It was a long trip from behind the bench at the London Ice House to the bench of an NHL team, but Gary Agnew has completed his journey.
Agnew, a former coach-GM of the London Knights, was named interim coach of the Columbus Blue Jackets yesterday. An associate coach to begin the season, he replaces Gerard Gallant, fired on Monday.
Agnew coached the Knights from 1990 through 1994 and again from 1997 to 2000. He then took over as head coach of the Syracuse Crunch, the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate, coaching for six seasons before becoming Gallant's associate this year.
"It's bitter sweet," Agnew said from Columbus, Ohio, in what was a crazy day.
"Gerard Gallant was a close friend. This is very, very hard. That's part of the deal, I know all that stuff, but it doesn't make it any easier from an emotional standpoint."
Agnew has always been a personable guy. He lets players know where they stand. His second stint with the Knights was highly successful, including getting them to their second OHL final in 1999.
He and Mark and Dale Hunter parted company, 40 days after the Hunter brothers bought the franchise in May 2000.
"I've had some good turns in my career," Agnew said. "Going back to London the second time was great for my career. I got to the semifinals one year and the finals the next, even though the team hadn't won more than 19 games the previous three years.
"You go into Syracuse the first year and they're looking at you like you're just a junior coach. You have to earn the respect of the players by showing them you know what you're talking about and treating them like professionals.
"That's what I tried to do."
There's a big difference between coaching kids and seasoned pros who feed their families by playing hockey. But Agnew was willing to take his time and learn the craft of coaching pros.
"I was never in a rush. I always felt at some point someone would give me a chance, whether it was when I was 40, 50 or 60," Agnew said.
"I love coaching, I knew I would continue to coach. I thought if I continue to do the job, someone would give me a chance. I never thought I wouldn't make it, but I knew it would take time.
"I knew I needed to gain credibility wherever I go because I don't have an NHL playing background and I think that's part of it."
Agnew took over a team with plenty of young talent, but hasn't been able to score.
"Everybody's got to grab an oar and get this thing rolling the right way," he said. "We're just going to take it a day at a time and try to move forward."
Even though he was already with the team, Agnew expects there will be an adjustment period.
"There's some seamless transition and some bumpy road," he said. "I coached about 60 or 65 of the players who are here, in Syracuse. That's given me a leg up. I've worked on developing a relationship with the guys I haven't coached. That was my main focus early on as an assistant coach. The other guys knew me. I wanted to make sure the guys who didn't know me, got to know me."
Agnew is among a group in the Blue Jackets organization with strong London ties, including his boss, GM and president Doug MacLean, who was a Knights assistant coach under Don Boyd, the NHL club's director of player personnel.
"It's exciting," Agnew said. "I get the call at 4 o'clock and I'm shaking because I feel so bad for Gerard. Then they call you the next day and say they want to bring you in, on an interim basis and you're thinking, 'holy crap!' The range of emotions of seeing a friend leave and now you're taking over . . . It isn't easy."
MacLean is making a list of candidates for the job. Agnew knows he needs to grasp this opportunity.
"It's an interim position. Is there pressure there? I guess so. Everything's happened so quickly. What I want to do is what's best for the organization and I want to win. That's all. I don't care how we do or how we do it. I just want to win.
"After that, let the cards fall where they may. There's some things you can control and some things you can't. I'm going to do the best I can and let the guys who make decisions, make the call. It's a little different situation, but it's a shot."