Several of his former teammates will tell you, ‘Warren Rychel’ wasn’t exactly the first name that came to mind when thinking of which players would turn into coaches or general managers after their days on the ice were over.
Yet, there’s no arguing with the results.
The former Kings tough guy is coming off back-to-back championships at the helm of the Windsor Spitfires. He was voted the 2008-09 OHL Executive of the Year and appears as hungry as ever to continue winning. Some of his current peers even say he may just be the hardest working GM in the league.
So, how did a guy who once posted consecutive NHL seasons of 300-points in penalty minutes make the successful transition from enforcer to executive?
Prior to his Spitfires taking the ice tonight for the start of the new OHL season we went looking for answers to that question and several others.
It’s an exclusive interview with Warren Rychel…
MM: Five years prior to going to the Stanley Cup Finals in ’93 with the Kings you were playing junior hockey in the OHL. It’s 20 years later and you’re a successful executive running a team in the league. Catch us up, how did you go from NHL tough guy to running the Spits?
WR: It was all good timing. When Wayne took interest in Phoenix, I joined up with him and Cliff Fletcher, Mike Barnett, Dave Draper, etc. in the scouting department. I learned a lot there that would eventually help me as a GM in the OHL. Being based out of Windsor - my hometown and my wife’s hometown - allowed me to see how much of a big business the OHL had become. I saw what was happening in London with the Hunter brothers and the Ciccarelli’s in Sarnia. We had a chance to purchase our hometown team, which is basically a dream come true. It took a long time to put the deal together though, there were several years of negotiations.
Talk about Brian Kilrea for a moment. He was your coach when you played with the Ottawa 67s and now he’s the GM there. What’s it like to essentially be peers with a guy who was so influential in the early part of your career?
It’s funny to be in a boardroom with him now and hacking things out. Actually, I just called him this morning, it’s always nice to talk with him. He still commands respect, whether it’s as a coach or a GM. He helped me out, he got me to Chicago as a free agent to start my career in the NHL. I signed my first pro deal there as an 18-year old and I owe a lot to him for that. It was fun playing under him and in the city of Ottawa. We have that special thing that a player and coach have, even to this day. Now with us kinda on opposite ends, as GMs against each other, the respect is still there. He’s a great guy and a great icon of junior hockey.
How about Cam Fowler – he played for you last year and then entered the NHL Draft as one of the top rated defenseman. Were you surprised he fell so far down the board on draft day?
Yes. We were thinking four or five, maybe even three. But, sometimes things happen that way. He fell right into Anaheim’s lap, so they got a great player. I know it doesn’t bother Cam, he’s a great young man – on and off the ice – and he was going to be successful wherever he went. Right now, I’m kinda worried he might not be back. I’d think it’s 50-50 on what they’re going to do with him.
You played two seasons in Anaheim, what have you told him about your time there?
The biggest thing is the fans, both in LA and Anaheim, they’re awesome. It’s a great place to play. One of the things I told him was that you work hard for two hours and when you’re done it’s always nice out, your bumps and bruises are not as heavy as they would be in the winter time. Along those lines, it’s a great quality of living out in California. To play the game of hockey, the game you love, and to live there is a double whammy. It’s special. I enjoyed my time with Anaheim and LA. I know he’s loving life down there right now.
You guys are set to have Jack Campbell in net this year (2010 first round draft pick of the Dallas Stars). Describe what a special player he is and who would you compare him to?
I would kinda compare him to Marty Turco. He’s really active in the net, he likes to get out and challenge and he likes to play pucks. But, what I really like about Jack is he’s such a personable kid. He’s always in a good mood and positive. A lot of people don’t know, but he’s a big kid too - he’s 6’3″, almost 200 lbs. What blew me away in our training camp this year was how good of shape he was in. I think he was fifth overall out of 60 kids (in testing). He wants to be a pro. He’s very level headed and works hard every day. I think the fans in Windsor, and the OHL for that matter, are going to be thrilled to see him play day in and day out in our league.
Is he another guy you worry about not having for very long?
That is the rule, if you’re drafted out of the US program, you can play in the AHL. But, I think it’s safe to say he’ll be here this year. He’s on his way back from the Dallas camp and should start in net for us (tonight). That might be a problem next year though, much like Jeremy Morin is a problem in Kitchener. So, that might be tough, but we’ll deal with that when the time comes.
In the OHL Draft, some recent classes have been filled with a little controversy. What are your thoughts on players trying to manipulate the draft - is it a big problem and if so, what can be done about it?
I don’t know, maybe it was before we came into the league four years ago. Now, the executive committee has put rules in place to protect all the teams. Basically, you can draft a player, even if you feel somebody else has a cooked deal with him or not, and then receive compensation if he doesn’t report. Two of those players were there this year, one was my son and one was Nick Ebert.
He was moved for the trade value, plus a first round compensatory pick next year. So, I think the rules are there to prevent that from happening. But, a lot of teams in our league haven’t used that rule to their advantage yet.
When you’re scouting players, are those side deals something you worry about, do you sniff around quite a bit to flush out those sorts of things?
I don’t really worry about it or sniff around. We’ve brought our franchise along to be one of the best in the Canadian Hockey League, both on and off the ice. Simply put, if a boy doesn’t want to play for the Windsor Spitfires, then I’m not going to pursue it or lose sleep over it.
Back to the situation with your son Kerby…there was some controversy earlier this summer when Barrie took him at the draft, only to later trade him. So, perhaps the Colts were looking to take advantage of the compensation rule you just mentioned. Regardless, were you ever close to acquiring him in a trade last month and any thoughts on him ending up in Mississauga?
