CALGARY -- The team photo had just been snapped, and there was Canadian head coach Steve Spott helping the arena crew push chairs to the Zamboni entrance.
If you're wondering what kind of man will lead this group of Canadian juniors into the frying pan in 12 days at the world under-20 hockey championship in Ufa, Russia, that gesture said it all.
The 44-year-old Spott is humble. He's attentive. He's organized. He's a communicator. He's a teacher. He cares. You just know behind those piercing blue eyes is an NHL coach in waiting.
To understand where Spott came from, we take you back to his North York neighbourhood. His best friend at an early age was, and still is, Adam Graves.
Graves won Stanley Cups with the 1989-90 Edmonton Oilers and 1993-94 New York Rangers, and is considered one of the most respectful human beings to play the game in the last 25 years.
Spott was Graves's best man at his wedding. Graves reciprocated when Spott married his wife Lisa.
"He's my friend, but really we're brothers," Spott said. "We've spent so much time together."
They always have been there for one another. When Spott failed Grade 9 math, his father made him work at his auto body shop in the East End of Toronto that summer. Graves went along to help his friend through the difficult days.
They pulled weeds around the property. They painted the roof. They cleaned up the mess inside the garage at the end of the busy day.
"That was the worst summer," Spott recalled. "We never wanted to do that again. I guess it became pretty clear from that summer we wanted to do something else with our lives."
So they immersed themselves in hockey. Graves went away to play junior with the Windsor Spitfires. Spott wound up at Colgate University. After four years at the Hamilton, N.Y., school, he split his first professional season in 1990-91 with the Richmond Renegades of the ECHL and then a 25-game Newmarket Saints of the AHL.
Short pro career
Saints head coach Frank Anzalone previously had coached at Lake Superior State and Spott made an impression when Colgate and Lake Superior State clashed in a game. It didn't hurt that the assistant coach was Bill Purcell, a family friend of the Spott's.
But Spott's pro career didn't last much longer. He spent a year in Holland playing, but then returned to Canada and before his 30th birthday he found himself as the head coach at Seneca College. Under Spott's guidance, and some players were older than Spott, Seneca won the 1994-95 provincial championship.
He would then move on to coach the Markham Waxers. In the meantime, Graves had introduced Spott to Peter DeBoer. Graves and DeBoer were teammates in Windsor. Spott and DeBoer had worked a few summertime hockey schools together.
DeBoer was impressed with his new acquaintance.
DeBoer had just begun his head coaching career with the old Detroit Junior Red Wings of the OHL, who became the Plymouth Whalers, and he hired Spott as a scout.
A few years later, DeBoer was in the market for a trusty No. 2 man. He wanted Spott. The problem was he couldn't offer Spott much money, nowhere near the teacher's salary he was earning at Mary Ward Catholic Secondary in Scarborough, Ont.
"Thank God, this coaching thing has worked out for him," DeBoer said. "He left a good job and was making next to nothing working for me."
"It's too embarrassing to tell you how much I was making [as DeBoer's assistant]," Spott said, laughing. "Let's just say my wife was working full time and she was making twice what I was making."
'He died too young'
So why did Spott take a chance? His father, Martin, always told him to do something he enjoyed. The father told the son not to be afraid to take a risk. Well, Spott enjoyed teaching, but he loved coaching.
Unfortunately, Martin passed away 5½ years ago and won't be able to experience what could be his son's biggest triumph to date. But Spott will take his father's spirit along for the ride.
"He died too young," Spott said. "He was a terrific father, a terrific man."
DeBoer and Spott had some triumphs together. They went to back-to-back OHL finals with the Whalers -- with Spott's nephew Stephen Weiss in the lineup. The two coaches won the OHL championship and Memorial Cup title in their second year together with the 2002-03 Kitchener Rangers. They made it to the Memorial Cup final again five years later.
When DeBoer left for the NHL that summer to coach Weiss and the Florida Panthers, Spott finally became a head coach in the OHL.
"He could have been a head coach in the OHL five years before he did," DeBoer said. "I knew I had the luxury of having another head coach working alongside me."
"Let's make no mistake about it, I'm standing here as the Canadian junior team head coach because of Peter DeBoer," Spott said.
DeBoer plans to stay out of his protégé's way when the world juniors begin. He said there are too many good people on Spott's coaching staff and with Hockey Canada for him to muddy the waters. But DeBoer did give Spott one piece of advice last weekend, when the two chatted before Spott boarded a plane to Calgary for the junior team's selection camp.
"I told him I've been to Ufa and [I said] to watch what he eats over there," said DeBoer, who led the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup final last spring.
Spott has had success in his five years at the helm of the Rangers with a pair of Western Conference final appearances. He's also coached Ontario at the under-17 level, Canada to gold at the under-18 Ivan Hlinka Memorial tournament and was an assistant when the Canadian junior team lost in the 2010 gold-medal final in Saskatoon.
"I'm no different than any boy in this country," Spott said. "I woke up early to watch this tournament with my family. Adam Graves played in it. My nephew [Weiss] played in this tournament. So for me to have the opportunity to be a part of it, it's always something that I wanted to do.
"It started at the under-17 level, then the under-18 and now this. This is something for me that anytime you have an opportunity to represent your country in anything, it's overwhelming in a lot of ways because you feel such a sense of pride.
"I've been fortunate to have coached in two Memorial Cups. There is obviously a lot of pressure that goes with that. I've told people this tournament is a thousand times [more pressure].
"The biggest question I get is 'Why do you do this? Why do you put yourself out there?' I don't have an answer, other than to say any coach at our level would dream to aspire to be a part of this. I just feel honoured and fortunate."
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