'It holds a special place in my heart': Patrick Dwyer hails Belfast as he embarks on coaching career
Players moving from the American Hockey League (AHL) to the Elite League is becoming more common as years go by, but players moving in the other direction is rare.
You could say that Patrick Dwyer has just bucked that trend, although given his move isn't in a playing capacity it might be with an asterisk beside it - but that doesn't make his move any less impressive!
After a stunning playing career, spanning 20 years and featuring no less than 416 appearances in the NHL - all for the Carolina Hurricanes - the 36-year-old has hung up the skates and has moved into coaching.
As far as first gigs go, they don't come much better either, as Dwyer will take his place on the bench with the defending Calder Cup champions the Charlotte Checkers as assistant coach to recently promoted head coach Ryan Warsofsky.
The news was announced earlier this week that he would be stepping behind the bench in Charlotte, bringing an end to that 20-year career that finished with one season at the SSE Arena with the Belfast Giants.
Initially he'll take charge of the defensive corps in Charlotte, and will have a hand in organising the penalty kill as well, but will act as a foil and experienced No.2 to rookie head coach Warsofsky.
In many ways, the Spokane native has come full circle. Having spent the better part of seven seasons with the Hurricanes in the NHL, now he gets to give back to them by helping coach their second tier of talent at their minor league affiliate in the AHL.
"I spent the majority of my playing career in the organisation and did so many great things with them, and I have so many fond memories making my way through the system into the NHL," says Dwyer, who played one season with the Checkers in 2016-17.
"It seems like a great fit. It's one of those where I know everybody in both organisations, in Charlotte and in Carolina, so there's a comfort level there where I think it's going to work out and will hopefully be a semi-seamless transition."
Of course, the Checkers' gain is the Belfast Giants' loss.
Dwyer was exceptional in teal last season, anchoring the Giants' top line when healthy to the tune of 32 goals and 84 points in just 58 games for the team - good for fourth in team scoring.
He was at the forefront of the Giants falling just one game shy of completing a domestic clean sweep on the season, but can still walk away from his time in the UK with medals from the Elite League, Challenge Cup and Erhardt Conference.
He scored crucial goals at crucial times, the opener in the Challenge Cup final and the winner in the Elite League semi-final - both, ironically, against Guildford - the two that stick in the memory.
Naturally, given his scoring prowess, there had been hope within the Belfast organisation that the veteran centreman would suit up for one more season before heading off into the sunset, but ultimately the lure of coaching proved too strong.
"At the end of the season last year, I always knew that I was going to get into coaching, so when I left Belfast it was with the understanding that I was going to look at some jobs and see where it went," explains Dwyer.
"I wasn't 100% sure that I was going to retire but I was going to put my foot in the door and see what was out there. I needed to make sure there was the right fit to get into the next level, and as the process went on it felt like the right fit and something I wanted to get into."
He found it with Charlotte, citing the "chemistry" that he felt when talking to his new head coach Warsofsky and, of course, the familiarity with the Hurricanes system that he knows so well as reasons to go.
So, with the job offer on the table, the final thing to do was officially hang up the skates. In the end, to Dwyer's surprise, it wasn't as hard as he thought it would be.
"Walking away from playing is never easy, you have to be 100% on it, and in my mind I'm okay with it. I'm comfortable with my decision to walk away - I had a great career," he says.
"It's still tough to walk away, but it makes it easier to get out of the game on your own terms rather than going through a year where you're getting scratched or not doing well where it's frustrating and leaving a bad taste in your mouth.
"Last year was an amazing year for us with the Giants - we won some trophies and Belfast is an awesome city, we could not have had a better off-ice experience.
"I think all that came into it, where you have those great memories of playing, that makes it easier to walk away from the game with a happiness about everything that happened rather than with any bitterness."
Now that it's over, Dwyer can reflect on his time in Belfast with fond memories. Before arriving last season, he spoke of how he wanted to make the move over having spoken with Adam Keefe on multiple occasions and he wasn't let down.
At the end of the season, he could look back on his first professional trophies and on a season where he was one of the bona fide stars of that Giants line-up.
