The Sunday matinee had just finished at Madison Square Garden, Lee Stempniak’s overtime goal lifting the New Jersey Devils to their first win of the season, 2–1 over the New York Rangers, and here was the rare instance when Peter Horachek’s television was tuned to something other than hockey. “Actually, I was watching Dolphin football,” he said from his home in Ft. Lauderdale. Two weeks removed from double knee replacement surgery, Horachek recently ditched his walker and can slowly move on his own while he gradually works his way back into form. But much of his downtime was spent with his legs propped on the couch, resting and recovering, texting friends around the NHL, internalizing game trends, keeping his mind sharp for whatever comes next.
That’s the biggest question, right? Once those knees heal, what lies ahead for the man who finally realized his dream of becoming a head coach in the NHL only to be dismissed from interim gigs twice in the space of two years?
Both Florida and then Toronto were more or less in shambles when Horachek was given the difficult and even thankless task of guiding them to respectability while they went through the painful and sometimes ugly throes of rebuilding. After the Maple Leafs replaced him with Mike Babcock in a blockbuster move, everyone tried to put a positive spin on this summer, telling Horachek that time away from the game was a wonderful opportunity to relax and travel.
This, Horachek thought at first, was hogwash.
“I’ve heard that a lot,” he said. “People said you should take advantage of it. And I’m going, ‘Seriously? I’m not doing what I love to do.’ But I get what they’re saying: Take advantage of what time you have and do something with it. That’s part of life. It happens to a lot of coaches out there. I’m just one of them it’s happened to and I’ve just got to be ready when the next time comes.”
Whenever he gets mobile again, hopefully within the next month, Horachek plans to take a vacation with his wife and also pay visits that are more focused on hockey—to see GM David Poile in Nashville, where he was an assistant or associate coach from 2003 to ’13; former Predators head coach Barry Trotz, a good friend, in Washington; Devils GM Ray Shero in New Jersey, another friend from around the league; home games for the Panthers and Lightning, both within driving distance; and his brother in Vancouver, ideally during a Canucks homestand. It’s all to prepare for his next job, for which Horachek will not be picky. Television? Excellent. Scouting? Done. “Special projects,” whatever that may entail? Bring it on.
Even another interim job, strange as that may sound.
“That’s part of the game,” said Horachek, who is still under contract with the Leafs according to Sportsnet. “You have to accept it. I’ve heard people say to me, ‘Would you say no?’ I never would. I would accept whatever challenge was put forth. The teams would ask me because they feel confident in the ability I have. Even if it was going to be a temporary situation, that’s just something you do as a pro.
“It definitely hasn’t turned out in a positive way. But normally a lot of times you would hope that would turn into something where you have the next season to prepare and do it the way you want to for real. That just never worked out that way. But if you came into another situation and that happened, you would do what you had to do for the team. I certainly would say, ‘Absolutely.’”
About those abridged seasons. After the Predators dismissed him in May 2013, Horachek was hired by Panthers assistant GM Mike Santos, for whom he had worked in Nashville. He began the following fall helming the San Antonio Rampage, Florida’s American Hockey League affiliate. That November, GM Dale Tallon called Horachek right after the Rampage had finished a game and promoted him to interim head coach, replacing the fired Kevin Dineen. At the time, with the club on the road in Boston, Horachek jetted to meet the franchise’s owners in New York, then met his new players for the trip’s next leg in Ottawa. The Panthers were 3-9-4 and on a seven-game losing skid at the time. Under Horachek, they got on a bit of a hot streak in early December and finished 29-45-8, but improved their score-adjusted possession by almost five percentage points, a positive sign. Still, Tallon dismissed Horachek at the end of the season, saying he wanted a coach with more experience.
“It's tough to come in during the season and try and turn things around,” Tallon said while announcing Horachek’s dismissal. “But he did a good job.”
Horachek was disappointed that he would not be given the chance to work with Florida’s group of promising young players, but he quickly latched on with Toronto as an assistant under Randy Carlyle. Then it all happened again. Carlyle was fired, Horachek and fellow assistant Steve Spott were given co-interim tags and then, as Horachek walked downtown to meet Trotz with the Capitals in town, the Leafs called saying he would be their head coach for the rest of the season. That happened at 7 p.m. on a Tuesday. His first game was the next night. The Maple Leafs went 9-28-5 under Horachek, who was fired with GM Dave Nonis in mid-April. Babcock was hired on May 20 and Toronto’s rebuild began in earnest.
From both situations, Horachek said, he drew one primary lesson.
“One-hundred percent it’s hard,” he said. “There’s no easy way to get in to do it. There’s just no way. I think the main thing is really about the communication level and forcing communication that gives everybody an understanding of what’s going on and short-term and long-term goals and making sure that my management, my bosses, my staff, whoever is involved, everybody’s clear about what’s going on and what the expectations are.”
So yes, of course Horachek would enjoy having a full season to steer a new team with a chance to choose his staff and implement his vision, “the dream come true,” as he calls it. Until then, or until his phone rings and someone offers some other avenue back into the NHL—scouting, broadcasting, consulting, coaching, whatever—he will be at his condo in Florida, near the river where boats often sail past, within walking distance of restaurants and the local park, watching hockey and getting ready.
“Most likely at this point, you’re not going to be doing a full-time job,” he said. “Those are all allocated and put in place already. For me, I just want to stay as relevant and stay involved as much as I can.”