ENGLEWOOD,Co.—On a weekday morning in mid-September, Lollipop Park is quiet. The hot-air balloon ferris wheel sits motionless. The carousel horses are calm, the teacup ride unoccupied, the rock-climbing wall empty. Billed as “the absolute cheapest kiddieland in the country,” this indoor amusement center outside Denver must be a riot for energetic youngsters, not to mention a godsend for peace-seeking parents. It is also an extraordinarily strange backdrop for the practice facility of an NHL team.
Then again, is Lollipop Park any weirder than what the Colorado Avalanche achieved last season, flipping the worst record in the salary cap era (22-56-4, 48 points) into a playoff berth? Much of their success was owed to the sudden emergence of center Nathan MacKinnon, the one-man nitrous button and eventual runner-up MVP. But the man currently leaning against a pillar in the concourse at Family Sports Center, watching some kids learn to skate on the rink below, certainly played a major role too.
Two years and two months ago, Jared Bednar was the proud owner of a fresh contract extension with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ minor-league affiliate, whom he had just steered to the AHL championship. Then things got real sticky around Lollipop Park. On Aug. 11, 2016, Avalanche coach and hockey operations vice president Patrick Roy abruptly resigned, citing philosophical (and perhaps practical) disagreements with fellow management. Bednar arrived two weeks later, thrust into his first NHL gig of any sort after spending nine years as a tough-guy defenseman and 14 more climbing the minor-league coaching ladder.
A towering presence at 6-foot-3, more Herman Munster than Herb Brooks, the 46-year-old Bednar spoke with SI.com about overseeing Colorado’s turnaround, witnessing MacKinnon’s rise, driving cross-country from his offseason home in South Carolina, and throwing down with his colleagues in a bench boss royal rumble.
SI: Your 10-game winning streak started after Christmas, but a few players pinpointed your mid-November trip to Stockholm as the point when things started getting good. Now, I heard it got pretty wild. Tyson Barrie joked that everyone “signed NDAs” for Sweden. What in the world happened over there?
JB: It’s good to get together as a group and hit the road together and have some time off. What helped make that trip special, number one, was it was [captain Gabriel Landeskog’s] hometown. Him being able to take our team around and show where he’s from and enjoy that city was special for him. First time over for a lot of people including myself. I really enjoyed it. Also on that trip, the Matt Duchene thing … everyone was wondering what was going to happen, what was our group? He was here. There were lots of rumors that he was going to be getting traded. Although he had a great start to the season, everyone knew he wanted to be moved.
When that trade happens, there’s closure to it. You know this is our team now. All the slots fell into place. [MacKinnon] knew where he stood and on down the line. There were so many games from that point on where I felt like MacKinnon was the best player on the ice on either team. Everything just fell into place for him there. Everyone expected it to happen. It was just a matter of when, from all the people in our organization and the belief we had in him.
It was a great trip for us. Even though we didn’t have success, one game we didn’t play well, going over there and getting that break … we had a big break. We weren’t playing a whole bunch of hockey there. And so when we got back after those breaks, it took us a little while to get going and then we hit a steady schedule where we were playing every second night for a long period of time. It was good for our team, as we found some traction and the belief started to grow, we were keeping that momentum.
SI: Speaking of Nathan, Tyson remembered a few what he called “holy f---” moments from last season. Anything come to mind for you?
JB: He had multiple five-point games at home that were insane. Every time he touched the puck, you were like, ‘Oh, he’s going to score.’ Which is crazy in this day and age. That’s how good he was. [MacKinnon’s] statistics at home were crazy. One of the things our guys talked about was wanting to earn our fans and respect around the league and having something to prove. Also earn our fans back and their support and belief. We wanted to be really good at home.
Regardless of record, the way we played, we wanted to be on our toes. Those guys [MacKinnon, Landeskog and winger Mikko Rantanen] started almost every game at home and they’d get out on the first shift and be buzzing and our team just followed their lead.
SI: What snapshots still stick in your mind about two years ago, when you get a call and suddenly you’re here?
JB: Well, the timing made it a big surprise. Generally coaches are getting hired in May and June, maybe into July. Not at the end of August. So I was getting ready to go back to Cleveland. I had signed a new contract there after we won. So to get a call and the interview process obviously happened quickly. It’s something that I had been working towards my whole career, whether it was 15 years coaching at that point.
