When Alex Ovechkin raises the Stanley Cup later this week, the hockey season won’t necessarily be over.
In the AHL, the Toronto Marlies and Texas Stars are still battling for the Calder Cup, with a North Bay-raised coach right in the thick of things.
Karl Taylor, 47, who suited up for his hometown North Bay Centennials during his OHL playing days, is in his fourth season as assistant coach with the Stars, where he works with head coach Derek Laxdal. The Stars pulled out a 2-1 road win over the Marlies in Game 2 on Sunday in Toronto to tie the series 1-1.
Taylor said the club has been resilient all season – they went to overtime 28 times during a 38-24-14 regular season and have added seven more overtime wins in these playoffs – and they have a knack for hanging around and winning tight games.
“Obviously when you are still playing in June, which is a first for me, it’s very special,” Taylor said prior to Sunday’s Game 2. “It’s something that doesn’t happen very often. To be a part of it with this group, and to be able to spend extra time with these guys, who Derek and I both love coaching, is very special.”
Taylor joined Laxdal behind the Stars bench in July 2014, the latest stop in a coaching journey that started immediately after Taylor hung up the skates after five seasons at the University of New Brunswick in 1995. Taylor was involved in coaching minor hockey in Fredericton before joining his alma mater as an assistant.
Coincidentally, it was another coach with North Bay ties – Mike Kelly, who went on to coach the Centennials – who took over as head coach at UNB and encouraged Taylor to stick with coaching after they won a CIS championship together at UNB in 1998. (Kelly is busy himself this June as an assistant coach in the Stanley Cup Final with the Vegas Golden Knights.)
“He definitely had an impact on me in the one year we coached together,” said Taylor, who attended Chippewa Secondary School.
At UNB in the early 1990s, Taylor played for coach Mike Johnston, who later went on to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins and has had a great influence on Taylor’s development.
“He was a young man building his career and he had a young family at the time,” Taylor said of Johnston, with whom he later worked together with the Canadian national program and more recently with the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks. “He helped me grow up a little bit, let’s put it that way. Mike is someone I talked with a lot. He’s had a lot of impact on my life.”
Taylor and his wife, Bev, have two kids aged 13 and 12. They spend much of their offseason at her family farm in Saskatchewan.
After getting started at UNB, Taylor’s coaching journey moved west with three seasons (2000-2003) at Red Deer College before moving back to Ontario as head coach of the OUA’s Waterloo Warriors (2003-05). He then spent six seasons as a head coach in the East Coast Hockey League, first with the Reading Royals (2005-08) and then with the Ontario Reign (2008-11), both of which had affiliations with the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings.
“When you coach in the East Coast League, a lot of people aren’t aware, but you are the head coach, the director of hockey, the general manager and there are no assistants usually, so you’re a one-man show,” said Taylor. “And that’s how Derek (Laxdal) and I connected. We both knew each other and we're going to work hard and we had someone to bounce ideas off, so Derek and I started our relationship when we were trying to grind our way through the East Coast League.”
Laxdal coached the ECHL’s Idaho Steelheads for five seasons before taking over the WHL’s Edmonton Oil Kings from 2010-14. Laxdal’s Oil Kings beat the Winterhawks, coached by Johnston and Taylor, in seven games for the 2014 WHL title. Laxdal and Taylor hooked up with the Stars later that summer.
While Laxdal is the head coach, Taylor says they work closely, with Taylor running the defence and handling a lot of the pre-scouting and penalty-killing responsibilities.
Both Taylor and Laxdal have one year remaining on their contracts as the NHL affiliate did some shuffling this spring in the coaching ranks, following the resignation of Dallas Stars head coach Ken Hitchcock, who has since been replaced by Jim Montgomery.
Taylor is hopeful of another head coaching opportunity somewhere down the line but is focused on the task at hand with the Calder Cup within reach.
“Obviously, anytime you play deep into a season, opportunities can come up for different people,” Taylor said. “For me, I’m interested in getting back into a head coaching position and hopefully something comes up in the near future, whether it’s in this league or maybe back to the Canadian Hockey League to follow that path, we’ll see. You try not to think about that at this time because we’re trying to keep things dialed into what we’re doing.”
Raising the Calder Cup would be a nice reward after 20-plus years riding the buses throughout North America in junior, university and minor pro hockey.
“They (the Marlies) are a good team, there’s no question about it,” Taylor said. “They are very deep, very skilled. But our game plan (in Game 1) was executed well. We want to make sure we’re not giving them so many power plays and we definitely want to make sure we’re a little stronger in the defensive zone and do a better job helping our goalie out and eliminating some chances.
“There are two good teams going at it and we’re going to do our best to be the last one standing.”
With the series tied 1-1, games 3, 4, 5 all take place in Texas starting with game three tonight at the H-E-B Centre.