Knoblauch: Superman Behind the Bench, Clark Kent in Front of the Cameras

The Oilers coach is a game-changer, despite his "aw shucks" demeanour
Kris Knoblauch

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has been an Edmonton Oiler since 2011, after he was the first overall selection in that year’s draft.

He has skated for nine head coaches in his career, from the “Swarm” defence of Dallas Eakins, to the hockey-and-soccer savant, Ralph Krueger. He’s played for a former Cup winner in Ken Hitchcock, to the uber-confident Jay Woodcroft, who portrayed himself as the smartest person in the room.

He’s seen a lot of personalities, a lot of different coaching styles. But coach No. 9 might be the winner out of them all. When he’s on the podium in the Hall of Fame Room, Kris Knoblauch comes off as shy. He stutters through answers. He readily agrees to the reporters’ and columnists’ points and doesn’t try to challenge their intelligence like his predecessor, Woodcroft, did. He’s very much Clark Kent in front of the cameras — even though, when he’s behind the bench, he’s Superman.

Knoblauch took over in November, an AHL coach most Oilers fans had to look up. But there was a feeling inside the organization that the Oilers had hired the next coaching genius. University of Alberta hockey aficionados may have remembered him skating with the Golden Bears. But, from within, I’d heard comparisons to Tampa Bay Lightning Cup-winning coach Jon Cooper.

While Knoblauch comes off as meek, he’s proven to be a master chess player, taking a team that was second-last in the West when he took over all the way to the Stanley Cup final. A coach who in September was prepping the Hartford Wolf Pack for the AHL season is now getting the Oilers ready to play in the Stanley Cup final. A team that was struggling with confidence now plays with veteran assurance. Knoblauch has brought players in and out of the lineup, and it feels like every gamble comes up trumps.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins after Game 6 of the Western Conference Final

“He’s been awesome for us,” Nugent-Hopkins said of Knoblauch after the Oilers clinched their spot in the Stanley Cup final. “He’s ‘Steady Eddie’ back there. I think, even when things are going kind of rough for us in a game or in a stretch of games, he’s a calm presence for us. It’s been great for us, and obviously he was stepping into a tough situation.”

“He came in when we were at rock bottom,” said winger Zach Hyman, who leads all playoff scorers with 14 goals, including the game winner in the Game 6 Western Conference-final clincher over Dallas. “I think he just instilled a wave of calmness and confidence… He helped some of our players. We were all struggling, that’s why our team was where we were. He came in, just with a calming presence, a process-based plan, and for a rookie coach, he’s done a pretty good job, right?”

After the win on Sunday, I asked Knoblauch during the post-game media availability to reflect on the journey, from AHL coach to Stanley Cup contender over the space of a few months. And, as per usual, he was all Clark Kent, no Superman.

“I don’t have any words,” he said. “This is remarkable, it’s amazing. At the time (September), I was hoping I could get my American League team into the playoffs, and we’ll see what happens from there.

“For me, to be going to the Stanley Cup final with this organization, it’s awesome. We want four more, but, right now, this is pretty awesome.”