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WINDSOR – At first glance, Greg Cronin looks a lot like the actor Ed Harris, especially circa early 1990s Ed Harris. Throw a cheaper suit on him and Cronin looks like the Harris character Dave Moss from “Glengarry Glen Ross.” Add in a touch of Mad Men-era John Glenn, and that’s what your new Colorado Eagles coach looks like.
When you listen to Cronin? You want to pahk the cahh in Hahvahd Yahd and grab some chowdah.
Cronin retains every lost pronunciation of the letter R in his Boston-born accent. It is in Northern Colorado that Cronin will try to fit in as just another hard-working local in a place where, though it is growing by leaps and bounds, retains much of its John Deere aura. Overalls, not the silk suits of the kind Cronin was wearing, remain the standard work attire for much of the area up here.
The fertile soils of Loveland, and its surrounding towns of Windsor and Greeley, are where the Avalanche has now planted itself as their destination, for players, as the next step to the hockey promised land. The Colorado Eagles, winners of two straight ECHL championships, are moving up to the American Hockey League starting this season, as the Avs’ top farm affiliate.
In to lead the team steps Cronin, a veteran of coaching at all levels of hockey. He comes from his last job as an assistant coach with the New York Islanders, a man whose playing career never took off as a pro but who has been around the coaching ranks since 1987, when he was an assistant at his alma mater, Colby College.
Cronin, 55, seemed like a curious choice at first to lead the Avs’ new AHL club. He hasn’t been a head coach at any level since 2011, when he was with the Northeastern Huskies, in Boston. He has never coached an NHL team outside of the Eastern Conference. Why not just keep Aaron Schneekloth as head coach of a team that won two straight ECHL titles, who would still be coaching several players on the transitioned Eagles roster? For longtime Avalanche front office holder Craig Billington, the decision to bring in Cronin came down to what he could teach everyone to get to that last, final level in hockey.
“We respect the success they’ve had up here and the relationship they’ve formed with the coaches. We’ve been working with them for a couple of years, so we think we know them really well. At the same time, Joe (Sakic) set a criteria that he wanted to bring in experience,” Billington told BSN Denver. “He stuck with that. He interviewed a number of candidates, and in the end, he was most comfortable with Greg. I think it’s a good fit, because he has the experience at the NHL level knowing what the end product looks like. But at the same token, he has the presence and temperament, we believe, as a head coach, as a developer, as a guy to work with others.”
Cronin, who played right wing at Colby College, has a reputation as a tough coach. He will cop to that, but is quick to add a proviso.
“I think I’m honest and I’m fair,” Cronin told BSN Denver. “I just don’t believe there is any other way to establish a relationship without honesty, and the players know that. Communication is a huge part of that, at any level. I work very hard, I’m open to different things, whether it’s analytics or player development feedback. At the end of the day there’s got to be one, consistent message. Delivering an honest message is sometimes construed as somebody being blunt. But I just couldn’t sleep at night if I couldn’t have an honest conversation with anybody.”
Cronin is quick to admit that, for him and many others with the upgraded Eagles franchise, there will be a learning curve to know all the upper-level prospects that constitute the majority of the Avs’ organization.
“I don’t know what the team identity is going to be. I’ve never seen these kids play,” he says. “It would be way too presumptuous and arrogant to say, ‘we’re going to play this way’ or ‘the Avalanche play that way.'”
What Cronin does believe he will stress to his group, right away, is to think like an NHL player. But also, and maybe even more important, to be coached in certain areas of the game that would make their transition to the big club, on a moment’s notice, easier to handle.
“I think it’s important, when you’re dealing with special teams, particularly penalty-killing, if the Avalanche are killing a certain way – you don’t want guys getting called up from the American League that don’t know how they’re killin,'” Cronin said. “That’s just not the transition you want. It’s not football; the systems are pretty flexible. If they’re running systems with the Avalanche that are real structured – a 1-3-1 – I just don’t believe you can be running a trap up here. It’s not fair to the kid. At the same time, you’ve really got to analyze what your team’s strengths are. If you’ve got defensemen that are mobile and are going to get up the ice and apply that four-man pressure down the walls, and your D are gonna forecheck, and the Avalanche don’t have that identity from their D, then you’re gonna have some flexibility. I’d rather have guys that have to pull themselves back in an NHL game than get ’em up in the play.”
Despite the otherwise Eastern upbringing and pro career, Cronin does have a history in this state. From 1990-93, he served as an assistant coach with the Colorado College Tigers, under Brad Buetow. On his staff, as the goalie coach, is a former CC goalie whom he coached, Ryan Bach.
For his part, Schneekloth seems to harbor no ill will at going from a head coach to assistant with the same franchise with which he coached to two straight ECHL titles.
“I feel really honored and proud to be a part of it, throughout all these changes,” Schneekloth said. “To get consideration to stay on the staff, obviously I’m more than thrilled about. To be able to keep my family here, to advance my coaching career and be a part of the Avalanche organization, it’s exciting.”