Skipjacks' Laird ready to break the ice Coach takes hot hand into tonight's opener

October 06, 1990|By Don Markus

The Baltimore Skipjacks were putting the finishing touches on a recent practice when Robbie Laird decided to get into the act. As the last group on the ice skated up and back between blue lines, there was Laird, keeping up with the kids, knocking the puck away.

"I like to get involved," Laird said later. "It helps keep me focused."

Laird's skates-on approach and high energy level have been obvious in the short time he has spent as coach and general manager of the Skipjacks. Whether he can maintain the pace, as well as his own personal success, will be tested over the course of the 1990-91 season.

After being named the International Hockey League's Coach of the Year twice in Fort Wayne, Ind., and spending last season as an assistant to Bryan and Terry Murray with the Washington Capitals, Laird will try to keep the string going in Baltimore.

bTC Asked to explain the success his teams had in Fort Wayne, Laird smiles awkwardly. He nervously wraps a small piece of string aroundtwo fingers, over and over again. He seems confident in his abilities, but not comfortable talking about himself.

"I've had good people to work with," said Laird, 35, sitting on a bench in the lobby of the Columbia Ice Rink this week. "I've tried to establish an identity with each team, that being a work ethic, a strong defense and discipline. But you have to have good people to make it succeed."

It isn't going to be easy. The Skipjacks, who will open the season tonight in Hershey, Pa., likely will suit up the youngest team in franchise history and one of the youngest ever in the American Hockey League.

"With a hockey team, you're always striving for the right chemistry, the right balance," said Laird, who will start the season with 12 first-year players on the 22-man roster. "You need some experience and some character veterans with leadership qualities. At the same time, you need some youthful exuberance. Let's face it, we're here to develop players that will, hopefully, be Washington Capitals someday."

Laird is not unfamiliar with the life and dreams of a minor-league player, one usually filled with long bus rides to oblivion and short trips to the big time. Laird sandwiched 10 years in the minors around one game with the Minnesota North Stars during the 1980-81 season.

It was Laird's last fling as a player, in Fort Wayne six years ago, that led to the start of his coaching career. After deciding to retire at 29 -- "My body was telling me it was time," he said -- Laird was thinking about his hockey afterlife when the Komets head coaching job became available. He had spent seven seasons there as a player and had earned a reputation as a hard-working, high-scoring wing who didn't take guff from anyone. During his best season with the Komets, Laird scored 45 goals, had 46 assists and amassed 298 minutes in penalties.

"In hockey, timing's everything," said Laird. "The coaching job happened at the right time. But you have to make the most of a situation when it happens. As a coach, you have to be successful, or else you move on."

Laird moved up. Despite its independent status, Fort Wayne twice won the league's regular-season championship under Laird. In three of his four seasons, the Komets led the IHL in goals-against average. Fort Wayne averaged 100 points in that stretch.

The job Laird did there attracted attention from the Capitals and an offer from general manager David Poile. What Laird couldn't do as a player -- spend an entire season in the NHL -- was accomplished when he assisted the Murrays in what turned out to be Washington's most successful season.

"Robbie's got a real good foundation at a young age, between his playing background and his coaching background," said Poile. "If you're going to build up a resume to eventually take the next step, Robbie certainly has impeccable credentials."

Which made Laird's decision to move back to the minor leagues this season a difficult one. He said that when the Capitals decided not to renew the contract of Skipjacks coach Doug MacLean -- a midseason replacement for Terry Murray -- Laird wasn't sure that he wanted the job.

"It was not an easy decision," said Laird, who at one time played for former Skipjacks coach Gene Ubriaco in Nashville, Tenn. "It was one I pondered for a lengthy period of time. I spent 10 years playing and four years coaching in the minors, and ultimately my goal was to get to the NHL. Last year was a great learning experience for me. But I was an assistant coach, and it's not the same as being a head coach."

A number of factors eased the move to Baltimore -- among them the Skipjacks' affiliation with the Capitals and the proximity between the two franchises. But what might have sealed the deal was making Laird general manager, which, according to Poile, involves him in the organization's personnel decisions.

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