Mitch Love never made it to the NHL as a player.
The original member of the Everett Silvertips and franchise icon came within an arm’s reach, playing five seasons in the AHL, which is the hockey equivalent of Triple-A. But he never received the call.
So Love decided to take a different path to hockey’s premier level, and last week he arrived at his destination.
Love was hired by the NHL’s Washington Capitals as an assistant coach, the team announced last Thursday. He’ll be in charge of new head coach Spencer Carbery’s defense, the position he played and later coached during his days in Everett, where his name became synonymous with hockey.
Everett’s first big star has achieved hockey’s big stage.
“I’m really excited,” Love said when reached in Calgary, Alberta. “This is something that when I got into coaching and evolved as a coach, I gained aspirations of getting to the highest level. It’s an honor and a privilege to be on an NHL bench and work with NHL players.
“I thought there was a glimmer of hope (of making it to the NHL as a player) after I finished my junior career in Everett and moved on to the American League for five years,” Love added. “But I never got there as a player. When I transitioned into coaching I thought maybe there’d be a chance to get to the NHL in a different way. It hasn’t really hit me yet because it’s a job and I consider it a job, but when I made the call to my family the other day I got pretty emotional talking about it.”
The goal of every WHL player is to one day play in the NHL. Since Everett began play in 2003, there have been 24 former Tips who cracked the show, including 10 who appeared during the 2022-23 season.
Love may not be one of those 24, but the 39-year-old from Quesnel, B.C., is now the first former Everett player to reach the NHL as a coach. With Washington he’ll be supervising the likes of two-time All-Star and 2020 Norris Trophy runner-up John Carlson.
It’s been a long journey to the top since Love first arrived in Everett in 2003. At that time he was a 19-year-old WHL journeyman joining an expansion team. Not exactly the resume of a future NHLer.
But Love embodied those first-year Silvertips, becoming the emotional leader on a team that shocked the hockey world by reaching the WHL championship series as an expansion team. That was the beginning of a long love story — pardon the pun — between player and city. He embedded himself in the community, continuing to spend his offseasons in Everett during his years as a pro, then returned to spend seven seasons as an assistant coach with the Tips. He’s the only player in franchise history to have his number retired, and even after he left the franchise in 2018 for his first head coaching job with the WHL’s Saskatoon Blades, “Love” continued to be shouted out by the crowd whenever O Canada was played before games.
So Love is taking a piece of Everett with him to the NHL.
“You can’t be a good coach without having good people help you and teach you,” Love said when asked the impact his years in Everett had on creating this moment. “I’ll be forever grateful for the opportunity to play in Everett, and that opportunity was given to me by (former Tips general manager) Doug Soetaert when he traded for me at the expansion draft. It’s funny because when you move forward eight years later, it was Doug Soetaert giving me an opportunity to coach in Everett, and here we are talking about my first NHL job. That’s a credit to Doug Soetaert, who believed in me and trusted me, as well as all the other coaches and staff and managers I worked with in Everett. They trusted and believed in me enough to keep me around — I worked for four different head coaches in seven years. I learned a lot from everyone there, from Dennis Williams to Kevin Constantine, to Garry Davidson to Mark Ferner.”
While Love’s resume in 2003 didn’t scream NHL, his resume today does. Love did nothing but win games after becoming a head coach. In three seasons with Saskatoon his teams went 95-44-12-4, which prompted the NHL’s Calgary Flames to hire him to coach their AHL affiliate. In two seasons in the AHL, the first with the Stockton Heat and the second with the Calgary Wranglers, he went 96-33-8-3 and won back-to-back AHL Coach of the Year awards.
“Good players,” was Love’s explanation for why he had so much success as an AHL coach, giving a special nod to former Everett goaltender Dustin Wolf, who was his backstop both years. “Good players and good staff. I always felt supported and just tried to steer the ship in the right direction, make sure the staff and players knew their roles and responsibilities. For the players it takes the right mindset during a long hockey season to come every day to compete and work, and that was a big part of our success. The players had the right mindset to come to the rink and get pushed, and I was fortunate to have the right players to put in the right roles.”
The job with the Capitals wasn’t the first time Love sought an NHL job. Last offseason he had a brief conversation with an NHL team about an assistant job. Then he put himself into the mix for the Flames’ head spot after the team parted ways with Darryl Sutter at the beginning of May — a process that was complicated by the fact the Wranglers were still alive in the playoffs at the time interviews took place.
“It was a very thorough process by Flames management,” Love said. “I had two face-to-face conversations, answering how I’d handle certain situations in the NHL. Ultimately I didn’t get it, they gave it to Ryan Huska, who’s been in the organization for nine years and had a lot of success developing players. He earned the opportunity to be a head coach here and I’m happy for him. But it was a great experience. I’m two years into coaching in pro hockey and to even get the opportunity to go down that path and come close, that’s great experience as a young coach.”
Love may not have been chosen for the head spot on that occasion, but given the arc of his coaching career, becoming an NHL head coach in the future is definitely within the realm of possibilities. However, that’s not part of Love’s mindset now.
“I don’t think anyone gets into coaching at the pro level, especially in the NHL, if they don’t have the aspiration to be a head coach somewhere down the road,” Love said. “But for me, I’m just fortunate and honored to get the opportunity to work in the NHL. The Washington Capitals were the first team to give me that chance, I’m going to work hard for them, and I’ll just go wherever my career takes me. Whether I’m an assistant coach for 20 years or I’m a head coach in five years, I’m getting the opportunity to work with the best players in the world each and every day, and that’s not something I’m going to take for granted.”
Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.