Certainly the success we had in Cleveland, the way our team played probably got me the interview. And then talking to Joe, the way we wanted to play, I saw a lot of promise. There’s a lot of change. New league, different buildings, players and coaches. You get to know your opposition a lot. I feel like I got a quick lesson in that my first year.
That year, our team was kind of in limbo. We had a bunch of expiring contracts, an older group and the future was certainly going to be starting with some sort of rebuild and youth. That fit more of the way we wanted to play as a staff and the way management saw the vision and even how our leaders wanted to play. That was a frustrating year but I think we all learned a lot and in some ways I think that led to a little bit of success for our team last year.
I thought we came with that passion because of getting embarrassed the year before. We came with a certain amount of passion and attitude that we had something to prove. That was from day one of training camp that I felt that way from our group. Never did I worry about our drive last season.
So now, the big question is: How do we keep that drive and not have this feeling that we’ve arrived because we got in the playoffs and we’ll just do it again? That’s the worry as a coach. Players are confident we can get back there, which is good. We just have to make sure we’re doing those things that got us there last year and improve in some areas if we want to be there again.
SI: How was the whirlwind move?
JB: I drove out. All my stuff was in Cleveland. I was already settling in. I had my son in school there, he just started his first week of 11th grade. I called my parents. They came down. My wife was back home already with my daughter. So I was all over the place in three different places. My dad and my son helped get them moved, then my wife and daughter joined at Christmas.
There were a lot of logistical things going on, but I liked what we did going into camp. The coaches were willing to come back early and spend a couple weeks earlier than when they normally would’ve been back because of the change, to help bring me up to speed on what was going on before. We had a really good training camp, a really good exhibition.
I think we went 8-0, undefeated in exhibition. Then the start of our year was pretty good too. After 20 games we had the exact same record that we did this year: We were 9-10-1, 9-9-2 after 20 games. Then we ran into some injuries with [defenseman Erik Johnson and goalie Semyon Varlamov] and the season ended up being lost.
We all learned from that. Me especially. Then we bounced back, which is the most important thing. And now we’re just at the start of this rebuild, but expectations are growing, not only from our fan base and our city but within our locker room, within the coaching staff. It’s going to be a fun year. You want expectations to rise with your team. You want to see your guys rise to the challenge.
SI: How long is the drive from Charleston to Denver?
JB: I do it every spring when the season’s over, because I go back there [to Charleston]. It’s about 23 hours.
SI: So, two days?
JB: Yeah, you can push it in two, or you can take three. I’ve done both. I’ve taken my time and made a trip out of it with the kids last year, and I’ve pushed it to get here in two this year. I drove all the way to Kansas City from Charleston and did it in a day and a half.
SI: Podcasts? Music?
JB: I like music. I’ll listen to some sports radio.
SI: What kinds?
JB: I like everything.
SI: What’s the story behind the bracelets on your wrist?
JB: Hockey Gives Blood. They’re getting involved with the NHL, in Canada especially, because that’s where they’re starting and hoping to expand. Just trying to raise awareness for donors and the need for blood donors. Especially now as the generations are coming up, there’s not as many donors for the need. They’re getting involved with the NHL, the NHLPA and the Canadian teams. They’re going to start in the U.S.
I’ve been talking with the guy, seeing if there’s anything we can do as far as shooting ads. It’s hard to donate during the season, because you have the players can’t donate if they’re playing regularly. We’re going to see if we can jump onboard in some way as they get their stuff set up in Canada.
SI: What’s the word from back home in Humboldt?
JB: Everything’s getting better there. And the other back home, Charleston, we survived through the storm. All good. We didn’t get any flooding. They were thinking it was going to be really bad because the way the city handles water is like New Orleans. High tide, lots of rain. It starts flooding. And the surge was supposed to be bad, but we dodged a bullet there. We survived that without taking on too much water.
SI: Last one. If all 31 NHL coaches were in a royal-rumble ring, would you finish second to [Florida coach and former bruiser] Bob Boughner?
JB: [laughs] I don't know, I’d have to think. I have no idea. There’s some feisty ones. Our new coach here, Greg Cronin, you see the size of that guy, I wouldn’t want to mess with him. There’s a lot of those guys around.