DENVER — All the lengthy bus rides, all the stretches of playing three games in three nights in three different cities and all of the late nights and early mornings, honing his craft in the minors.
Laying the foundation in his pursuit of the ultimate goal.
This was the culmination of a long and often arduous road for Colorado Avalanche head coach Jared Bednar.
When the clock finally struck zero, Bednar turned to his left and shared a special moment with Nolan Pratt, who has been on his staff as an assistant coach for the past 11 seasons.
Through three different cities and two different leagues, Bednar and Pratt had worked together, beginning with the Springfield Falcons of the American Hockey League, moving to the Lake Erie Monsters as the primary affiliate of the Columbus Blue Jackets and finally graduating to the NHL with the Avalanche for the 2016-17 season after Patrick Roy abruptly resigned in late August.
On Sunday night at Amalie Arena, Bednar and the Avalanche captured the Stanley Cup with a tidy 2-1 victory over the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“It’s hard to put into words. Everyone says it,” Pratt said on the ice during the celebration. “I grabbed him by the head and I just said ‘this is beautiful.’ All of us as a staff were hugging. But really, that was just a beautiful moment and you try to just step back and enjoy it for a second. Just seeing the Cup pop up every once in a while, you’re like ‘whoa, we did it.’ It’s an amazing run.”
Bednar was quick to express gratitude in the aftermath of this crowning achievement, one that came nearly two decades after friend and former teammate Jason Fitzsimmons convinced him to retire as a hard-nosed defenceman to become an assistant coach with the South Carolina Stingrays in the ECHL.
“They all feel great, trust me, but this one feels the best. Definitely,” said Bednar, who became the first head coach to win a title in all three leagues. “Whenever you have a chance and an opportunity to win a championship, it makes it all worth it. To be able to accomplish that goal is so satisfying.
“It’s all kind of a blur. There’s a sense of disbelief because we’ve been working for this for how long. I just love the fact that people are finally being rewarded for their hard work. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Bednar is far too humble to include himself in the conversation, but the hard work of this Saskatchewan product has been rewarded as well.
Had Avalanche general manager Joe Sakic not shown faith in Bednar following a 48-point season in his first year as head coach, this could have been a one-and-done situation.
Instead, Sakic got to work at improving the roster and stuck with Bednar for the same reason he hired him.
On Sunday night, Bednar ensured his name would be engraved on the Stanley Cup. In his sixth season, he’s already established himself as one of the smartest coaches in the NHL — and was able to match wits with Jon Cooper in the final.
Capturing championships is nothing new for Bednar, who had already led the Stingrays to the ECHL crown in 20009 and the Monsters to an AHL title in 2016.
“He’s won the Kelly Cup, the Calder Cup and the Stanley Cup,” said Sakic. “He takes so much pride in what he does. To see him rewarded is special. He’s a great person, a great coach and the players believe in him. He was just the right coach, the way he wanted (us) to play and the group we had played his style. They all believe in each other.”
Avalanche assistant GM Chris MacFarland was with the Blue Jackets organization when Bednar was hired and he played an important role in putting in a good word when Sakic was interviewing candidates to replace Roy.
“I’m definitely a believer in Jared, from having been around him,” said MacFarland. “He just has a really good way about him, not only from the tactical standpoint, but he connects with people, he connects with players at every level that I’ve been and that translated with Joe (Sakic) when he interviewed him. He’s only gotten better each year.
“He’s never been in a rush, even when we were in Springfield, he wasn’t looking to jump (to the NHL) as an assistant coach. He always viewed himself as head bench boss and took it in baby steps and now he’s been rewarded and done a great job for us. He just believes in what he does, in the day-to-day stuff and he just grinds. He has a nice way with the players of pushing the right buttons at the right times. He’s fair and that comes across with how he treats players.”
The Avalanche finished this remarkable run with a record of 16-4 and the astonishing thing is they never lost consecutive games – sweeping the Nashville Predators in the first round and the Edmonton Oilers in the Western Conference Final and also going six games in the second round with the St. Louis Blues.
Throughout these playoffs, Bednar was able to help instill a high level of belief, install a structure that included a serious commitment to defending while also allowing his team to show its high level of creativity while playing at a frenetic pace.
“He was rock solid all year,” said Avalanche defenceman Jack Johnson, who won his first Stanley Cup in his 15th season. “Things aren’t always going to go your way during the year, during a playoff series, but he was a steady force for us all the time. In the room, in practice, everything. He always set the tone as the coach.”
“He allows the players to be who they are and he doesn’t really put too much limitation on his structure,” said Avalanche centre Nazem Kadri, who excelled this season under Bednar’s tutelage. “He allows us to play freely, to read and react and it’s working. He’s a great guy. The boys battled hard for him and now we’re champs.
“Players and coaches, they’re no different. (The journey) makes you want to be in the moment more, it makes you appreciate it and it makes you have more gratitude.”
Here’s the thing about Bednar.
He’s definitely evolved as he’s honed his craft over the years, but his core beliefs haven’t changed and that’s one of the reasons he led the Avalanche to this championship.
“Our first year in the NHL together was rough,” said Pratt. “As you’re going through it, you’re dreading it, but you also were looking back at it and appreciative in some respect that we had to go through that story — and and still got the opportunity to keep doing our thing as a staff.”
Bednar has an innate ability to connect with his players and there’s one quality among all of the others that’s allowed him to make his mark.
“He’s a player’s coach and I’ve heard someone say he’s got an old-school mentality but at the same time, he’s a very modern coach in his relationships,” said Pratt. “The one thing Jared has — and I would admit that I’m still learning it — he’s got an incredible amount of patience and he knows when to push and when to back off and balance that throughout the season and the playoffs.
“His strength is his patience. He knows when to apply the pressure when he needs to and when to pull back a little bit. He’s level-headed the whole way through it all. It didn’t matter what was going on, it was the same sort of attitude and it reflected in our team.”
That attitude suits this group of talented, but hard-working individuals who slayed their playoff dragons by dethroning the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions — erasing the heartache of three consecutive second-round exits.
“He really never changes. Win or lose, he’s got that same demeanour. He’s got that laid-back, player’s coach attitude but he can lay the hammer when he needs to,” said Avalanche defenceman Erik Johnson, the longest-serving member of the team — and the guy captain Gabe Landeskog handed the Stanley Cup to first.
“He formed us into a team that plays hard for each other. It’s not easy rebounding from what we rebounded from. That has a lot to do with him. We wouldn’t be standing here right now if it wasn’t for him.
“What a coach. Didn’t he win an ECHL championship, an AHL championship and now a Stanley Cup championship five years after we were dead last in the league? That’s a hell of a coach.”
It most certainly is.