It’s been six years since Rob Riley last manned a bench, a difficult feat for a member of hockey’s First Coaching Family.
In 2004, Riley stepped down as head coach of Army, a position he had held for 18 years, in order to spend more time with his family. He handed the coaching reigns to his younger brother Brian, ensuring that a Riley would remain behind the bench at West Point.
Two years later, the Columbus Blue Jackets hired Riley as a part-time scout, focusing on collegiate and prep players in the Northeast. This move that allowed him to once again be involved with hockey, but also remain relatively close to home with his family.
On Tuesday, he was named head coach of the Springfield Falcons, the Blue Jackets’ American Hockey League affiliate.
“Coaching has been in my blood, really, for my entire life,” Riley said. “I love the sport, I love the game.”
Riley took over the Army program from his father, Jack, who had been head coach at West Point for 36 years, amassing 525 wins. He was also the head coach of the 1960 US men’s ice hockey team that won gold in 1960, and inspired a generation of young hockey players that would make-up the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” team.
“It’s not easy following a legend,” he said. “I went in there and there was a lot of pressure, you know, and a lot of it was really put on by myself.”
But it seemed a natural move for the then 30-year-old Riley, who had grown up living and breathing Army Hockey, to succeed his father.
“For me along with my three brothers (Jay, Mark and Brian) and my sister (Mary Beth), there was a special bus stop on the way from school to home,” he said. “And that was at Smith Rink.”
As a boy, Riley would work on his skating during his father’s practices, while the players were at the other end of the rink. He would wait on the bench in full gear for a clearing and quickly skate across the ice to the penalty box.
“I learned to be a pretty fast skater in fear of someone coming out of the zone and running us over,” he said.
Riley attended nearly all of his father’s games and spent hours locker room learning the game as his father taught it to his players. He also probably learned a thing or two that a 12-year-old had no business learning from the man many liken to one of his West Point contemporaries: Bobby Knight.
“There were a few things broken along the way,” he said. “There were a few sticks and a few windows that he had a few problems with.”
Riley went on to play hockey for four years at Boston College, and captained the Eagles to a berth in the National Championship his senior year in 1978. He began his coaching career as an assistant coach for the BC junior varsity team the following year. Just five years later, Riley coached the Babson College to the NCAA Division III National Championship, making him the youngest head coach to accomplish the feat.
He returned to the US Military Academy in 1985 to serve as an assistant under his father before replacing him 1986.
In 18 seasons with Army, Riley compiled a record of 257-288-33, a very impressive achievement considering the nature of coaching at a Military Academy. Teams and talent levels would fluctuate over his tenure behind the bench, and Riley would adjust his coaching philosophy accordingly. Up-tempo and puck-possession one year, hard-nosed and defense-focused the next.
His most successful season came in 1995-1996, when he coached Army to a 24-9-1 record. He may have had more success the next season if the team’s top scorer had not become the first player ever drafted out of the US Military Academy. That player? New Blue Jackets assistant coach Dan Hinote.
Hinote elected to pursue a professional career and left West Point for the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey League.
“Dan was a phenomenal player,” Riley said. “I was very happy for Dan and his family, but I was very disappointed and sad for myself and our team because he was tremendous loss.”
Hinote would go to play nine seasons in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues. He won the Stanley Cup with Colorado in 2001. Although he only played under him for one season, Hinote said he owes much of his success as a player to Riley.
“He’s a very disciplined coach. He expects a lot of attention to detail and he expects great things from his players,” Hinote said. “He was able to take our group and mold us into a hardworking, physical machine.”
“He got me to where I am today.”
Hinote believes that, despite the six-year absence from coaching, Riley will be able to adjust to the AHL game quickly.
“To me it’s a no-brainer transition for him. And for theses kids, it’s a great opportunity to learn what it takes become, you know, not only a great professional, but a great man” he said. “If you ask me, I don’t think there’s anyone better for the job.”
Riley does not think the coaching lay-off will have any negative impact. He relishes the opportunity to return behind the bench and says he believes his biggest challenge will be getting used to the length of the AHL schedule.
“I think coaching is coaching,” Riley said. “It’s about communicating, it’s about respect and it’s about trust.”