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Phil Housley 'ready to go' as new head coach of the Buffalo Sabres

The conversation that eventually led Phil Housley back to Buffalo was brutal.

There was a veiled threat of someone getting fired. There was a not-so-veiled threat of someone getting tossed out a window.

The fiery talk inside the USA Hockey offices reflected the turmoil taking place with its under-18 team. It was late October 2003, and coach Moe Mantha abruptly left to take a job in the Ontario Hockey League. The U.S. under-18 team had a game the next night, and it was scheduled to fly to Switzerland three days later for a tournament.

Doug Palazzari, the executive director of USA Hockey, was in a jam. He went to see Lou Vairo and ordered the director of special projects to head out immediately and start coaching the Under-18 team.

"I looked at Doug and said, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. I don't know the kids. I haven't coached in 10 years,' " Vairo recalled by phone. "He said, 'Lou, it's serious. There's a problem with what's gone on there. I need you to go in and make it right. You can do that. And do it or I'll fire you.'"

The last part didn't sit well.

"I said, 'I'll throw you out the window if you ever say that again,' " Vairo said with his Brooklyn accent. "He laughed."

Instead of inflicting bodily harm, Vairo decided he'd accept the assignment – on one condition.

"Phil Housley just retired," Vairo told Palazzari. "He's going to be a big-time coach someday, like he was a player. He's a good guy and he's got lots and lots of ability. He's a serious guy, smart.

"Let me bring Phil. If these kids are down in the dumps and upset about everything that's gone on, this might be a nice way to inject some pride and joy in their hockey experience and lives."

Vairo, who'd known Housley through USA Hockey for more than two decades, gave his friend a call and told him the situation. Housley agreed to meet the team at the Detroit airport and join it for the flight to Switzerland.

The moment Housley stepped behind the bench, he knew what life had in store. He was going to be a coach.

"When I got over there and got behind the bench, being that close to the action, it's the best place to be without playing the game," Housley said. "I really fell in love with it."

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Housley's love of coaching has been obvious during his opening weeks with the Sabres. There are no jitters for the first-time head coach. He confidently steps to the white board to draw and explain plays. When he whistles (he uses his mouth, not the small shiny object around most coaches' necks), the skaters immediately stop and listen.

Housley is a coach who's in command.

"Every morning I come to work and I'm ready to go," the 53-year-old said. "I get after it."

Back to school

While Vairo knew Housley would be an NHL coach someday, it certainly wasn't a meteoric rise to the top.

The Minnesota native started at home, taking over as coach of Stillwater Area High School in 2004. He stayed for nine years.

Sabres owner Terry Pegula said during Housley's introductory news conference that the coach humbled himself by being at that level for so long. Housley looked at it as learning his craft.

"Coaching high school as a head coach for nine years taught me a lot," Housley said in KeyBank Center. "It taught me a lot about patience, about trying to implement systems, trying to tell kids what to do. It requires patience.

"You really had to be thorough, and you still have to be thorough even at the NHL level. ... When I made that choice to move to the NHL, I was ready for that. I made sure I was ready. I was not in a hurry."

The Nashville Predators hired Housley as an assistant in 2013. He'd had success in side jobs for USA Hockey, including coaching the 2013 world junior team to the gold medal.

"He's a professional coach," Vairo said. "You'll see that. You're lucky you've got him there in Buffalo.

"He knows what he's doing. He's a born leader. He's been successful at everything he's ever touched, and he's a good guy. He's a good guy. Players will respect him, but they'll like playing for him."

The Sabres certainly respect Housley's accomplishments. He's in the Hockey Hall of Fame for a 21-year career as a defenseman. That carries weight in the dressing room.

"It's a little intimidating," said Sabres left wing Benoit Pouliot, who's had 11 other coaches in the NHL. "It's good for the players, I think. You see a guy like that coming in, and obviously you're going to listen to what he's going to say.

"He's been an easy guy to talk to, to approach. He tells you how it is straight off the bat. If it's good, it's good; if it's bad, it's bad – which is nice. He's honest."

Diverse mentors

Communication between the players and coach was strained under previous bench boss Dan Bylsma. It's why Pegula installed "discipline, structure, communication and character" as the four pillars of his offseason hiring search.

General Manager Jason Botterill arrived first in May. Housley came aboard in June after being two victories away from the Stanley Cup with Nashville.

"A big thing that drew me to him from what I heard was his communication skills, his ability to relate to players," Botterill said. "That's certainly been evident, but what I've really been impressed with is his organizational skills. Our entire staff has been prepared, and it's come across to our players.

"Their own coaching staff is a work in progress because they haven't spent a lot of time together before, and the way you see them bouncing ideas off each other is great. Their interactions have been impressive to me."

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Though Housley is clearly running the show during practice, he's open to suggestions from anyone before or after the workouts.

"He's been willing to listen to the leaders," associate coach Davis Payne said. "He's been willing to listen to input from the staff. I think that makes everybody better. That, to me, is Phil."

Housley's countless experiences as a player influence his coaching. The defenseman noticed what approaches worked in the dressing room. He saw what philosophies were rejected.

"When you think back as a player what would you want your coach to be, I'd like to see a coach be enthusiastic and pushing the group," Housley said. "That's what I'm trying to do. In years past here, I think there's been a lot of things on guys' shoulders. We're trying to remove that and let them focus on day-to-day business.

"Hopefully, it can continue to be refreshing. But yeah, I do enjoy it. I become a different person when I get on the ice. It's been in my blood since I was a kid."

