Would you leave sunny Southern California - stunning, coastal Newport Beach to be exact - for a frigid winter on northern Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula, about a five-hour drive west of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.?
You would if you were Steve Shields. The former NHL goalie said the decision was an easy one. The idea of making such a drastic move was hatched last summer. It became a reality six months ago when his friend Mel Pearson offered the 39-year-old Shields the position of unpaid, volunteer goalie coach at Michigan Tech.
Pearson, named the WCHA coach of the year on Thursday, is in his rookie season at the helm of Michigan Tech after 23 years as an assistant coach under Red Berenson at the University of Michigan. He recruited Shields two decades ago to play for Michigan. So the least the native of North Bay, Ont., could do was help out his old coach.
"It really wasn't that difficult decision for me," Shields said. "I was going to spend a few years in California, but I always felt I would jump back into hockey in some way, probably coaching. I feel I have quite a bit to offer. I felt it was a way to give back to coach Pearson and give back to college hockey, which was so good for me.
"Mel was the one who recruited me. He found me. He got me on my way. It was a very easy decision."
So he found a neighbour who was willing to house sit and someone to take care of his dog. He traded in his car for a pickup, packed up and made the three-day trek northeast.
Alone with his thoughts, he didn't turn back.
"When he got to Duluth [Minnesota] I think he thought Houghton was just around the corner," Pearson said. "But he had another eight hours to go. If he was going to turn back that was the time to do it.
"I can't put a value on how important he's been. He's not only worked with our goalies, but he has helped out our defence and forwards as well. He's been all in."
Pearson, whose squad begins the playoffs on the road against Colorado College on Saturday, remarked that he always thought Shields would make an excellent coach. While some players just play, Shields was a student of the game.
If you want an example of how valuable Shields has been, just take a look at the improvement in Michigan Tech senior goalie Josh Robinson. He has piled up 13 victories this season after winning only six in his first three years at the school.
"If I was going to do this I wanted to be all in," Shields said. "I've been around the team every day. With the two assistant coaches [Bill Muckalt and Damon Whitten] sometimes off recruiting, the opportunity has been there to help out in other ways."
In the NHL, Shields had some of the best goalie coaches in the game in Mitch Korn, the late Warren Strelow, Wayne Thomas and Francois Allaire. He has leaned on Korn, who coached Shields when he was with the Buffalo Sabres, and one of Korn's disciples in Dallas Stars goalie coach Mike Valley as well as Thomas.
"Just because you're an ex-NHLer, doesn't mean you can just show up," said Shields, who played 10 NHL seasons with the Sabers, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Florida Panthers and Atlanta Thrashers. "You have to know how to coach. You have to know how to get the message across, how to teach and how to make the players feel comfortable with you."
Since his playing days ended in 2006, Shields started a software company, in which he developed an online coaching solution and video synchronization.
He was mentally drained when he left the game. But because he had kept himself in shape and feeling better than he had in while, Shields contemplated a comeback. He had investigated the possibility of joining some friends who were playing overseas.
Two years ago, Thomas asked Shields to practice with the Sharks while the team's regular goalies, Evgeni Nabokov and Thomas Greiss, were at the 2010 Olympics. Shields felt good being back in goal.
Last summer, however, as he worked at his agent Kurt Overhardt's hockey camp in Vancouver he ran into Muckalt, who attended Michigan after Shields had left Ann Arbor. Muckalt talked with Shields about a possible move to Michigan Tech to join Pearson's staff. Then a few weeks later at the annual Michigan hockey team's golf tournament he found himself talking to Pearson.
So he traded in the thought about playing for coaching.
"We took the team to the Colorado Avalanche-Minnesota Wild game [in Denver on Tuesday] and I saw my old buddy Jean-Sebbastien Giguere down there with the Avs and you wonder," Shields said.
"I haven't told myself that I've retired. I feel better now than I did when I was 30. I would never say no. But I've really enjoyed myself this year. I have a lot invested in these kids. It's been great to be involved in the game again and get those competitive juices flowing."
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