Talking hockey with Gaels new assistant coach John Erskine

Former NHL defenceman discusses being a pro and transition to coaching 

Erskine played eight seasons with the Washington Capitals.

John Erskine always gave thought to the idea of coaching hockey — but he didn’t think it would come so soon. 

The 14-year NHL veteran and Kingston native finds himself behind the men’s hockey team’s bench this week after the Gaels had a coaching vacancy open up midseason. Erskine — who played with head coach Brett Gibson in 1999-2000 with the OHL’s London Knights — spoke with The Journal about how he came to accept an assistant coaching position with Queen’s, his ideal style of coaching and how he found playing with Alex Ovechkin during his time with the Washington Capitals. 

You didn’t go to Queen’s — how did you find your way to join the team? 

I played with Brett Gibson in probably [1999] or 2000 back in London with the London Knights, and when we’d have our [NHL] lockout, I’d come skate with the boys here in Kingston. So I know Gibby and he called me and said, ‘[Assistant coach Tony] Cimellaro got a chance up in Bellville,’ and he wanted to know if I was interested. I didn’t really have much on-the-go right now and I thought it was a good opportunity to get in, help [Gibson] out. I can learn off a guy like him.

Is coaching something you want to pursue? 

I’d like to. It’s one of those things I’ve been thinking about for a while. Like, I know a lot about hockey — I played my whole life — so why not take what I know and help out other people.

You played hockey your whole life … how do you take everything you’ve learned from coaches at different levels and implement it here at Queen’s? 

I had some pretty good coaches — I had [Barry] Trotz, I had [Ken] Hitchcock, a bunch of guys. But I just take little things from each coach, things that I liked.I talked to some of [our] players … I’m not a big yeller, I’m pretty calm — I’m more of a get the guys motivated, constructive criticism, stuff like that. I just take those little things I know and show the players some stuff on the ice and in the film room.

Would you say the constructive criticism approach instead of the yell-at-all-costs kind of coaching style works best? 

Well, there’s coaches that scream at guys, but from when I played, I didn’t perform well when I had a coach in my ear screaming at me. I needed to be motivated; constructive criticism, tell me what I did wrong and how to fix it. And I think screaming at kids — nothing good comes across [with] that.

What do you think of the team Coach Gibson has here?

I think it’s unbelievable. From when I skated here years ago, it’s night-and-day from the style of hockey and the competitiveness. You look at everybody [here] — they’re all ex-Junior A players most of them. It’s fast hockey.

It seems like the hockey at the university level in Canada has seen an uptick in quality, right?

I know years ago the [quality] wasn’t as high — it wasn’t really a big deal. But now it seems like the smart thing to do. Come here, get a scholarship, get your education and then if you want to branch out — East Coast, American Hockey League — after that, do that. But you always have your education on the back if something ever goes wrong with hockey. 

You played eight years on the Washington Capitals with Alex Ovechkin. How was that?

Ovechkin just goes out there and works his butt off every night and wants to win. He’s always going-going-going, but he’s pretty down to earth and a great guy — and he’s a great teammate. I had a lot of fun playing on those Washington teams.

This is your first step into coaching, where do you see it going and where do you want it to go? 

You know, I haven’t even thought that far yet. I’ve been thinking about coaching. I helped coach my [kids], but at this level, this was kind of unexpected. I like coaching at this level because you don’t have to teach them how to skate and how to handle a puck …  If it keeps going like this — and I enjoy it — then I definitely want to [pursue] it.

Erskine’s responses were condensed and edited for clarity.


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