Jeff Brown came of age when the Ottawa 67's were a magnet major junior team, playing in their division with the Sudbury Wolves in the 1980s before carving out a long NHL career.
So he knows where the bar ought to be set for the OHL team in the nation's capital, which is coming off its first consecutive non-playoff seasons in its 47-season history. Brown, introduced as the 67's new coach on Thursday, didn't fall back on clichés about blank slates and fresh starts, but instead evoked the era when Brian Kilrea was at the peak of a Hockey Hall of Fame coaching career and the 67's were the biggest game in Bytown.
"When I grew up in Ottawa, the 67's were as good as there was in major junior hockey across the country," the 48-year-old Brown, who guided the Indiana Ice to the USHL Clark Cup last month and also led St. Louis to the North American Hockey League title in 2012. "That's [the level] where I want us to be back. Patty [new GM Pat Higgins] and I have had some great conversations. He's an Ottawa boy who's passionate about that heyday as well and we're both excited to bring it back.
"From what I remember about Brian Kilrea, I'm a lot like Brian Kilrea," added Brown, who became available after Indiana took a leave from the USHL in order to find a more junior-suitable rink in Indianapolis. "We're going to be a pressure team, we're going to be a fast team, we're going to play fast, we're going to take it to the other team. We're going to play our system ... When everyone buys in, we're going to be successful."
'Credibility right away'
Higgins' move up to GM in the wake of Chris Byrne's departure to scout for the Los Angeles Kings is intended to give the 67's a semblance of continuity. Brown, meantime, is a fresh face with a NHL pedigree — 747 games played — and a coaching track record, having just won a championship. Having a recognizable coach with roots in the city would seem essential for a club that is returning to TD Place arena after its '68 road games for the 67's' decampment to the Canadian Tire Centre.
"Some of the NHL [scouts] that I know have spoken highly of Jeff," Higgins said. "A guy that I really trust is Pierre Dorion [director of player personnel for the Senators]. They watch coaches and Pierre Dorion really likes Jeff Brown. That's not why we hired Jeff Brown, but I checked with a lot of people I trusted and it kept coming up that he would be a good hire. He's also been in the NHL and that gives you some credibility right away with the players.
"For me, going forward it's great to have somebody who's a fresh voice," added Higgins. "Jeff's been in the American system for a while and American hockey has come miles in the last 10-15 years. He's going to bring some of that to it, and he's also going to have some connections in that American [recruiting] market.
"St. Louis [where Brown played and coached] is a big market for us. There's kids coming out of there all the time. The '98 age group [that is just breaking into the OHL], he has a son in that group so he's going to be really helpful with that. He also has GM experience, so he can help me a little bit. I want to keep scouting, so I'll be able to feel really comfortable with being able to leave on a Thursday and come back on a Sunday."
The other short-listers, Randy Cunneyworth, Perry Pearn, Brad Shaw, also have hockey ties to the city. Higgins said that he reached out to Brown about applying.
"I got to know him last summer at a U.S. camp where I was scouting," Higgins said. "I knew that he wanted to be a coach. About a week ago I phoned him to see if he would be interested. I talked to his agent — who's a friend of mine — and asked, 'could you have him send his résumé?' so I could have something to show my owners.
"When I called him, he was on his way to Ottawa to visit his parents and I thought, let's interview him while he is here. It was an omen. I interviewed him the next morning. We just progressed from there."
Byrne 'had an extraordinarily difficult task'
Time will tell if Ottawa has righted the ship. Owner Jeff Hunt made sure to recognize the strain Byrne was under: following a legend and rebuilding without having a true home rink for two seasons.
"It's been an eventful couple of weeks in Ottawa 67's-land," said Hunt, president of sports for the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group. "After 32 years of Brian Kilrea, we got used to a lot of continuity. Now we've had a little bit of turnover. I want to thank and acknowledge Chris Byrne. He had an extraordinarily difficult task that, for years, nobody was looking forward to — transitioning the Ottawa 67's from Brian Kilrea. I think he did an exceptional job for us.
"One of the things we do in professional hockey is we develop professionals, whether it be players or executives. In this case, Chris had the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream of getting into the NHL. He's on his way to, I'm sure, a great career in the NHL."
The 67's finished ninth of 10 teams in the Eastern race and allowed 305 goals, second-most in the OHL. Up front, reigning OHL rookie of the year Travis Konecny is a potential top-10 pick in the 2015 NHL draft and the 67's have another promising draft-eligible centre in 18-year-old Dante Salituro. The entire defence corps is due to return.
No one is setting the bar precisely for 2014-15, although Higgins said making the playoffs is a "must." Brown guided Indiana from worst to first in the USHL last season, but knows he's starting from scratch in his hockey homecoming.
"Three or thirty years, I guess?" Brown quipped when asked how long he can see himself behind the 67's bench. "I'm excited. This is home to me. Who knows what the future holds? Have a successful few years and see what happens after that. I've been to the NHL; I don't have to go back to the NHL. If they'll have me and this is a great marriage, I'll stay. I certainly won't coach as long as Killer, but the thought of that gets me excited."
"I idolized Killer growing up," Brown added. "My last year [1985-86], I tried to get traded here from Sudbury. He was just telling me in the back they were asking too much. I said, 'maybe you weren't offering enough.' I think of him often as a coach. It sure sounds like we coach were very similar."
Neate Sager is a writer for Yahoo! Canada Sports. Follow him on Twitter @neatebuzzthenet.