DULUTH-Coaching was the furthest thing from the minds of former Minnesota Duluth captains Ashleigh Brykaliuk and Adam Krause earlier this year.
They were professional hockey players and already prepping to return to their respective teams for 2018-19. Brykaliuk was in China playing in the Canadian Women's Hockey League while Krause was with Rochester of the American Hockey League.
Just as winter began to transition to spring - before their seasons had even finished - both received life-changing phone calls from their alma mater. It was Maura Crowell and Scott Sandelin on the line with the opportunity of a lifetime to join their staff as a full-time assistant coach.
"I got the call and was thrown completely in a loop, pretty much," Brykaliuk said.
"I ran down to my wife. I was like, 'You'll never guess who I just got off the phone with,'" Krause said. "'He just offered me the job at Duluth. I don't know what to do.'"
Like Brykaliuk, Krause did the only thing you can do when offered a job at an NCAA Division I hockey program that has won multiple national championships. They both retired as players - healthy and only in their 20s - to be assistant coaches for the Bulldogs, who host a pair of hockey doubleheaders Friday, Oct. 19, and Saturday, Oct. 20, at Amsoil Arena.
The UMD women, winners of five NCAA titles, host Bemidji State in WCHA play at 3:07 p.m. both days. The Bulldogs men, who won their second national championship in April, host Maine in a nonconference series. Puck drop for those games is 7:07 p.m.
Brykaliuk, 23, played for the Bulldogs from 2013-17. Last year with the CWHL's Vanke Rays wound up being her lone season of pro hockey.
While she someday wanted to get into coaching, Brykaliuk said replacing Chris Connolly - who left prior to the 2017-18 season - never crossed her mind. Like everyone else, she thought of possible replacements while looking ahead to another season in the CWHL, maybe even back in China.
Then Crowell called.
"As soon as I got the call and I hung up the phone, I knew. I was like, 'I'm going to do this,'" Brykaliuk said. "And then the thinking comes in. You're like, 'Ahh! I gotta hang up the skates, blah, blah blah.' But I knew deep down as soon as I got that first call, the opportunity that was presented and the place that it was at, obviously just everything, I couldn't ask for a better first coaching job. So it's pretty cool to get that call."
Krause, the 27-year-old Hermantown native who was at UMD from 2011-15, was in his third pro season and first with the Americans when Sandelin called to gauge his interest in replacing Brett Larson, who was about to be named the head coach at St. Cloud State.
At the time, Krause's agent already was engaged in talks to bring him back to the Americans - a part of the Buffalo Sabres organization - again in 2018-19. Meanwhile, Krause and his dad were speculating about who the new assistant would be.
Krause's name never came up during their brainstorming sessions.
"Not one time, not one time did I ever bring it up and finally (Scott) called me, and I was just totally taken back," Krause said. "He called me, we had four or five games left in the regular season. He said, 'I don't mean to put you in this spot, but I got to start seeing how seriously I need to take phone calls I get and this and that.' I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I gotta call you back.'"
While Brykaliuk knew right away what her answer would eventually be once she got done processing everything, Krause admitted he wasn't so sure. A career in coaching had yet to cross his mind, Krause said.
What made the decision even tougher for Krause was that he was healthy, having his best season yet in the AHL and feeling really good about his professional hockey career. Then came a talk with Americans general manager Randy Sexton. That changed his perspective, Krause said.
"He really helped me out," Krause said. "In a very nice way he said, 'Take the job. I love you as a player, but take the job. Once you start getting to 27 years old in pro hockey, they start looking for excuses to get you out.'"
The perfect fit
Coaching jobs in college hockey are few and far between with just 35 NCAA Division I women's programs and 60 men's programs. Among those, UMD's men's and women's programs are considered among the premier places to coach.
So why would Sandelin and Crowell hire a pair of rookies, when their selection pool likely featured applicants with more experience?
For both, hiring someone that played the game at a high level was important. Even more important was getting a former Bulldogs player since neither staff had an alum at the time. Sandelin and associate head coach Jason Herter are both North Dakota alums while Crowell (Colgate) and assistant Laura Bellamy (Harvard) went to school out east.
"Having an alum in particular is one of the most powerful things," Crowell said. "You ask her to give a tour, you ask her to talk about what it means to be a Bulldog, what Bulldog Hockey is, there is no learning curve there. She just gets it, and when she talks about it, it's genuine. You can't teach that."
