nashville with a 1-0 win.)
No, Andrew Brunette is not a guy who takes things for granted.
And he certainly is not taking this opportunity to coach the Panthers, which looks like an All-Star team a lot of nights, lightly.
Skiing, however, will have to wait.
Brunette has some All-Stars to coach up.
“It kind of caught me off guard,” he said of being named to coach the Atlantic team. “I certainly did not think that far ahead so I was surprised. I was like ‘I didn’t even think of that.’ It’s a little awkward I think. You are in the day-to-day grind, just trying to keep the car on the road a bit. This is a unique and different situation where it doesn’t feel like my own in some ways.
“But emotions do run through you a little bit. I felt I was close as a player a few times but never got there. It’s not quite the same to do it as a coach, but it is real nice just the same.
“Hey, close enough.”
NHL ALL-STAR WEEKEND
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA
- EVENTS: Skills competition, Friday 7:30 (ESPN); All-Star tournament, Saturday 3:30 (ABC/ESPN+)
- WHERE: T-Mobile Arena; various sites in Las Vegas
- PANTHERS PARTICIPATING: Jonathan Huberdeau, coach Andrew Brunette