For Grand Rapids Griffins coach Dan Watson it's always been family first
Watson owes his coaching career to the sacrifices his wife and family have made. It's something he's never going to forget in his first AHL season.
GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — When the Grand Rapids Griffins played in Ohio on New Years Eve against the Cleveland Monsters, Dan Watson had the rare opportunity where he was able to sleep in his own bed.
While the head coach of the Detroit Red Wings AHL affiliate lives and works in Grand Rapids, his wife Kim and their three kids have stayed 300 miles away in Cleveland.
It was a family decision.
Kim works in bio pharmacy and travels for her job. His 16-year-old daughter plays high school volleyball, his 7-year-old and 9-year-old are also involved with friends and activities.
His in-laws also live in Cleveland, so when both Dan and Kim would travel, they’ve been a valuable family resource.
“Without my wife’s family there, I wouldn’t be doing this job,” Watson said. “I think it’s just really important to keep the kids ingrained and entrenched in what they are doing. So I made the move and we do the best we possibly can. Yeah, there are some tough days and tough nights for the kids, and myself being alone, but we are making the best of it.”
It’s a similar setup to how Watson spent the past 14 seasons with the Toledo Walleye, seven of which he was the head coach of the ECHL franchise.
For 14 years, Watson would commute, daily, from Cleveland to Toledo, roughly 100 mile drive each way for games and practices.
“The afternoon drives were sometimes tough, but it gave me lots of time to thinks and make phone calls and things like that,” Watson said. “I slept on a lot of arena couches in the arena for for the first seven as an assistant, but it was all part of the journey.”
ECHL coaches aren’t paid a ton, ECHL assistant coaches are paid even less. It’s the nature of the job.
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So for close to seven years, when you account for mileage, there were weeks where it cost Watson more than his salary to be a coach for the Walleye. He was able to keep chasing his dream to coach because of Kim.
It’s something he’s never forgot, and it’s why he stayed loyal to Toledo for 14 years. When it came to weighing other opportunities, and there have been others, he was never going to take a job that asked Kim to give up her working opportunity or life she’d built in Cleveland.
“Listen, the sacrifices that my wife has had to put up with and her family has put up with so that I can what I love, that’s amazing,” Watson said. “Because those early on years, when you are basically spending money to do the job because of car costs and cars that break down you have to fix and then replace. We made sacrifices, and I appreciate more than I think she’ll ever even know.”
Detroit Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde, throughout last season, would often talk about how Watson was overqualified for the ECHL and there were unique circumstances keeping him in that league.
Lalonde was the head coach in Toledo for two seasons, from 2014 to 2016, and worked closely with Watson.
“He would leave home at 6 every morning, and he’d actually beat me into the office,” Lalonde said. “And he would leave at 3 o’clock, after I had already left to pick up my kids. Even though he drove 90 minutes to two hours per day, he would beat me into the office and stay longer than me.
“Then he was always prepared the next day because he’d be back in Cleveland, put his kids to bed, and then put in an hour to two hours of video in from home,” Lalonde added. “That preparedness and work ethic, to be able to handle and juggle everything, while being a good dad and husband, that’s why he’s had success.”
Lalonde and Watson also had unique family connection. Lalonde’s in-laws live less than a mile from Watson, the two families have frequently spent time together in the offseason.
In a different world, Watson could have followed Lalonde to other stops. When Lalonde left Toledo for the Iowa Wild, Watson elected to stay in the ECHL as an assistant rather than go to the AHL.
“He has a very good balance of life and he chose quality of life for his family over some steps he could have taken earlier,” Lalonde said. “Our profession is extremely difficult, for him to have a job like that in Toledo, he appreciated being able to maintain his home life. That’s why it really took special job for him to move on his career.”
Watson and Lalonde have similar hockey ideologies. Last season, the Griffins and Red Wings used differing systems, this year players shuttled from the NHL to the AHL, and back, don’t have to adjust to a different forecheck or defensive structure like they did in the past.
“I love his knowledge of the game, how it translates, but he understands how to be progressive with it,” Lalonde said. “He’s willing to make changes to himself, think outside the box, that’s why he’s such a good coach.”
Coaching in the AHL is also one of the most difficult jobs in professional hockey.
In the NHL, a coach’s job is to win. The same goes for the ECHL, which is a business and attendance-driven league where winning matters.
In between, in the AHL, the goal is to balance winning and development. The most important game each night isn’t the game in Grand Rapids, but the one in Detroit.
And with the AHL expanding the playoff structure, development has become even more important. It’s a tough spot, because an AHL coach is both judged by how well his players do once they leave his team, and how well he does in the standings while dealing with a revolving door roster.
By win-loss metrics, the Griffins have had a middling season. They are third in the Central Division with a 14-13-4 record. By development metrics, Watson has gotten positive reviews throughout the Red Wings organization for the work he’s done with players like Simon Edvinsson and Jonatan Berggren, who have both contributed at the NHL level.
“The dynamics are much different, there are players that are on the cusp of becoming NHL players, there are players that are just becoming pros, and there is a middle group who are American Hockey League players and they know it. And that middle group is the one that is actually here to win,” Watson said. “So you have to try and manage and deal with all the potential personal agendas and try to meld that into one as a team, and truthfully I think we struggled with that early on as a team.”
Watson said learning those dynamics were one of the biggest challenges of the jump from the ECHL to the AHL as a head coach, even though he had playing experience in both leagues.
Finding those fits, how to meld agendas, Watson said he could only learn that through experience. So those early struggles weren’t a negative, but rather a learning experience for both team and coach.
I brought this up to Lalonde when we chatted about Watson.
“That’s Dan, and that’s Dan’s leadership style, I think that’s why he’ll succeed and has in this profession,” Lalonde said. “He’s willing to test himself, and finds balance during all of that.”
It all goes back to how Watson ended up behind an AHL bench in the first place. If not for his family commitment, and Kim’s support, he never would have stuck with coaching as an ECHL assistant.
The Griffins have more built-in off days in the second half of the season. Watson is planning on using those days to drive back to Cleveland to watch his daughter’s play volleyball.
A long drive never bothered him before.