Photo by Steven Christy
On a cold December afternoon three years ago the Oklahoma City Barons hosted an outdoor skate with fans, coaches, and players where all three groups encouraged to mix and mingle. Prior to this engagement I had met Todd Nelson three times. Once at the time of his hire as the new coach of the Oklahoma City Barons. A second time in a one on one interview. And a third time at season-ending exit interview. He was always a kind, cordial, and honest individual that took each question seriously. However on this particular day I had no desire to speak with him about matters that pertain to this website or any other “professional” reason, so I kept my distance, enjoyed the experience with my family in tow, and had a lovely time. As I skated with my four year old around the rink, Todd approached me. Asked how I was, greeted my family, and went on his way. He wasn’t required to do so, but he did, and for that I’m grateful. I’m not sure he remembered me or even recognized my face or name, but he went out of his way to express his gratitude for my involvement with the event.
Todd Nelson exemplifies Oklahoma like many coaches before him (hockey or otherwise). For years Doug Sauter gave us a mustached ride through CHL games with major success while he collected beautiful horses on the weekend. Just like the old hockey coach before him, Nelson is cordial, respectful, driven to succeed, friendly, unassuming, spirited, laser focused – things championed by the Oklahoma spirit. From a personal perspective he was a successful gem that won’t be easily replaced. He is also a legit Oklahoman that we will claim as one of our own.
In the brief times that I had the privilege of talking with him one-on-one about hockey things he would carefully respond with a half-smile to every answer, shake your hand, look you in the eye, and go back to business when completed. He was always prepared to criticize his own mistakes, while taking blame for the missteps of others. He was the captain of his ship, and was willing to go down at the helm if he had to. Players and peers alike respected this, and it earned him high marks beyond the play on the ice.
I’m not prepared to say that character or integrity earned Todd Nelson the job in Edmonton (if only on an interim basis) because Dallas Eakins was probably a high character / high integrity fella as well. I am, however, prepared to look at the five year span of coaching life that Nelson had in OKC, and lay claim to his professional integrity and his personal integrity being two completely “in sync” things.
If given the freedom to wrangle in young so-called stars, he will do so. He will look to veterans to lead the charge more so behind the scenes than in front of the NHL televised camera lens. Assistants will be asked to encourage appropriate routines. Players will need to shoe-horn their knowledge of “scheme” that the previous coach taught, and tweak the minute things to force betterment. He will lean on his goaltender. Game footage will become the perfect visual script for gauging the good versus the bad. Chemistry will appear overnight. Fans will probably champion him. He will win you over.
I hate reading blog posts like this one that dance finely on the “he’s my brother, he’s my friend” motto, but when such an important, local sports figure graces your presence in a market that will largely ignore his efforts, I’ll demand you read on.
I can’t help but get a tad nostalgic about Todd, his family, his talks at summer youth camps, his friendly demeanor at parties, and most of all his love for the icy surface, pucks, and sticks. Five years. It seems like a blip on the radar of the storied minor ice hockey tradition in Oklahoma City, and indeed it was a fiery five seasons. I’ll assume for now that we’ve seen the last of Mr. Nelson in these parts, but his absence will only be replaced by hope. A hope that we one day might see another hockey coach of the same caliber, with the same eye for demonstrating how to do things right, how to behave like a fully padded soldier, how to take your lumps, rise up, and grind out five more good minutes in a third period.
As perplexed as I a by the firing of Dallas Eakins I’m equally as ecstatic and partially nervous for the future of Todd Nelson. Is he the next scapegoat in a lengthening crowd of previous coaches? Can he actually turn nothing into something? Will the changes he makes be absolute, his own, and supported fully? All things yet to be determined.
For now, we will root our coach on. We will cheer for success knowing that the climb is steep and treacherous. The legacy of Todd Nelson, OKC Barons coach, will be an important one for years to come. I’m just glad I was there to see it. You should be too.