Now, it's where he ended his playing career, and that will always be something to remember.
"It was the only place in my career that I won (a trophy), it holds a special place in my heart, and all the guys in that team I'll look back on fondly," he reminisces.
"Everything aside, Belfast was a great city, so whether we won trophies or not it would have been a great experience for us, we loved everything about it. That was one of the things that weighed into the decision actually, how much we liked it there.
"It's tough to walk away from it, but I have a peace of mind about it with great memories of the city. We made a lot of good friends in Belfast, both inside the Giants organisation and outside it."
He's also found something of a mentor from the experience too, having spent so much time watching Giants head coach Keefe on the bench while acting as player-assistant coach in Belfast.
"I learned a lot from Keefer," adds Dwyer, who spent time on the bench just as an assistant coach for large parts of the season while sidelined through injury.
"As a player you don't realise how much time coaches spent at the rink, watching video, practice prepping and stuff like that. So while I was injured and while I spent time as player-coach I was able to see and understand how much work goes into it from a coaching perspective.
"From a behind the bench perspective, it's completely different from what you see as a player, there's so much more going on - you've got to worry about what's going on on the ice, on the bench, who's going on next, maybe a guy's not playing well and you need to change the lines up.
"There's a bit more going on. Being on the bench and going through that process, helping Keefer and seeing how he dealt with it and finding my own way to deal with it, has helped."
So now he takes it to Charlotte. There'll be a teething process initially, as expected with a rookie coach, but ultimately the nerves have been surpassed by excitement at what is to come for Dwyer with the Checkers.
His first official duty is on September 6 when he travels to a rookie tournament in Nashville with the Hurricanes before returning to Carolina to begin training camp with the NHL team a week later.
At the end of September, the Checkers get their own training camp underway. That's when the real work begins.
"Unfortunately we've lost a lot of guys to free agency but we've got a great group of core kids that are coming back and a great group of prospects and draft picks who are coming in," enthuses Dwyer.
"I'm sure there'll be some growing pains, but at the end of the day you want to win hockey games and it'll be our job to put those kids in positions to do that.
"I'll be a player's coach, an instructional coach. There'll be times when I may need to raise my voice at someone but it's nothing personal, I'm just trying to get a message across and trying to get someone to play better.
"It's exciting, and right now I think the stress and nervousness of the process is gone. Now we have to get everything in order and get a second home secured and the moving process settled."
Having spent the last three seasons away from the States - in Sweden, Denmark and finally Belfast - there's another benefit to taking a job back in North America for Dwyer, and that's his family.
With wife Ashley, son Ian and daughter Lilly in tow, the family are now in the middle of getting ready to take all their stuff to Charlotte and begin a new season - something they've done plenty of times already.
Ian is quickly following in dad's footsteps, showing a keen interest for both hockey and baseball, and this year Dwyer is eager to play a much bigger role in helping him develop as a player in both codes.
Due to his hectic schedule, it has understandably been tough for him to do it up to this point, but with hopefully a bit more time set aside this year he'll be able to get down to the rink a bit more.
"It's something throughout my career, I never got to help with his youth hockey, never got to see too many of his games. I'm not sure how this year will work out, whether I'll be able to get to any more games or any more practices, but it's something I definitely want to do," he states.
"I'm able to work with him on some one-on-one stuff that other kids don't get. We'll see how this year pans out and see if our schedules mesh where I can help out with his team. I would imagine there'll be more time where I can take him down to the rink and do some one-on-one stuff.
"It's important, especially for kids who have parents who are athletes, to let them find their own identity. So often, especially in hockey, when you have a dad who was a professional then there's a lot of pressure placed on you at a young age.
"I'm there for lessons if he wants them but I just want him to find his own identity."
Rest assured that, between Ian and his new charges in Charlotte, it's safe to say Dwyer will have his hands full next season. That's not a problem though, he wouldn't want it any other way.
"It's going to be fun," he grins. "I'm excited to get down there and just get into the routine of it."
Belfast Telegraph Digital