As Dan Lambert traveled from Saskatchewan to San Diego to Germany during his 23 years as a hockey player, he paid attention to the coaches he encountered. With 13 teams, six leagues and four countries on his resume, he came across impressive men, incapable assistants and the wide range in between.
“I learned from all the great coaches that I’ve had,” he said, “and some not so great. I learned from them maybe even more so.”
Of the many positive influences, the first name that came to Lambert’s mind was a familiar one. John Van Boxmeer, a Buffalo scout and former Sabres defenseman and associate coach, was Lambert’s coach for four seasons in the International Hockey League.
“He taught me how to get the most out of a player,” Lambert said. “I thought that was one thing ‘Boxy’ did every season. Players that played for him had big seasons. He was demanding, yet very fair, and I learned a lot from that.
“At times I didn’t like the way he coached, but I know that my best seasons ever were playing for him.”
Indeed, with 73 goals and 283 points in 283 games under Van Boxmeer, the high-scoring defenseman flourished. Now, 21 years after Van Boxmeer last coached the Rochester Americans, Lambert is stepping into the same role.
His goal is teach the Sabres’ prospects as much as Van Boxmeer taught him.
“My job is going to be to push these young men to a place where they believe they want to go to, and that’s the NHL,” Lambert said. “If I can do that, I think it’s going to be the most rewarding job I could ever do.”
The 46-year-old is starting the players on their journey at Buffalo’s weeklong development camp. He is the lead man in HarborCenter, a welcome change from last year’s event. The Sabres had just hired him as Dan Bylsma’s third assistant when the NHL hopefuls arrived in July 2015.
“Last year I was more of a passenger, so it’s been very good,” he said. “I have to be a little bit more in control and – I don’t want to say running the show – but certainly be more active with it.”
His voice, which carries a slight French accent from his native Manitoba, has been instructing players during drills and offering advice during one-on-ones. He’ll continue the talks in September during his first season on the Amerks’ bench. The Sabres hired him for a one-year apprenticeship under Bylsma with the condition he take over in Rochester the following season.
The year in Buffalo allowed Lambert to build relationships in the organization and learn how to coach professionals. His prior experience was at the junior level, five years as an assistant and one year as the head man for Kelowna of the Western Hockey League, and the NHL and American Hockey League are wildly different.
“At the junior level often you’re more of a father figure, disciplinarian,” Lambert said. “At the NHL level, you’re dealing with men, so you have to remember when they leave the rink a lot of them are going home to families and they don’t need to be catered to or looked after.
“I’d like to think that I’ve grown a lot. Watching and working with Dan” and fellow assistants Terry Murray and Dave Barr, “I think I learned a ton, just the way everything was handled. I believe I’m a better coach today than I was a year ago.”
If so, the organization should have a promising future. During his only season as bench boss, Lambert went 53-13-6 to lead Kelowna into the Memorial Cup.
“He likes everyone to be on the same page and play as a unit,” said Sabres prospect Devante Stephens, who played on the Kelowna team. “He knows what he’s doing. He’s a great coach, and I really liked playing under him.”
The word “detailed” has come up in conversations with players, but Lambert doesn’t want to be labeled as a strict X’s and O’s guy. He was a freewheeling defenseman who put up 130 points in 69 games in 1989 to lead Swift Current to the Memorial Cup. He knows players need creativity to excel.
“Certainly the details have to be there, with some freedom as well,” Lambert said.
As he gets into the season and winning streaks or slumps arise, Lambert will refer back to the mental notes he took while playing for Quebec in the NHL, Halifax and Moncton in the AHL, Fort Wayne, San Diego, Los Angeles and Long Beach in the IHL, Helsinki in the Finnish league and Cologne, Krefeld, Hamburg and Hannover of the German league.
“As a player I was often a captain and leader of the team,” he said. “It’s not like I was a guy who was the quietest guy in the room playing and all of a sudden it was like, ‘Oh, I want to be a coach.’ I feel like I was always trying to put myself in the coach’s mind: ‘What would I do in this situation? This is how he handled it. How would I have handled it?’”
Now that Lambert is in charge, he wants to get a handle on winning.
“I truly believe that you’ve got to win to develop the right way,” he said. “If you are in the minors and you just get used to losing, it’s like anything else, you do get used to it. I think it is important to win.
“Now, what does winning mean? Does it mean that you win the championship? Not necessarily, but you have a winning attitude and winning surroundings and guys get that feeling of, ‘It’s not OK to just show up and not give your best effort.’ I think all those intertwine. If you play the right way, you will win the majority of your games, for sure.”