After the final horn sounded and the players were streaming over the boards in wild celebration, John Snowden glanced behind the home bench at Mile One Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland. There he spied his wife Janelle, his young sons Aiden and Keegan, and his newborn daughter Rowan, joyous tears in their eyes.
Yes, hockey has taken Snowden a long way from home, but this was one of those moments that made it all worth it.
Snowden, who grew up in Snohomish, coached the Newfoundland Growlers to the Kelly Cup as champions of the minor-league ECHL last week, and for the 37-year-old hockey lifer it represented a new high point in his professional career.
“To be able to see the clock hit zero, with the game being tight the way it was, was a sense of joy, a sense of relief, a lot of things,” Snowden, reached by phone in St. John’s, said about winning his first title as a pro, either as a player or a coach. “To see the players rushing onto the ice with their gloves off and hugging one another with tears in their eyes, it’s one of those moments I’m never going to forget.”
Snowden, who took over as head coach midseason, guided the Growlers — the equivalent of a Double-A baseball team, as the ECHL is two levels below the NHL — through three best-of-seven series victories before meeting the Toledo Walleye for the Kelly Cup. Newfoundland took the hard-fought series 4-2, claiming the Cup on home ice with a 4-3 victory in Game 6 on June 4.
“The series was one where you had to fight for every inch of ice,” Snowden said. “No one was giving up any space, you had to work for it, and when you got your offensive chances you had to capitalize because they came few and far between. We capitalized on a few more chances, our goaltender (Michael Garteig) was phenomenal, we defended well, and we executed our game plan.
“(The championship) wasn’t on me, it’s on the players at the end of the day, and they executed at an elite level all season,” Snowden added. “I was just there to hopefully guide the ship in the right way.”
Snowden traveled a long and winding road to reach that championship moment.
Snowden was born in Alaska, with his family moving to Snohomish when he was a young child. Snowden was a standout forward playing youth hockey for the Sno-King Amateur Hockey Association, and he earned a spot with the prestigious U.S. National Team Development Program in 1998, a rare feat for a player from the Puget Sound region. He eventually embarked on an 11-year professional career in the minor leagues, suiting up for 16 different teams in five different leagues, including one season in the German third division.
Though a championship eluded him during his playing days, he always knew he wanted to continue in hockey as a coach.
“It was something I always wanted to do,” said Snowden, whose parents and siblings still reside in Snohomish County. “I prepared for it when I was a player, I took everything I could take from my coaches, I took notes, studied drills. I love the game and I wanted to give back to a game that gave a lot to me.”
Snowden, who retired as a player in 2014, spent a year away from the game before starting his coaching career. In 2015 he was hired as an assistant coach with the Orlando Solar Bears, which at the time was Toronto’s ECHL affiliate. After three seasons the Maple Leafs moved their affiliation to Newfoundland, which was starting a brand new ECHL franchise. Snowden applied for the head coaching position, which was eventually given to former NHL standout and Newfoundland native Ryane Clowe. Snowden was asked to come aboard as an assistant, and he accepted.
However, Clowe was forced to miss games for medical reasons, and on Jan. 24 he officially stepped down. Snowden was elevated to head coach.
“Obviously that’s not the kind of situation anyone wants for getting their first opportunity at a head coaching job, you want to earn it the same way as everyone else,” Snowden said. “But the good thing for everyone was that the message and plan Ryane and myself envisioned from the start was not going to change.”
The Growlers were 27-11-2 when Clowe stepped down, and they finished the regular season 43-21-8 to place first in the seven-team North Division and third overall in the 27-team league. Newfoundland defeated North No. 4 Brampton (4-2) in the first round — Rowan was born during the series — North No. 3 Manchester (4-2) in the second round, then South No. 1 Florida (4-1) to reach the Kelly Cup final.
Newfoundland jumped out to a 3-1 lead in the championship series. Then in Game 6 the Growlers built a 4-1 second-period lead before holding on late to prevail 4-3 and claim the title. The goal that stood up as the game-winner came courtesy of a pair of WHL products as it was scored by Giorgio Estephan, a member of the Swift Current team that defeated the Everett Silvertips for the 2018 WHL title, and assisted by Hudson Elynuik, who played for Spokane from 2014-18. Zach O’Brien was named the playoffs MVP after tallying 16 goals and 13 assists in 23 games.
Snowden’s efforts stepping in as head coach did not go unnoticed. The Maple Leafs organization announced Wednesday that it signed Snowden to a two-year contract extension to be head coach of the Growlers.
And after this season’s success, who knows where Snowden’s coaching path may lead?
“It was never an easy road for me as a player,” Snowden said. “I come from Seattle, which wasn’t what you would call a hockey hotbed. But I was able to grow with the help of my coaches, my teammates, and most importantly my family, and I’m eternally grateful for all of it. To see this part of my hockey life culminate in a championship in pro hockey at a high level, it’s rewarding.”
This story has been modified to correct Giorgio Estephan’s WHL team.