Not every coach takes pride in his ability to playfully rib his players. But, more than two years removed from his last NHL game as a player, Ryane Clowe can't help but keep chirping now that he is an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils.
Forced by concussions to abandon his playing career and still on long-term injured reserve, Clowe embarked on a new path in his hockey life. At 34 years old and still coming to terms with the abrupt end of his playing days, the winger has found comfort in his new gig -- not to mention his odd opportunity to talk trash.
"He's pretty quick with the jabs," Devils forward Taylor Hall said of Clowe. "You can tell that he still kind of wants to be one of the boys, but at the same time has to separate himself because he's a coach now."
A premier agitator during parts of nine seasons, Clowe might be best remembered for a 2012 game in which, as a member of the San Jose Sharks, he disrupted a Los Angeles Kings rush with a timely pokecheck -- from the bench. He has mellowed somewhat as a coach but hasn't lost his predilection for verbal jabs since playing his last game on Nov. 6, 2014.
"That's the fun thing about it, right?" Clowe said. "That's what you miss when you're away."
"I've been hit a lot harder. I don't know if that one just caught me in the right position, but I didn't feel right," Clowe said. "At that stage, I had been through enough that I had a pretty good indication of the symptoms. I knew immediately that something was off."
Clowe's decision to walk away as a player ultimately wasn't his. At 32 and entering the second year of a five-year contract, there was little indication that Clowe's career would ultimately be over after playing just 13 games in the 2014-15 season.
"You're used to the routine and the structure for so many years. Now you don't have to be anywhere at a certain time. That's the challenging part," Clowe said. "You've got to find what else you know, what else is your passion. I just figured I know one thing, and that's hockey, and I have a strong passion for it."
But the path from player to coach wasn't seamless for Clowe, whom doctors told to stop playing hockey roughly a year after he suffered his last concussion. But before receiving that prognosis, Clowe was partially confined to his home dealing with concussion symptoms while simultaneously coming to terms with the very real possibility that his career was over.
"With every concussion, I knew I was closer to the end. The fact that you might not play again puts you in a dark place," Clowe said. "And depression and anxiety are the symptoms I've always had, along with the migraines and the eye pain. A lot of sleeping. Any time you're in a dark place and you're sleeping a lot and you're down, you constantly think, 'I never want to feel like this again.'"
Convinced his next career would be in hockey, Clowe sought counsel from countless NHL colleagues involved in broadcasting and coaching.
"We had a few conversations. I talked to him, and I thought he had potential as a coach," said Sharks head coach Peter DeBoer, who coached Clowe in New Jersey. "Just being around him, his leadership ability. He's an impressive guy.
"He's got a bright future as a coach. He's got all the elements to be a head coach in the NHL one day."
But embarking on a coaching search was complicated for someone in Clowe's unique situation. With three years and $14.55 million remaining on his five-year, $24.25 million deal with the Devils, Clowe would have to technically remain on long-term injured reserve. If he retired, it would subject New Jersey to a cap-recapture penalty outlined in the current collective bargaining agreement.
But the situation wasn't unprecedented. Chris Pronger's career was also cut short by concussions before the Hall of Fame defenseman joined the NHL's department of player safety in 2014. Pronger was still technically an NHL player on long-term IR when he took that job.
For Clowe, the most obvious move was to look internally for coaching work. He saw a unique opportunity to start that discussion when the Devils hired Ray Shero as their general manager in 2015.
"I started up some conversations with Ray, and it looked like I wasn't going to be able to play again or get cleared to play again. I mentioned to him I'd love to be able to stay around in some capacity," Clowe said. "Ray was great. We had no relationship, but he allowed me to come in from Day 1 of training camp and be around the staff, be around the team."
After mostly providing help as an area scout for both the Devils and their American Hockey League team in Albany during the 2015-16 season, Clowe earned a promotion this season. The youngest head coach in the NHL when he was hired last season at age 40, John Hynes took a chance on Clowe, who is younger than three players on the Devils' roster. Though New Jersey has struggled for large parts of the 2016-17 season and has tried to stay out of the Metropolitan Division basement, Clowe has so far relished the opportunity to work as a coach.
"It's a daily challenge. In coaching, no two days are the same. There's always something that you're dealing with, that you have to adjust to," Clowe said. "For me it's a huge challenge, and that's exciting because it's never stale."
Clowe hasn't just taken the time to mentor Devils players since suffering his last injury. Last season, Ottawa Senators forward Clarke MacArthur, who has been limited to four games in the past two seasons because of concussions, came to Clowe for guidance.
Thrilled as he might be about the Devils taking on him, Clowe concedes he still has yet to come to terms with how his playing career ended. A sixth-round pick in 2001 who willed himself into becoming an everyday player, it still gnaws him knowing that his playing days were halted prematurely. But if there is any consolation in how his career ended, it might be how the realities of brain trauma redirected him toward a new hockey career -- one in which the day-to-day responsibilities of coaching help soothe the sting of losing his old job as a player.
"It's still with me. It's still challenging. There are still not too many times when I go out and watch the teams warm up and don't wish I was still playing," Clowe said. "It's still not easy. Having your time occupied with something you still enjoy and something you're striving to be better at, like coaching, makes the time easier. It's not playing, but it's second-best."