Of all the top-drawer prospects you will watch perform with the Canadian national junior team over the holidays the one with the grandest NHL potential may be assistant coach Kris Knoblauch.
"There is no doubt he's destined for the NHL," long-time junior hockey executive Sherry Bassin said. "You can't outwork this guy. He earns your respect, he doesn't demand it."
Bassin, of course, is biased. He lured Knoblauch from Western Canada to coach the Erie Otters four years ago, when Bassin decided to cut ties with Robbie Ftorek in late November 2012.
Knoblauch caught Bassin's eye at the 2011 Memorial Cup in Mississauga, Ont. At 32, Knoblauch had steered the Kootenay Ice to the Ed Chynoweth Cup, the WHL championship. Bassin liked the discipline the Ice exhibited.
Plus, Knoblauch was from Imperial, Sask., population 321, about 50 minutes West of Bassin's hometown, Semans, Sask., population 204.
Bassin liked Knoblauch's small-town values, but he liked his new coach's winning ways even more.
After finishing the 2012-13 season and missing the playoffs, Knoblauch pushed the Otters to 52, 50 and 52 win seasons. He is the first coach in the OHL's rich history to accomplish the feat and this season he has the Otters, 31-6-2, en route to another 50-win year.
"I've had good players," the 38-year-old Knoblauch said.
University success, on and off the ice
From Connor Brown to Connor McDavid to Dylan Strome to Alex DeBrincat to Taylor Raddysh, you can't argue that fact. Strome and Raddysh will play for the Canadian juniors this month. DeBrincat played for the United States last year and is expected to crack the roster again.
Knoblauch was a decent player, too. A 6-foot-4, 210-pound forward, he bounced around the WHL with the Red Deer Rebels, Edmonton and Kootenay Ice, and Lethbridge Hurricanes. But he was good enough to be drafted in the seventh round (166th overall) by the New York Islanders in 1997.
He wound up at the University of Alberta for five years, won a University Cup and earned a teacher's degree.
"I am not surprised Kris has turned out to be an outstanding coach," said former U of A coach Rob Daum, now the head coach of Linz EHC in Austria. "When he played for me at the University of Alberta he was an excellent student-athlete. He was dedicated to both his sport and his studies.
"He possessed a solid work ethic. He understood very well the systems we employed and played the game excellently within that structure. Kris always cared about the welfare of the team above his personal goals. He was an excellent teammate."
Coaching on his mind
Knoblauch didn't have designs on being a coach after his playing days at the University of Alberta. He played a season with the Austin Ice Bats of the Central Hockey League and then was asked to apply for an assistant's position in Lethbridge.
He didn't get the job, but coaching was on his mind. He landed an assistant position with the 2006-07 Prince Albert Raiders. Knoblauch was on his way.
But if he was so good, why did Kootenay send him packing after two seasons? Knoblauch interviewed for the vacant University of Alberta job without the knowledge of Ice general manager Jeff Chynoweth.
After he was fired in the summer of 2012, Bassin phoned Knoblauch to gauge Knoblauch's interest in moving wife Autumn, son Marek and daughter Emry to the OHL if the Otters struggled out of the gate.
As Bassin mentioned, Knoblauch has a strong work ethic. The executive has caught the coach in his office, putting together game plans or organizing practices as early as 4:30 a.m.
"When he moves on from Erie, he's going to need a truck for all the three-ring binders of drills and notes he has in his office," Bassin said with a chuckle.
A classroom setting
Knoblauch is not a rah-rah coach. He is humble and a serene voice behind the bench. He prides himself on being a teacher, first and foremost.
"I coach my players as if we're in a classroom," he said. "There is no yelling. Other coaches would not get away with their behaviour if they were in a classroom."
Knoblauch is excited about his role with the Canadian junior team, working alongside head coach Dominique Ducharme and assistant Tim Hunter.
"Anytime you can work with elite players and elite coaches, it's an opportunity to better yourself," Knoblauch said.
Canada will begin its 11-day odyssey with a beauty right off the bat, a game against Russia on Boxing Day.
In an intense tournament like the World Junior Championship, a calming influence can be the difference. Knoblauch relishes the role.