By JOE BABIK
ECHL Senior PR/Historical Specialist
Less than a decade ago when he was head coach of the South Carolina Stingrays, Spencer Carbery never dreamed of one day coaching in the National Hockey League. Fast forward to today, and the 41-year-old is ready to embark on his first season as a head coach in the league with the Washington Capitals, after spending the previous two seasons as an assistant coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“It wasn’t even in the back of my mind whatsoever to be coaching in the NHL,” Carbery said. “I was just trying to keep my head above water and striving to get better and focus on how we’re going to win on Friday night against the Wheeling Nailers. It was such a learning experience in those first few years of coaching and I was just so focused on the short term that I wasn’t even thinking about potentially coaching in the National Hockey League.”
Carbery enjoyed considerable success in his five seasons as Stingrays head coach from 2011-16, winning 40 or more games three times, capturing a pair of division titles, advancing to the 2015 Kelly Cup Finals and receiving the John Brophy Award as ECHL Coach of the Year in 2014.
It was that experience that laid the groundwork for his future path, which has included moving on to being head coach of the Ontario Hockey League’s Saginaw Spirit, an assistant coach with the American Hockey League’s Providence Bruins and head coach of the AHL’s Hershey Bears, before joining the Maple Leafs staff in 2021. In 2020-21, he received the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as AHL Coach of the Year, joining Roy Sommer, Rick Kowalsky and Claude Noel as the only coaches to win the Coach of the Year Award in both the ECHL and AHL.
“Having all the additional responsibilities that an ECHL coach has, made me more efficient as a coach,” he said. “Not only are you coaching, but you’re breaking down film, doing player development, all of that stuff, I got much better with being able to maximize what I need to accomplish. It definitely prepared me for my career development. When I got an opportunity to coach in the American Hockey League, it wasn't that you had all this more time because you weren't dealing with all those different responsibilities, it was that you became more efficient with your time as a coach and you could tackle different projects.”
Carbery is one of many in a long line of Stingrays coaches that have gone on to NHL success. Jason Fitzsimmons is in his 17th season as a scout for the Capitals. Jared Bednar, a 2020 inductee into the ECHL Hall of Fame, enters his eighth season as head coach of the Colorado Avalanche, and is the only coach to lead teams to championships in the ECHL, AHL and NHL. Cail MacLean is an assistant coach with the Calgary Flames while Ryan Warsofsky is an assistant coach with the San Jose Sharks. That network has been a good sounding board for Carbery throughout his coaching career.
“As we all progressed in the coaching world, we have been able to learn from and lead each other,” Carbery said. “Even to this day, just yesterday I called (Jared) and he’s doing his preseason preparation, but he picked up immediately. I can remember years ago, sitting on Cail’s back porch in the summer going over different practice drills and system stuff when he was coaching in Abbotsford. Even after we’ve left South Carolina, we lean on each other to learn new things and pick each other’s brain.“
While this is Carbery’s first season as Capitals head coach, returning to an organization he is familiar with from his time in South Carolina and Hershey has helped to ease the transition.
“Knowing the ins and outs and the fabric of the organization, as well as the relationship component, has been extremely helpful,” he said. “A lot of the management has been here for years and are ingrained in this organization, and having worked with them before when I was with South Carolina and Hershey just gives me a ton of background on what this team has been through over the last several years.”
The head coaching opportunity in Washington also affords Carbery the change to have a birds-eye view of Alexander Ovechkin’s pursuit of the NHL’s all-time goal scoring record. Ovechkin enters the 2023-24 season with 822 goals, trailing Wayne Gretzky’s mark by 72 goals.
“Getting a front-row seat of being able to see Alex close in on one of the most historic records in sports is pretty neat, and I don’t take that lightly,” he said. “I need to make sure that I’m doing my part of putting him in positions to have success and help him achieve that record.”