The Nelson Leafs’ new head coach says he hopes to help restore the team’s reputation.
Briar McNaney was hired as the Leafs’ interim coach Tuesday after a line brawl on Dec. 31, led to a slew of suspensions and the resignation of head coach Adam DiBella.
McNaney’s arrival comes at one of the most turbulent moments in the team’s history.
Video of the incident, in which DiBella directed five Leafs players to fight the visiting Beaver Valley Nitehawks following a puck drop, went viral and made national headlines. It led to the KIJHL suspending the players along with DiBella who was to be removed for the remainder of the season. The team was also fined $5,000 and staff ordered to take code-of-conduct training.
The Leafs won one of three games on an ensuing road trip last weekend then traded top goal scorer Joe Davidson and another player to the Osoyoos Coyotes in a five-player deal that brought back three rookies.
So McNaney has his work cut out for him, but he’s come to Nelson with his eyes open.
“It’s been a great spot for years, and I don’t want players, parents, scouts, other teams thinking that this is not a good destination,” he said. “I think this is just a one-off incident, and part of my goal is to help these kids get to the next level and achieve their goals.”
McNaney is no stranger to the KIJHL. The 30-year-old played five seasons in the league with Columbia Valley, Fernie, Kamloops, Revelstoke and 100 Mile House.
In 2017 he took an assistant coaching job with Columbia Valley, and was made the Rockies’ head coach in 2020. There he stayed, ascending to take on the general manager role in January 2022.
Last season, in his first full year of coaching, McNaney led the Rockies to a 30-9-3 record that was tied with Nelson for fourth overall in the league.
McNaney left Columbia Valley in the off-season to take an assistant coaching job with the Kindersley Klippers of the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League. But he was let go by the Klippers in December, not long before the Leafs found themselves in need of a new coach.
“The Nelson Leafs job doesn’t open up often. When you have a top destination where you have the opportunity to be a head coach in, it’s a no-brainer, absolute no-brainer to say yes to if it was ever offered.”
Leafs president Corey Viala said in a statement that McNaney is “considered a player’s coach who concentrates on player development.”
“The Nelson Leafs are excited to welcome Briar to the Leafs and look forward to moving forward as we prepare to finish the regular season and enter this season’s playoffs with a renewed enthusiasm.”
After playing in the KIJHL championship series last spring, the Leafs have struggled to reach similar heights this season. But Nelson is also just one point out of first place in the Neil Murdoch Division, and has a month left in the regular season to right the ship.
On the ice, McNaney said he’ll look to make tweaks to the Leafs’ play rather than wholesale changes. In the short term he is working with a slim roster, as Tyler Seminoff, Leighton Partington, Hunter Sperle and Ryland Mennie are still suspended for five more games.
“I will be implementing some new concepts as opposed to systems to help the boys adapt to their goals for development a little bit better, as well as play a pretty exciting brand of hockey for the fans here.”
The Leafs next play the Grand Forks Border Bruins on Friday. McNaney’s home debut with the team is Saturday against the Castlegar Rebels.