Well, first off, Kerby was born in Los Angeles during the ’94 lockout. So, he’s an LA boy first and foremost. (he laughs) Seriously though, a deal with Barrie wasn’t going to happen. We have our differences at this time, partly because of the situation in the Finals and the situation at the draft. I was aware there were a couple of other teams trying to do it though.
Dave Cameron called me and let me know that he was close to it and I have no problem letting him go play for Dave. He’ll be the World Juniors coach this year (for Team Canada) and has a good set-up there in St. Mike’s. It’s good for my son to get away from home too. He’s excited to go there and sorta make his own way in the hockey world So, everything kinda worked out I guess.
[note: Kerby is NHL draft eligible in 2013. We'll have to keep an eye on him.]
What did it mean to you to win the OHL Executive of the Year Award after the ’09 season? Was it a form of gratification or maybe approval that you belong?
Yes, that was really nice. Especially after the lumps we took our first year. Bob (Boughner) was behind the bench and I think we won only 18 games. We battled hard though, really working at it with long hours. A lot of credit doesn’t just go to me though. That award also goes to Terry Doran and the scouting staff. It goes to the coaches and the city, who supported us immensely – especially in a time of economic hardship here in Windsor, with the automotive industry.
It’s great though to get recognized by your peers in the league, the 19 governors and general managers. So, to win that award was pretty exciting.
The success on the ice has also been met with some unfortunate off ice incidents. Just last month there was another situation with a Spits player at a local bar. That’s three in the last year or so. Is there an issue and if so, what are you doing about it?
We were obviously concerned. The last two incidents were not during hockey season and the boys were of age to be at those establishments. There’s not much you can control during the off-season. But, Zach (Kassian) has had to deal with that himself and he’s still dealing with it. That was a total non-hockey thing.
We’ve talked to the guys too. Now that we have a younger team, we’ve banned kids from downtown. Basically, you have to watch where you go. Everyone wants a shot at you, some kid in a bar wants to make a name or start an argument just for the sake of starting an argument. Our players have to have better judgement and we’ve addressed that. We may not have curfews and what not in the summer, but they still have to remember they’re representing the Spitfires.
Shed some light on bringing European players over to North America to play junior hockey. You guys recently landed a big one in Russian phenom Alexander Khokhlachev, right?
Yes, Khokhlachev is really exciting. He kinda has a Mogilny-like ability to change gears. He just ripped up exhibition with 13 points in five games. I think he’s going to be a first round pick in the NHL next summer.
High end offense and he’s really a nice kid. He lived at my place for two weeks and he was a great kid, laughing and always in a good mood. His English is already very good and he’s going to be a good player for somebody in the NHL.
He’s playing with Tom Kuhnhackl too, another European player for us. His dad Erich was a legendary German player, scoring almost 800 goals. He’s really skilled as well and he’ll be a big part of our offense this season.
[note: The article linked above (about Khoklachev), says he led the Russian team at a U-17 tournament with five goals and 13 points in six games and was named to the all-star team. They also say some scouts compare him to Sergei Fedorov. He is currently projected as a top-10 pick in the 2011 NHL Draft.]
You’ve also had a few other imports…
We’ve been very lucky and I think it’s helped the success of our team. Look at Richard Panik, a Tampa bay Lightning draft pick. When he didn’t come over we traded him for Philipp Grubauer, who was basically our Memorial Cup winning goalie.
We had Andrei Loktionov the year before too. We traded a player to Owen Sound and then drafted him. He was huge for us, especially when we lost a player to the Islanders. Andrei came right in and ran the half wall on the power play. He took right over and was a big part of us winning the Memorial Cup in 2009. He’s going to be a heck of a player for LA.
Players often talk about how difficult it is to defend a championship. As an executive, how hard was it to win the second Cup last year?
That was a remarkable run last year, to come back and do it again. A lot of players had played a lot of hockey, like 100 games for both years – between the OHL, World Junior camps, the World Junior Championships, NHL camps in the summer and so on. It’s a tribute to the coaching staff how they kept it together, they kept their hunger. We had to deal with a little adversity too, being down to Kitchener 0-3 in the playoffs. But, I think we won our last 12 games going away, so it was a remarkable group.
I think it was one of the best junior teams of all time. We had NHL guys on our fourth line. We could score goals, we could fight, we had skill, we could play it anyway you wanted. The kids were great.
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The Spitfires open play tonight against the against the Plymouth Whalers.
Both teams will be a little lighter compared to the last time they met. Windsor’s Taylor Hall was drafted first overall by the Edmonton Oilers and Plymouth’s Tyler Seguin went second to the Boston Bruins. They’re both with their respective NHL clubs right now, trying to make the jump from training camp to the pros.
Meanwhile, back home, the Spits will have the requisite on-ice ceremony to celebrate last year’s Memorial Cup Championship prior to the puck dropping on their new season.
Then, it’s back to business. Can they become the first team in league history to three-peat?
Interview with Cam Fowler - 2010 first round draft pick of the Anaheim Ducks
Interview with Brian Kilrea - GM of the Ottawa 67s talks about his days in LA
Interview with Dave Torrie - candid comments from GM of the Soo Greyhounds
Other OHL interviews on MayorsManor – Brock Beukeboom, Justin Sefton, Jordan Nolan, Kyle Clifford and more. Simply type the players name in the search box near the top of the page