EVERETT — The doors to the Edward D. Hansen Conference Center opened, and when the man stepped through the doorway, the awaiting crowd rose to its feet for a raucous standing ovation.
To many in Snohomish County, Kevin Constantine is the living embodiment of hockey. Now the Everett Silvertips are banking on Constantine rekindling the magic of the past.
The first and greatest coach in Silvertips history is coming back as he was re-introduced as the Western Hockey League team’s head coach Thursday afternoon.
The news that Constantine was headed back to Everett leaked earlier this week, so those who attended Thursday’s press conference, which was open to the public, came to show their support for the decision.
“It was a nice welcome back,” Constantine said. “It feels good (to return to Everett). It’s an opportunity to coach and I really love coaching. It was fun being here last time. It’s unusual in sports to go back to a franchise, so it’s kind of nice to get that opportunity to go back, so I’m very excited.
“I only looked at two coaching opportunities, but this was the only thing I really looked at,” Constantine added. “I think that alone is evidence that I was very comfortable if given the chance to come back. There wasn’t much that interested me a lot besides coming back here.”
Constantine becomes the sixth head coach in franchise history. He succeeds general manager Garry Davidson, who served as interim coach after Mark Ferner was fired in January.
Constantine became a living legend in Everett during his first stint with the Tips. He arrived in Everett with a strong pedigree, having spent seven seasons as a head coach in the National Hockey League with the San Jose Sharks, Pittsburgh Penguins and New Jersey Devils. He then performed the unthinkable during Everett’s first season in 2003-04, as the Tips set nearly every record imaginable for an expansion team and advanced all the way to the WHL finals.
The success continued to pile up for Constantine and the Tips. In Constantine’s four seasons in Everett the Tips won three U.S. Division championships, as well as the Scotty Munro Trophy for the league’s best record in the 2006-07. He won the Dunc McCallum Memorial Trophy in 2004 as the WHL’s Coach of the Year. He departed in 2007 having compiled a 162-97-20-9 record, and he remains the winningest coach in franchise history.
But though Constantine has plenty of history with the Tips, he doesn’t have history with Davidson, who was hired as Everett’s GM in February of 2012. However, Davidson was quickly swayed. He said he knew Constantine was the coach he wanted following a phone interview in mid-May.
“When I interviewed him he spoke about the game at a different level than anyone else we interviewed,” Davidson said.
“We wanted a guy with head-coaching experience, and he’s had that at every level,” Davidson added. “We wanted someone we felt was a teacher and developer, and he has that background. We were looking for someone with (WHL) experience, and he has that. He went right to the top of the list very quickly.”
Constantine spent the past six years coaching in the professional ranks. After leaving Everett he spent three seasons as the head coach of the American Hockey League’s Houston Aeros, the affiliate of the NHL’s Minnesota Wild. After compiling a 117-94-11-18 record with the Aeros his contract was not renewed. Then in 2010 he took over the reins of HC Ambri-Piotta in Switzerland. Ambri-Piotta went 30-57-5-7 in parts of three seasons under Constantine, and he was fired early last season after the team won just two of its first 14 games. He remained with the team the rest of the season as a consultant.
Constantine maintained a local residence during his six years coaching in Houston and Switzerland. He said family considerations — his family remained in the U.S. while he coached in Switzerland — played a significant role in coming to Everett and returning to the junior ranks after six years in the pros.
“One would aspire in any profession to be at the peak, and in the hockey-coaching profession that’s the NHL,” Constantine explained about returning to junior hockey. “But along the way those opportunities were afforded to me three times already and I don’t know that they’ll ever be afforded me again. As you start to realize that, you make the decision about if you want to stay in the business of coaching hockey, and I do. I enjoy coaching. So you stay open-minded about coaching at any level. The process of coaching to me doesn’t have to be at the pro level, these are serious hockey players looking for a career in hockey, so that’s serious coaching, too.”
Since Constantine left, the Tips have wandered the WHL wastelands. In Constantine’s four seasons in charge Everett won seven playoff series. The Tips haven’t won a playoff series since, despite reaching the postseason each of the past six seasons. Everett had a winning record in all four of Constantine’s seasons in charge, the Tips have had just two winning seasons since, with the last one coming in 2009-10. Everett’s win totals the past two seasons (22 and 25, respectively) are similar to what one would expect from an expansion team.
But this is a different situation than the one Constantine walked into in 2003. Expectations are higher for the upcoming season. The Tips went through a complete rebuild last season and return virtually intact, including some good building blocks in defenseman Mirco Mueller, a potential first-round pick in the upcoming NHL draft, and goaltender Austin Lotz. The front office already issued a guarantee to season ticket holders that Everett would finish no worse than sixth in the 10-team Western Conference next season.
“To be honest, I haven’t thought a lot about (the situation) because it doesn’t change what a coach does that much,” Constantine said. “A coach’s job is to develop players, find ways to win and find out what works for the group you have. Irregardless to what the group would have been, the coach’s job is pretty similar. What I am excited about is getting to work with and learn about the players, studying some video this summer and starting to put a strategy together that can help them win.
“Hopefully we can have success, but 90 percent of what you’d do with the team in August wouldn’t be any different from what we did 10 years ago in August, so we’ll just get to work.”