When the Maple Leafs parted ways with Chris Dennis, among a handful of other names after the season ended on April 12, the team severed ties with a part of the coaching staff who had been there longer than most.
The former Leafs assistant coach, Dennis was hired as the new bench boss of the York University Lions last week, after spending a decade in the organization learning from several different mentors.
Among the coaches let go by the Leafs in April, Chris Dennis lands at York University as their new head coach. http://t.co/38K9GoqfzS
— Jonas Siegel (@jonassiegel) June 16, 2015
“Everybody has their own style and strengths – I saw five head coaches in my time there,” Dennis said. “They’re all terrific coaches. You see why people get to that level and some people are stronger in different areas than others. You try and take a little bit of a piece from everybody and then find your own identity with what they’ve shown you along the way.”
Decade of Dennis
Dennis served as an assistant to Randy Carlyle and Peter Horachek for the last two seasons. Prior to that, he was the Leafs’ video coach from 2005 to 2013, working under previous Toronto coaches Ron Wilson, Paul Maurice and Pat Quinn. He was also an advisor to former general managers Dave Nonis, Brian Burke, Cliff Fletcher and John Ferguson Jr., and assisted the Marlies during their run to the Calder Cup finals in 2012.
The opportunity to work with different hockey minds on the same team, as a “jack-of-all, master-of-none” coach – as Dennis refers to himself looking back – helped him gain the necessary experience and confidence to start his own program.
“Everybody that met Pat would say ‘His presence was something I’ll never forget,’” Dennis said, remembering the late Quinn. “Just when he walked in a room and the way he could command a room, and the way he could command 10,000 people and then bring it down to just you in a room and have that conversation with him.
“Paul Maurice is a tremendous motivator, and tactically, really gifted. Ron Wilson’s a very, very smart man and the first guy to really sort of – that I had seen anyway – do his own analytics and statistical analysis. (He) built a program basically on his own. And then Randy – his drive, his commitment to try and make the team better every day. His passion for the game, his knowledge and understanding of the small intricacies of the game having played defense for so long – those were their strengths that I’ll take away working for them.”
Despite the team’s lack of success since the 2005 NHL lockout – the Leafs went 347-340-99 with just one playoff appearance – Dennis says each man had a significant hand in teaching him the way. In particular, his role as the team’s video guru expanded greatly over the years, as video and analytics became bigger parts of the game.
“You did (video) every game day obviously, but it wasn’t as consistent. There wasn’t a system that allowed players to do it on their own and to distribute the video to them,” Dennis said. “When I first started, it was sort of – ‘I’m not sure if we’re going to do video today, I’m not sure if I have to look at it’ – to now, where everybody’s looking at it, and everybody’s taking responsibility for their own game.”
CIS Is Not the NHL
Dennis takes over a York team that finished last in the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) west division last season with a 9-15-3 record, and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2011. While acknowledging it will be a big transition from coaching professionals to student-athletes, he regards his time spent in the NHL as invaluable.
“Until you can put your feet in that (head coaching) job and do it yourself, you won’t know for sure,” he said. “In professional hockey, if you get 10 years anywhere, that’s a pretty good run.”
Alan is a journalism graduate of Ryerson University in Toronto, and writes about the Maple Leafs for THW. He has covered the game for the National Post, Yahoo! Sports Canada and The Hockey News.