Players' Corner: Brad ThiessenNov 9, 2020
“I’m going to have them put Reggie Dunlop on your helmet this year.”
Those were the words from our former GM Bill Zito to me three years ago about my new player/coach role on the team. For those who have not watched the movie Slap Shot, Reggie was the coach of the Charlestown Chiefs, but he also laced up the skates and played at the same time. I wasn’t going to put Reggie on my helmet, but I was thankful to continue to putting my helmet on.
I was 32 years old, coming off knee surgery and had missed most of the 2017-18 season with the Monsters. I knew as an aging goalie that my time as a player was most likely coming to an end in the near future.
Then Zito presented me with the idea of being a player/coach. It hadn’t really been done before at the AHL level, but the main idea was I would come into the season as our team’s #3 goalie. I would not play unless there were circumstances that warranted it, i.e. call ups, injuries, or illness, but I would practice so I was ready to play. In the meantime, I would work with our younger goalies and help them develop, run goalie sessions before practice to work on their technique, break down game video and watch it with them, and use the experiences I have had in my career to help as they navigate their journey.
It wasn’t a hard decision to make.
This gave me the opportunity to gain valuable experience and a window into what the coaching world looks like. It also was a chance to keep playing while my family continued to put roots down and live in what was quickly becoming home for us here in Cleveland.
Nobody really gave me any rules, nor did I know anyone who had done this before. Everyone just kind of figured things out as we went along. I remember the first goalie practice we had with Matiss Kivlenieks and JF Berube that season. I stepped on the ice in my gear, set the pucks up for the drills, lifted my mask up, and explained what the drills were going to be. I can’t imagine what they were thinking as they listened to a fully dressed goalie tell them what to do and then get in the net himself to do it as well. They were great about it, and we quickly found out what worked and what didn’t in terms of balancing what they needed from me. In a weird way, it made me a better goalie.
I would get in the net sometimes and think “I just told these guys how to do this, I better do it right myself!”
It was a learning experience for everyone but I was thankful for the coaching staff and players who allowed me to seamlessly be a part of both worlds. I was still able to be in the locker room, sit at the back of the bus, and go for dinners with my teammates as if I was a regular part of the team, even when I was not needed to play. I was also able to go in and out of the coaches room, sit in on meetings and discuss goaltending decisions when they needed to be made.
I remember one weekend I was needed to play on a Friday night, then Saturday morning I had a track suit on working out one of our injured goalies on the ice to get him back to game shape, and then that night I was on the bench in my gear again this time as the backup.
Flexible and adaptable were two things that I realized quickly I was going to have to be. That helped me become able to step in to play at the end of that season and help the team to the second round of the playoffs.
This past season I was given the opportunity to be a player/coach for another year. It offered a new set of challenges since I was working with Veini Vehvilainen, who was playing in North America for the first time, and Matiss who was back and stepping into a role where he was counted on to do more in his third season. So while I was still trying to keep myself ready to play if needed, my main focus was on helping these two work on their game and be there for them as they navigated the various challenges that come with trying to get to the NHL.
That NHL dream came true for Matiss this season, and as someone who has been with him every step of the way in his pro career, it was a special moment. All the practice, all the video, all the conversations that took place led to that opportunity for him and were all worth it because he was able to realize his dream. As a coach, that is the most rewarding part - being able to help the next generation of players achieve their goals and dreams.
His opportunity last year in the NHL meant my coaching hat was traded in for my playing hat again, and I got to put the jersey on for my 11th pro season.
In the role that I am in, I really appreciate the opportunities that I have to play so much more now because I know it could be the last one. Every time I get to skate out of the Monster’s head in front of fans at RMFH, I take the opportunity and soak it in. It makes it even more special to look up and see my family watching… there is only so long my kids get to watch Daddy play hockey.
The hats I have been wearing since March have been a little different. My dad and husband hats have been well worn and I’ve loved the extra time at home, but there is something missing. I’m looking forward to the day I can take my coach and player hats off the rack and put them on again.