As most of the Blue Jackets front office left Vancouver to fly back to Columbus after the weekend’s NHL draft, the newest member of the organization’s management team was returning to a place with a special place in his memory.
Mike Eaves, who was hired last week to coach the team’s AHL affiliate in Cleveland, actually spent two years living in the capital city as a fifth and sixth grader from 1964-66.
His father, Cecil, was earning his doctorate at Ohio State at the time and helped Harry Neale establish the Buckeyes’ varsity hockey program, and the family lived at Buckeye Village, a set of apartments operated by the university for family student housing on the northwest corner of campus.
Eaves remembers 6 a.m. skates at the on-campus OSU Ice Rink and a young, hockey-loving family that was crammed into a two-bedroom apartment.
“When the Frozen Four was in Columbus (in 2005), my brother Murray and I and my bride took a hike over to Buckeye Village and looked at the place we lived in,” said Eaves, who will help out at the team’s annual prospects development camp this week in Columbus. “As a kid it seemed like it was a pretty good size. It was so small! We had a family of five in this two-bedroom apartment. My folks slept on a hide-a-bed in the front room.”
So you could say in many ways Eaves’ career has come full circle with his recent appointment in the Columbus organization, and there’s another anecdote to prove that as well.
After his standout college career at the University of Wisconsin — Eaves won a national title in 1977 and had 89 points in 43 games as a senior two years later — he trekked to Cleveland to sign his first professional contract with the NHL’s Barons.
“I was originally drafted by St. Louis and got traded to the Cleveland Barons, so at the end of the year I flew to Cleveland and signed my first pro contract,” Eaves said. “Harry Howell was the general manager for the Barons, and then about a month later they merged with the Minnesota North Stars. That was my only time in Cleveland — to sign my contract at the press conference — and I haven’t been back since. It’s funny how the world works.”
Now the coach with more ties to Ohio than you’d have expected — including the presence of his son, Ben, in the Buckeye State as the newly hired coach of the Under-18 squad in the AAA Blue Jackets program — will get the opportunity to continue his career in the state.
Much of his life has been identified with the states of Wisconsin and Minnesota. In addition to four years of playing for the Badgers, he returned to the school in 2002 and spent 14 years as the head coach, leading Wisconsin to the national championship in 2006.
He’s spent the past three years in the Land of 10,000 Lakes as the head coach at St. Olaf College, a Division III school, returning to the state where he spent five seasons with the North Stars.
But his return to Ohio is the culmination of a couple years of effort by general manager Jarmo Kekalainen, who had called Eaves to gauge his interest in the same job leading the Monsters three years ago. Eaves had just given his commitment to St. Olaf, though, and spent the past three seasons coaching the Oles and driving the fundraising campaign to get the school’s new on-campus ice arena built.
With the building having opened earlier this season, this year’s call from Kekalainen to Eaves hit the coach in a different way.
“He called about 5 o’clock in the afternoon,” Eaves said. “At the Division III level you do everything, so I had my equipment manager hat on (at the time). And Jarmo said, ‘Mike, we’re looking for a development coach in Cleveland again. What do you think?’
“When he finished his sentence, my stomach actually did a backflip. I was surprised and I was really excited about it.”
First he had to run things by his wife, Beth, and visit Columbus to meet with the Blue Jackets’ front-office staff to make sure he fit into the role the organization was pitching. When the excitement stayed and the offer came, Eaves was ready to go.
While he hasn’t coached at the pro level since 2000 when he was an assistant with Pittsburgh — he also twice was an assistant in Philadelphia and also was head coach of Finland’s HIFK Helsinki in 1996-97 — Eaves doesn’t think it will be a big transition to go from college to the pros. Many of the players he’ll be leading in Cleveland will be the same age as those he was coaching at Wisconsin and St. Olaf, and the desire to reach their potential will be the same out of those prospects.
“It’s trying to make young people better,” he said. “There’s elements on the ice and there’s elements off the ice physically, mentally and emotionally. Those are probably as important as the things on the ice.”
Eaves will spend time this summer meeting with the Blue Jackets coaching staff to see what he can do to make the transition seamless for players going up from the AHL team to the highest level, and making sure he’s on the same page with head coach John Tortorella will be a key.
He also hopes to help the team’s prospects develop in a winning environment, which Cleveland has a recent history of producing. In 2016, the Monsters — featuring a number of players who have helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs for three straight seasons — won the Calder Cup, and last year the team made it to the second round of the playoffs.
“You don’t develop unless you’re doing it in an environment where winning is a part of it,” Eaves said. “To the degree of winning, that depends on what you have, but you don’t want to be in a losing environment. You have to find a way to win, and hopefully you have good older guys on the team who are going to help you bring the young people along so you have that environment.”