Housley's four-year stay in Nashville featured one coaching change. He started under Barry Trotz and worked for Peter Laviolette the past three seasons. While Housley was nervous about the switch and his job status, the change proved to be a blessing.

"I had two good mentors there," Housley said. "Barry Trotz is very, very organized. He's very technical. There's a way that he goes about his business and getting through to the players. Peter Laviolette is a great motivator, so I got the best of both worlds there.

"I owe a lot to those guys."

The day-to-day interactions with successful coaches taught Housley plenty. A brief stint with the world's best players showed him even more.

Housley was an assistant coach for the United States at last year's World Cup of Hockey. The American team featured Patrick Kane, Ryan Kesler and a long list of All-Stars.

"It's interesting working with NHL guys," Housley said. "The biggest thing for me is allowing those players to have their own personality. That's how you create that relationship. Each player is different.

"Having an opportunity to coach at the World Cup and coaching the top players really gave me a really good experience at how to handle that. Everybody's got an ego and everybody's got a personality, and I understand that.

"From that experience that I gained, I thought I was ready to be a head coach."

A treasured homecoming

The whole hockey world knew the Sabres were interested in hiring Housley. Well, the whole hockey world minus one.

Housley was in a Cup-chasing bubble in May and June. While people talked about him becoming a head coach, he was singularly focused on helping the Predators become champions.

"I never really had any thought process in that whole playoff run," Housley said. "I really wanted to win a Stanley Cup."

The Preds came up short, losing to Pittsburgh in six games. The finale was a Sunday night. Botterill interviewed Housley on Monday, and the new coach was in the atrium of the Sabres' arena Thursday.

"It happened so quickly that I never really had a chance to grieve, which was great," Housley said. "To have that change so quick, it was great because I could get back to work right away and more importantly be a part of the Buffalo Sabres' organization again."

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Being in Buffalo means something to Housley. He played his first eight seasons for the Sabres, who made him the sixth overall pick of the 1982 NHL Draft. Four months later, he was on the blue line.

Thirty-five years later, he's on the bench.

"I started my career here, and now I'm starting my head-coaching career here," he said. "I'm excited to be back."

Housley's friends and colleagues have seen how much he's relished the opportunity. He's had a lot to do in a short period of time – fill out a staff, get to know the players, teach a new system – and he's done it all with unwavering passion.

"Coaching, you've got to want to do it," said retired New York Rangers defenseman Brian Leetch, who played with Housley on three U.S. national teams. "It's the same as a player trying to get to a certain level. If you want to be a good coach, you've got to do it and you've got put time in. It's a lot of dedication."

Make no mistake, Housley wants to be a good coach.

"We've got a lot to prove, not only as a coaching staff but as players in that room," he said. "Each and every day, that's how we should approach it."

Patient but firm

Housley wants his team to be a reflection of himself. He was a freewheeling maestro with the puck. He proved that defensemen can power the offense when they're given the freedom to make plays.

The Sabres' system is built with that in mind.

"We're not going to take any creativity away from our players," Housley said. "That's one of the things that I would expect from a player-coaching aspect. We're not going tie their hands down. We're going to let them make plays. Just make the right ones.

"Some guys are more gifted than others, and I understand that, but everybody is held accountable and everybody is held to a standard that they've got to make the right play. Eventually, that will work itself out, but I want our guys to use their creativity."

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A lackluster preseason featuring a 1-4-1 record with only 12 goals scored showed it could take time for the players to grasp what Housley is teaching. He's doing what he can to make it sink in.

"He's done a great job in being firm, being patient and being positive in recognizing what the situation requires," Payne said. "He's got his message through, and he's reinforced his message when necessary. But he's also made sure that the group understands this is a process that we're going to have to get ourselves through and push ourselves through."

Housley is clearly putting the onus on himself to teach the players. While the assistants may have more on-ice say as the season gets rolling, Housley was the voice in every training-camp practice session.

Phil Housley had the players' attention while teaching the system during training camp. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"He was an unbelievable player to watch, and just to watch him out here and how he reacts and how interacts with the guys, it's awesome," Rochester Americans coach Chris Taylor said. "He's in tune with the game, and he's very involved. He wants to make sure the guys know what they're doing and there's no question marks.

"He's the head coach, so he wants everybody to know he's watching everything you do. When he talks, everybody listens."

But, again, it's not a dictatorship. Housley is trying to incorporate everyone's thoughts. It's the biggest change he's noticed in the rise from assistant coach to head man.

"It's just day-to-day decisions, addressing the team," he said. "Trying to say the right things at the right times I think is very critical, but it's being open to conversations from the players. It's not just my way. We're doing this together. Yeah, I've got the final say, but we've got to include everybody."

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The quest for an all-inclusive organization has its roots in that first experience with USA Hockey. Although Housley had never coached before, Vairo made him an equal partner. It formed the beliefs Housley carries today.

Kevin Porter has noticed. The Amerks center played for the Under-18 team that Housley joined. They talked about the trip to Switzerland when Porter arrived at training camp.

Porter says Housley's presence reinvigorated the young U.S. team. He sees the same thing happening with the Sabres.

"To have a guy like him come in and coach us was pretty cool," Porter said. "Obviously, he's done pretty well for himself and moved up the ladder here."

The coach knows there are more rungs to climb.

"We're hopefully going to write a new chapter for the Buffalo Sabres' organization," Housley said. "We're going to try to represent the Buffalo Sabres' organization the best way we know how moving forward here.

"It's a new chapter, a clean slate, so I'm excited."

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