Mike Vellucci had to choose between the major junior hockey team he helped build and his lifelong dream of getting back to the NHL.
The longtime general manager and coach of the Ontario Hockey League's Plymouth Whalers arrived at that decision time last week when the Carolina Hurricanes approached him. Jim Rutherford was stepping down as GM to be replaced by Ron Francis, leaving a void in the front office.
The 47-year-old chose the Hurricanes and on Monday was named assistant GM and director of player development. Vellucci hopes his 14 years in Plymouth and 23 total doing two jobs have prepared him for this opportunity.
"I've been on the bench, I've been on the management, I've balanced budgets, I've sold tickets," Vellucci said in a phone interview Tuesday. "I've been able to do anything, so I can adapt to any situation."
Most importantly, Vellucci knows how to get the most out of young players. The Whalers made the playoffs in 10 of his final 11 seasons and won the OHL title in 2007.
Former Plymouth defenceman Connor Carrick, now with the Washington Capitals, figured it was about time Vellucci got the call.
"It's just nice to see the success that he's had in Plymouth pay off for him," Carrick said in a phone interview Monday. "How many years do you really need to make the playoffs in a row to get an NHL job?"
For Vellucci it was six, but his move from one team owned by Peter Karmanos Jr. to another came about because of a body of work built up over decades in hockey. Before the OHL, he won a championship in the North American Hockey League.
Plymouth was the setting for the best of Vellucci's career, in part because he was able to showcase his talents in multiple ways.
"He's there for you the whole way," said J.T. Miller, now a forward for the New York Rangers. "He's every part of that rink and that organization."
As general manager, Vellucci honed scouting and talent evaluation skills. As coach, he built up a lot of respect from players by holding them to a high standard but not ever the same standard.
"He was very hard on the older guys, your more skilled players, your better players, and he definitely believed in the development of younger guys," Carrick said. "What I liked about him was (that) one thing I think a good coach should be able to do is make the game easier for players that the game is already hard for, kind of your younger guys or guys that aren't as experienced or guys that aren't as talented or whatever, and try and challenge, get the most out of, the guys that the game's a little easier for."
That comes directly from Vellucci's philosophy that 20 to 25 players sometimes need 20 to 25 different sources of motivation.
"If you can get that right, you should have some success," he said. "I want to get the most out of my players, and every player's not the same. Some players you need to challenge more because the game comes real easy to them, and some guys on your team that aren't the star players need confidence and need to know that the coach believes in them."
Vincent Trocheck, the 2012-13 OHL player of the year who had 59 points in 28 games with Plymouth, recalled the kind of balanced touch Vellucci had in coaching.
"I remember him talking about how he knows he can push some guys to a certain point—like there's hockey players that can take criticism and use it as fuel and he knew that and he would get to some guys sometimes and kind of criticize what they were doing, and he knew that next game they would come out twice as hard," Trocheck, now with the Florida Panthers, said in a phone interview Wednesday. "It worked for some guys, and other guys he knew that he had to be kind of softer with and just give them the right advice and he was real good with that."
Vellucci, a native of Farmington, Mich., and the first American-born OHL coach of the year in 2007, won't be able to have that kind of hands-on attention with the Hurricanes. But several Whalers alumni, from Carrick to Anaheim Ducks prospect Stefan Noesen, tweeted support for him Monday for making them into NHL players.
Miller, immersed in a playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers, learned of Vellucci's hiring by Carolina early Tuesday afternoon in the visiting locker room at Wells Fargo Center. He credited Vellucci for having a big role in his career, and that of others.
"He's really good for pushing people to the limit and pushing them to be the best player they can possibly be," Miller said.
In Vellucci's new role as director of player development, his job is to find the best possible players for the organization but also grow them beyond junior-aged years. One positive, he pointed out, was that he and Francis share a belief system and like "big, strong, fast and skilled teams."
What Vellucci is tasked with helping do is build a playoff team in Raleigh, N.C., where the Hurricanes have missed the playoffs for five straight years. Beyond winning at every level he has worked at, Vellucci is in a good spot in Carrick's eyes based on his already-established NHL connections.
"Going to an NHL club is a little bit bigger step than an OHL club, but I think with how long he's been in the game and the kind of respect level he has already around NHL GMs just from dealing with them through drafts and stuff, I think he'll do a great job," Carrick said. "He's always been a guy that demands a lot of compete level from his players, so the players that he works with in whatever capacity that is, I'm sure he'll demand a lot out of them and get good results."
Trocheck believes Vellucci will be able to get good results not just because he's demanding but because he knows how to communicate with young players.
"You can talk to him. He's a good guy and he knows hockey," Trocheck said. "He's been around for a long time, so if you need any advice then you can go to him for pretty much anything."
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