Crowell and Sandelin both have a history at UMD of hiring rookie coaches, and their resumes - while very different - offer some insight as to why.
Crowell, now in her fourth season at UMD, had to battle her way up the coaching ladder starting with high school hockey before becoming an NCAA Division III assistant for two seasons, and then a D-III head coach at Massachusetts-Boston for five years. Katey Stone hired Crowell as an assistant coach at Harvard in 2010 and promoted her to associate head coach in 2014 - a year after Crowell served as interim head coach while Stone coached Team USA in the Olympics.
"I have value in that, I like that part of my career, but I also think when you have the ability to hire really fantastic people and great former players, it's a no-brainer," said Crowell, who since coming to UMD in 2015 has hired three rookie coaches - Sami Reber, Connolly and Brykaliuk.
"I like to give people opportunities. I think coaching is such a fantastic profession, but it's hard to get into, really hard."
Like Krause, Sandelin's playing career ended in his late 20s, though due to a back injury. His first coaching job was in the short-lived American Hockey Association with the Fargo-Moorhead Express in 1992-93. That league folded after less than a year.
Then he got a call from his former coach at North Dakota, Dean Blais, who had just taken over the head job from Gino Gasparini.
"He said drive up here. We met. We went to a restaurant," Sandelin recalled back in August. "He said, 'You want the job?' I said, 'Yup.' He said, 'Good, you're buying lunch.' That was it."
Since being hired at UMD, Sandelin has given former Bulldogs Larson and Derek Plante their first coaching jobs. Like Krause, they all filled a specific need and also offered a personality different from his own, Sandelin said.
And they all deserved a chance, Sandelin said.
"There is no entry-level positions in college hockey. We all started somewhere," Sandelin said. "When I first started, there wasn't a huge alumni coaching base. A lot of guys were still playing. That's why (Larson) was attractive. You have to have openings, too. Early it was harder. Now I think it's easier. You know what you need. I think you know what's going to complement you. If you got weaknesses, you are trying to put together those pieces. Getting Adam, having alumni here is great."
Brykaliuk and Krause aren't just first-year college coaches, they're first-year coaches. Everything they are experiencing this season is new to them.
"Right now it's all new. It's all a first," Krause said. "It's so funny, we've been around hockey our whole lives, but I feel like I'm in a totally different world now. ... You don't realize what goes into running a bench or in-game stuff, but it's been good. The new experiences - it's overwhelming, it's uncomfortable, but it's all good changes."
Krause said Sandelin and Herter have so far eased him into the job, with the men's season just four games old. Krause has done a little bit of everything so far, helping out where he can specifically on the power play and penalty kill.
Brykaliuk, on the other hand, has been tossed more into the deep end right away by Crowell and Bellamy seven games into their season. Brykaliuk is involved with the forwards as well as the power play. She's helped a bit with the penalty kill and even run a few video sessions.
Both rookie coaches were tossed out on the recruiting trail shortly after starting their new jobs, learning that skill by trial and error. There was no time for teaching in the heart of recruiting season.
Brykaliuk said it can be challenging recruiting against older, experienced coaches. But she and Krause do have one major advantage over those coaches. It wasn't too long ago that both were in the skates of the kids they are recruiting.
"It's tricky at times being a young coach, but at the same time I feel like I just went through this process not too long ago," she said. "I feel like sometimes on phone conversations or whatever, it's easy to kinda get buddy-buddy with them. And I think sometimes kids like that, sometimes they don't. It's all situational."
Like a college freshman in his or her first season of college hockey, Brykaliuk and Krause said confidence is the key to being a good coach at this level and that with each and every day, their confidence is growing on the ice and on the bench, in the locker room and during video sessions, and with each and every recruiting trip they embark on.
Are there times the two miss playing professional hockey? Yes, though neither regrets answering those calls last spring from Crowell and Sandelin.
"It was the only job that would have taken me away from playing. No other job, not even close, would have taken me away from playing," Krause said. "It still weighs on me a little bit when I see the guys having fun out there and playing and being in a game. There's some days, but I'll never regret it at all. I think I'll always miss it, like (Brykaliuk) will, but it's been awesome. It's been great. No regrets at all."