Let Greg Cronin tell the story of the unfettered and unscripted interview with Ducks general manager Pat Verbeek that led him, at age 60, to secure his first NHL head coaching job.
Keep in mind, while reading silently or aloud, that Cronin’s Boston accent is as thick as New England clam chowdah. Enough so that he marveled at Verbeek’s “fahm” upbringing and spoke of having driven his “cah” from Anaheim back home to Maine after the Ducks hired him a few weeks ago.
“Here’s a Western Ontario guy that did a little bit of pig farming as a kid growing up, and here I am, a Boston guy, and I grew up in the city and I never played in the league, but how did these two guys ever meet each other and sit down across a desk from one another in the Marriott hotel in Palm Desert for five hours and never open up a notebook?” Cronin said.
“I’m sure he had a grid of questions he wanted to ask me, but it just kind of flowed naturally.”
They had many mutual friends but didn’t know each other well. Despite their dissimilar backgrounds, their hockey philosophy meshed. Afterward, Verbeek asked Cronin to analyze video from the Ducks’ epically bad season and compile his thoughts. To Cronin’s credit, he didn’t run away in horror. Nor did he blame predecessor Dallas Eakins, whom Cronin had coached as a player and coached against in the American Hockey League.
“I’ve been in these situations where things go sideways, and he had great people around him,” Cronin said. “I’ve had this happen at least twice in my career. The train just comes. It keeps wobbling on the tracks, and you’re trying to keep it on its four wheels and you can’t. And when that happens, the structure and the habits and the details just crash along with the train.
“So, I saw a team that kind of lost its identity and needed to get back on the path.”
Cronin, a native of Arlington, Mass., was a decidedly outside-the-box choice. It’s refreshing to see someone rewarded for paying more than his share of dues, when Verbeek could have played it safe by raiding the recycle bin for a coach who had made three or four previous NHL stops.
What matters most is whether Cronin is the right choice for the Ducks, who are at a crucial point of a messy and sometimes ugly rebuild.
It’s not that they lack young talent. Defenseman Jamie Drysdale (who missed most of last season because of shoulder surgery), and forwards Troy Terry, Trevor Zegras and Mason McTavish are foundational players. The top three defensemen in junior hockey last season were Ducks prospects: 2021 draftee Olen Zellweger and 2022 picks Pavel Mintyukov and Tristan Luneau. Center Nathan Gaucher, also a 2022 pick, was a standout in the Quebec Remparts’ Canadian junior hockey championship run.
The Ducks can add another potential game-changer Wednesday, when the NHL draft begins in Nashville. They lost the draft lottery and the No. 1 pick to Chicago, which is expected to claim generational talent Connor Bedard, but University of Michigan forward Adam Fantilli is projected to be much more than a mere consolation prize at No. 2.
The Kings don’t have a first-round pick after trading theirs to Columbus in the deal that brought them Vladislav Gavrikov and Joonas Korpisalo.
Cronin said he left draft strategizing to Verbeek and the scouts. “He’s got a vision of where he’s bringing this program and he knows which pieces are going to fit that vision well, and I don’t,” Cronin said during a phone conversation. “I can control only what I can control, and that’s how the current players are going to respond in preparation for training camp.”
In announcing Cronin’s hiring, Verbeek said he had sought “a teacher of the finer points of the game, and someone who has worked extensively over time with talented young players.”
Cronin checks those boxes. His resume includes time on the staff of the U.S. National Team Development program, assistant coaching jobs at Colby College, Maine and Colorado College, coaching the revival of Northeastern University’s downtrodden program, and assistant or associate coaching jobs with the New York Islanders and Toronto Maple Leafs. “When you marry the teaching part into the youth, it’s really exciting being part of this,” he said.
He doesn’t plan to reinvent the puck. He will emphasize fundamentals, competitiveness, establishing good practice habits that carry over to games, and accountability. Every coach says something along those lines, but few succeed over the long haul. “I’m trying to weaponize them with more options to use in different situations in a game,” he said.
Cronin enjoyed driving his “cah” from Southern California to Maine after he was hired because he saw monuments and landmarks he had learned about as a history major at Colby College. “It feeds your soul a bit,” he said. He fed his curiosity by stopping along the way to visit Ducks players and ask them what happened last season. They had different answers. He followed up with the same question: What was your part in the bottom-dwelling finish?
“Because everybody had a role in it,” Cronin said. “It’s not just the coaches. What was your role in it, what did you do to try and prevent it? Because life’s a two-sided coin. There were a lot of bad performances. And so what can we learn from the badness? How can we flip that over and take that and turn the negative into a positive? I know it’s cliched, but it’s true.
‘It starts with the players. They have to take ownership of what happened. Anytime there’s adversity or a crisis or chaos, your job is to take ownership of it and then live in the solution.”
Cronin was finishing a house hunt last week in anticipation of returning to Orange County (though not by cah) for the Ducks’ upcoming development camp. He has already made himself at home here in a way: He has gone surfing with Hall of Famer and former Duck Paul Kariya, whom Cronin coached at Maine. They favor San Onofre for standup paddleboarding. “We have a lot of good times out there,” Cronin said.
And so the Ducks’ future is in the hands of the former pig farmer who earned the nickname “Little Ball of Hate” during his fiery playing career, and a man who carries Boston in his heart and his speech, who never played in the NHL and waited decades for a chance to command an NHL bench. An unlikely pairing, but it might be crazy enough to work for the Ducks, who have nowhere to go but up.