Andy Weidenbach says new rinks are the key to producing more hockey talent in Florida.
It was in 2010 when Detroit Red Wings Head Coach Mike Babcock asked Andy Weidenbach to run his team's informal practices before the NHL training camp season officially began.
NHL coaches can't take the ice until the first day of official training, but players often liked to get together and skate before then, so teams would hire local coaches to run the unofficial practices for them.
Weidenbach wasn't just any coach. He was a renowned high school and junior hockey coach who had been leading Cranbrook Kingswood High in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to state championships.
Still, while Weidenbach, who now lives in Lakewood Ranch, felt respected, he wasn't sure if his role would make the Red Wings accept him as a part of the team.
Then he got his answer.
He had been talking with Babcock when Red Wings' forward Justin Abdelkader entered the room to have a quick heart-to-heart talk with Babcock. Weidenbach thought he needed to leave, but Abdelkader told him to stay. Weidenbach said Abdelkader proceeded to lobby Babcock for more time on the team's power play unit and asked what it would take to get it.
"Work harder," Babcock told him. "Any questions?"
Abdelkader didn't have any.
It was the kind of meeting "outsiders" never hear about. Over the next seven years, Weidenbach continued to be considered an insider as he ran those unofficial practice sessions and also served as the Red Wings' skate coach for the team's developmental program. During Weidenbach's first unofficial practice, he skated up to Red Wings captains Nicklas Lidstrom and Kris Draper, the team's captain and assistant captain, and asked them if there was anything special they wanted the team to work on that day. Lidstrom and Draper looked at each other, then back at Weidenbach. Lidstrom wondered why Weidenbach was asking them, and Weidenbach said it was because they were captains.
"Yeah, and you're the coach," Lidstrom said. "We don't care what you do."
He and Draper then skated away laughing.
Weidenbach said every practice was like that. He relished them all.
Weidenbach coached Cranbrook Kingswood High in Michigan for 26 years, compiling a win-loss record of 504-187-47 and winning 10 Michigan High School Athletic Association Division III state championships while finishing second twice.
He was named the MHSAA Division III Coach of the Year eight times, among a bevy of other awards. In August, he received his biggest honor yet as he was named to the Michigan High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.
"It was quite an honor, and I was surprised," Weidenbach said. "The Hall of Fame encompasses all sports. There are thousands of teams and coaches up there. I never thought I would be selected. I think my longevity has something to do with it. I guess we touched the lives of a lot of people."
Weidenbach retired and moved his family to Lakewood Ranch in 2019, although he brought his skates, gloves and whistle to Lakewood Ranch with him. He has become involved with the Tampa Bay Lightning's junior hockey programs and he's still coaching in the spring and summer, though the specific organization he's helping with, Premier Hockey Prospects, is no longer sponsored by the Lightning.
After three years, Weidenbach has a pretty good idea of the talent level in Florida.
It might be a surprise, but Weidenbach said the talent gap between players in Florida and players in Michigan and other northern states is not as large as you might think. It is other aspects of the game that cause the separation.
"Up north, the players learn to play the game as a team," Weidenbach said. "Down here, there's not as much depth in the talent pool, so good players can do whatever they want on the ice. There's less structure. They don't have to learn to play team hockey. As a result, they learn bad habits and they hang onto the puck too long. They don't know how to attack a zone when they have a numbers advantage."
It makes sense. Look at the NHL: during the 2021-2022 season, as 12 players born in Florida took the ice for an NHL game. That's a small number, but three of those 12 players were first-round picks, including 2019's No. 1 overall pick Jack Hughes. There's some elite talent to be found here, just not a lot of it — at least not yet.
Weidenbach said the easiest way for Florida to build a larger talent base is to build more ice rinks. With few rinks, it takes considerable amount of travel time for many players to get to the rink. And when they get there, ice time is limited. The more rinks an area has, the more kids can use them and for longer or more frequent periods of time.
It can happen, but the process will be slow.
Weidenbach probably won't remain on the ice to see it happen. He's helping out for now, but he would like to transition to more off-ice roles — ones he can do in his pajamas, he joked.
To that end, Weidenbach is starting to get into video coaching, but he has also partnered with Stream Cortex, a hockey-centric video platform, to produce a "Coach's Corner" podcast, where he talks with people across the industry about how they do their jobs. The podcasts are free on YouTube.
Episodes currently available include a chat with Ohio State women's team defensemen Emily Curlett, who spoke about winning the NCAA Championship. In the coming days, Weidenbach said, he will have an episode with Marc Craig, the Carolina Hurricanes director of pro scouting.
It's a new adventure for Weidenbach, but after accomplishing as much as he has in the hockey world, something new is a welcome challenge. He might not be working as a full-time coach anymore, but he will always have the memories.
"My goals now are to help people or an organization be a little bit better," Weidenbach said.
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