His dream was to be a player. His destiny was to be a coach. Ray Edwards learned that ice hockey truth one tough and wonderful break at a time.
The new head coach of the San Antonio Rampage grew up in hockey-crazed Canada, attended NHL training camps with Los Angeles, Chicago and Ottawa and imagined a long playing career on ice. But minor league injuries ravaged his body, no one offered an NHL contract, and at age 28, an unexpected door swung open.
"Hey Ray," an East Coast Hockey League official asked, "How’d you like to coach?"
At the time, Edwards was hoping to play in Europe. Yes, he was banged up – bad back, aching shoulder, torn ligaments in his left hand – and no, he wasn’t getting any younger. But Edwards was coming off his best year and thought he had something left.
The competitive part of him wanted to play. But pragmatism prevailed. He dropped the gloves, grabbed a whistle and became one of the youngest coaches in professional hockey. In his second year, he led the Huntington (W. Va.) Blizzard to its best season ever with a 35-25-10 record.
"When I saw players succeed and reach their dreams," he says, "it was like a drug. I thought, ‘Maybe this is what I should be doing.’"
As a rugged right wing, Edwards knew how to knock guys around. As a coach, he knew how to finesse and motivate. The transition, he discovered, was nearly seamless, as if he’d been designed for the job from birth.
Now here he is, at the helm again, trying to lead the Rampage to their first playoff appearance since 2007-08 when he joined the team as an assistant coach.
"He’s a guy I’d love to play for, a guy you can believe in and trust," says Rampage General Manager and Phoenix Coyotes Assistant GM Brad Treliving. "He demands a lot from his players, but there’s a real buy-in from the players. They enjoy playing for him."
Treliving knows Edwards better than most, the two sharing a history that dates back to their days in the ECHL. A former defenseman with the Columbus Chill, Treliving recalls colliding with Edwards, then a forward with the Dayton Bombers. "When I was going back to get a puck," Treliving says, "Ray was knocking me into the boards."
The two clubs were fierce, physical rivals, unafraid to mix it up.
"We never fought," Edwards says of Treliving. "But there weren’t many nights when I didn’t get out of Columbus without dropping the gloves at least once."
Edwards’ willingness to take on bigger players, to protect his teammates and inspire his club, impressed Treliving. Edwards made another impression later, first as a player-assistant, then as an interim coach in Huntington. He recruited and signed players to contracts, marketed the team and sold tickets. Promoter by day, player by night, Edwards did everything but hock popcorn and soda. "It was crazy," he says. "But it was a great training ground for life."
It wasn’t unusual to see a player-assistant in the ECHL. It was rare, however, to see a player serve as interim coach and marketer. In the morning, Edwards arrived with a briefcase and players broke into laughter. In the afternoon, he’d accompany a sales rep on a visit to prospective ticket holders or make cold calls from the office.
No, this wasn’t the dream he nurtured while growing up in Wasaga Beach, Ontario. But he liked the work, his wife seemed happy and it sure beat the alternative: unemployment.
"I didn’t go to college," Edwards says. "I didn’t have a degree to fall back on. And I really enjoyed the business of hockey."
The results showed. When Treliving became president of the Central Hockey League and the San Angelo Saints needed a coach, he suggested an old rival. Edwards led the Saints to a 35-point turnaround and the Southwest Division title in his first season and was named Coach of the Year.
One day, he’s grinding out a living in gloves. Then suddenly, he’s a miracle-working coach. For an encore, Edwards led the Saints to another playoff appearance, and later guided the New Mexico Scorpions to the CHL Conference Finals in 2006-07.
The Rampage noticed, Edwards arrived as an assistant, and two years later became interim head coach. Under his leadership, the Rampage finished 30-23-3-6 last season and tied the Hershey Bears for the best power-play percentage in the American Hockey League at 20.7 percent. Nice start. Now for the next step -- the postseason.
“In a performance-based business, the playoffs are where you are judged,” Edwards says, and the mix of returning talent and promising newcomers provide ample hope.
Looking back, the pounding he took all those years pointed to a future beyond slapshots and body checks. As the body fell apart, other pieces came together. Once a broken jigsaw, he’s now a completed puzzle ... with a dream.
Edwards would like to go to college. Maybe he’ll study business, but he’s more likely to pursue something close to his heart: psychology. The desire isn’t to correct a long-ago decision. It’s to enhance today’s calling. He never made the NHL as a player. But he’d sure like to make it as a coach.