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Comet Tales: Lorne Henning

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Don LaibleLorne Henning, one of the Vancouver Canucks’ two assistant general managers, has made the nearly 3,000-mile journey from British Columbia to Utica for a long weekend. With the NHL trade deadline approaching, 22 games left in the regular season, and the Olympic break in session, for Henning it’s an opportune time to observe and report on the Comets.

“Players develop at different levels; some right from the start, others take years,” says Henning, Canucks Vice President of Player Personnel and Assistant General Manager. “This is the first year we (Vancouver) have our own team. There has been some growing pains, but give credit to our coaching staff. The team kept playing, and in the second part of the year the kids have taken off.”

Henning, who with 28 years of experience as both a player and coaching in the NHL, sounds eager to take in the upcoming three game road trip with the Comets. Flying into Syracuse, driving his rental to his temporary home away from Vancouver at Hotel Utica, Henning is readied for an up-close look at the Comets. Henning is looking forward to seeing the organization’s top affiliate skate, but is also looking forward to being back on the road, reminiscent to his 10 seasons playing for the New York Islanders.

There are no mincing of words on how Henning, a member of all four Islanders Stanley Cup championship teams (two as a player, two as Al Arbour’s assistant coach) in the 1980’s, feels about the Utica-Vancouver partnership. “I’m proud of everything. The veteran leadership has helped the kids we have playing there (Utica). Things have really taken off.”

Duties that fall under Henning’s umbrella of responsibilities has the Melfort, Saskatchewan (population 5,400) native involved in all player evaluations, trades, free agent signings, pro scouting in North America and Europe, and is the primary liaison between the Canucks and their affiliates. A visit to the Mohawk Valley by Henning is a big deal.

Having gained hockey wisdom from occupying nearly every possible role in the game, as a player and executive, Henning evaluates from a standpoint of knowing what it feels like to be in just the same situations as those in his personnel notes. Take the Comets frustrating 0-8 start of the season. Selected in the second round of the 1972 NHL amateur draft by the Islanders, Henning spent the start of his first professional season with the American Hockey League’s New Haven Nighthawks. Although playing but four games for the team, a losing culture was born early on that season, as the Nighthawks would go on to finish with a 16-40-20 record. Once being promoted to Long Island, although Henning collected 26 points in his 63 games on the NHL level, the team would record a league worst 12-60-6 finish.

“When I was with New Haven, we were a new team. Then, I’m thrown into the fire again with an expansion team (Islanders), just like Utica,” Henning said. “Then things got better, as the kids were on the same page.”

Henning is comfortable in spreading around compliments on the turnaround in Utica. “Pat Conacher (Comets’ Director of Hockey Operations) is doing a great job for us. He has contacts in the ECHL, AHL, and is always in contact with people in the leagues. Pat goes to games and is responsible for the kids we sign to tryouts.”

Imagine being 14-years old and leaving home to pursue your dream to one day play in the NHL. This is the route Henning traveled. After playing midget hockey, at 15-years old, Henning played on the major junior level, and finally in the WHL for the New Westminster Bruins. Ernie “Punch” McLean is who Henning credits for believing in his budding skills, and who would later coach him at New Westminster. “At 18 I was selected by the Islanders. Coming from a small town in Northern Saskatchewan, I didn’t know where Long Island was,” Henning admits.

When not commuting to the Mohawk Valley, the schedules kept by executives SUCH as Henning fascinates fans of all ages. With little down- time, however, Henning clearly fits into the category of, “If you love your job, you’ll never work a day in your life” philosophy. The former coach of the Islanders and Minnesota North Stars, plus a season at the helm with the AHL Springfield Indians, tells of being on his phone – a lot.

Plus, travel is a necessity. Henning credits his seasons coaching (15 as an assistant, 3 as the bench boss) as the part of his pedigree resume that really helps in his evaluating and understanding the prospects under contract to the Canucks. Henning and Utica coach Travis Green have history together. During the 1994-95 Islanders season, Henning was Green’s coach. “Travis can use me as a sounding board,” Henning explains. “He (Green) is good at asking about what you see on the ice. From the beginning of this season, Travis and the coaches were doing the right things. They kept things positive and are doing a great job.”

Henning remembers his time on Long Island with Green vividly. He talks of Green always being a student of the game. “Travis studied the game. He took things and looked at them differently from the other players. As a leader, Travis always seemed to have people wanting to follow him.”

Pressure on the NHL and AHL levels, at times, is toll-taking for coaches on all levels of experience. For instance, take when Henning was hand picked by the Islanders 19-year coach Al Arbour to replace him. Pressure? Unbelievable pressure on many fronts. But, having worked with his mentor as an assistant for five seasons, before moving on to opportunities with the North Stars, when Henning returned to Long Island, all parties felt the timing was right for him to take the team over in 1994-95.

“He (Arbour) showed me how to coach. He was a great mentor. Al was hard to follow,” Henning said.

Throughout his hockey career, Henning, an original Islander, has crossed paths with some of the best known, and highest skilled players over the past 40-plus years. One such interesting individual who Henning had as a colleague, when they both were assistant coaches with the Chicago Blackhawks is Vladislav Tretiak. The former goalie for the Russian National team and Olympian is someone who Henning appreciated being around. ” He (Tretiak) was a great player. The stories he would tell on how he trained were phenomenal to hear. He had his ups and downs; the ’80 Olympics and ’72 Summit Series, but what a person,” Henning admits.

Along with Canucks’ other assistant general manager Laurence Gilman, and general manager Michael D. Gillis, Lorne Henning dedicates his days and nights to constantly working to building a better Vancouver club. Visits to Utica, seeing in action how the investments in these individuals and the Comets organization on a whole continue to grow, is all in a day’s activities for Loren Henning.