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Learning to be 'coach' Ryane Clowe

Pat Curcio has mixed feelings on the NHL work stoppage.

On one hand, the native of the Toronto suburb of North York is a hockey fan and misses his daily dose of NHL hockey.

But as part-owner, president, general manager and head coach of the fledgling San Francisco Bulls of the ECHL, he’s enjoying his squad’s newfound success; success that has coincided with the arrival of newly minted assistant coach Ryane Clowe of the San Jose Sharks.

“I told him you’re not going anywhere anytime soon,” Curcio joked in a telephone interview with ESPN.com.

With all due respect to Curcio and the rest of the Bulls, Clowe is hoping to get back to the Shark Tank in San Jose as quickly as possible. In fact, the Newfoundland native’s affection for his adopted home on the West Coast was one of the factors in his ending up with the Bulls.

Having spent the summer at home in Newfoundland, Clowe returned west in advance of training camp. When the lockout began in mid-September, there was a large group of Sharks to skate with. As the lockout dragged on, though, the number of players dwindled dramatically with many teammates heading either to Europe or other locales.

Clowe wondered what his next move would be.

Meanwhile, Curcio, who owns 20 percent of the team with his wife, was getting calls from a number of agents wondering about placing NHL clients with the ECHL squad. Among the calls was one from Clowe’s agent, Kent Hughes. Curcio was a big fan of Clowe’s rugged style and was thrilled at the idea that Clowe might join the team in some capacity.

“That’s my kind of hockey. I said, 'We’d love to have him,'” said Curcio, a longtime ECHL player.

Heading into the last season of his NHL deal, Clowe was torn between the need to stay in shape and the desire to avoid paying insurance costs and risking injury playing in non-NHL competition.

So Clowe split the difference and began working out with the Bulls, although he decided that at least initially he wouldn’t play. Soon, though, he and Curcio were talking about strategy, different systems that might work, how to improve the Bulls’ power play and the penalty kill.

“It kind of evolved into helping out a bit on the coaching side,” Clowe told ESPN.com.

Next thing you know, Clowe was in a suit on the bench with Curcio.

Initially, Clowe was an assistant without portfolio, talking to the guys on the bench, offering a little in-game direction. Then Curcio put Clowe in charge of the defense, as well as giving him a hand in organizing the power play and penalty kill.

“I told him if you have any questions, just run down the bench and ask,” Curcio said.

So far the Bulls have enjoyed success with Clowe on the bench, going 5-1.

The popular Shark’s presence with the team hasn’t hurt attendance, either, as the first-year Bulls have drawn an average of 3,500 to 4,500 fans to the venerable Cow Palace, where the Sharks actually played their first two years in the NHL.

“You can never have enough good people around you. It’s been great to be able to bounce things off Ryane,” Curcio said. “There’s just been a good working relationship. He’s so down to earth.”

Clowe turned 30 at the end of September, so he remains in the prime of an NHL career that has seen him become a consistent 20-goal producer with a gritty edge. But he’s also started to imagine what post-NHL life might be like. Initially, he imagined some sort of management position, but his experience with the Bulls has given him a unique view of the coaching world.

“I didn’t know how much I’d like it,” he said. “You’re still close to the action. It’s kind of rewarding.

“It’s been making something good of a bad situation,” he said in reference to the lockout, which is headed toward the three-month mark.

It’s an interesting line Clowe walks with the team.

Before practice, he and Curcio go over areas they feel the team needs to work on, including special-teams play -- which Clowe has been instrumental in assisting, given his experience at the NHL level.

Then when practice begins, Clowe dons a jersey -- he’s listed as No. 92 on the team’s website -- and skates with the boys. He cuts no corners, so when Curcio is putting the squad through their paces, Clowe is sweating it out with them every step of the way.

That has endeared Clowe to the players, said Curcio.

Come game time, Clowe is at the rink a lot earlier than if he was simply a player, looking at video and helping Curcio put together a game plan for that night’s opponents. But instead of banging bodies in the corners, he’s behind the bench in his suit, getting the defensive pairings on the ice at the right time.

Straddling the line between player and coach, Clowe leaves the critiquing of players to Curcio.

“I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes,” he said.

But he certainly has a much greater appreciation for what Sharks head coach Todd McLellan and his staff go through on a daily basis when the NHL is in business.

As a player, you tend to go home and reflect on your game, how you played, how you might get better, Clowe explained. Now as a coach, he returns home and thinks about the entire squad, 20 or 22 players, and how things might have gone better or things he as a coach might have done to get the most out of the group.

“There’s a lot to it,” he said. “Now I understand what the coaches are going through.”

As for the lockout, Clowe remains hopeful the entire season won’t be lost, although he admits if it does come to that, he won’t be entirely surprised given how things have gone in recent weeks.

“Everything’s up for grabs right now,” he said.