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Former Senator Matt Carkner: “Big Country” Takes a Big Step in His Coaching Career

New Solar Bears Coach and GM Matt Carkner speaks with the media June 21st, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo credit: Gary Bassing/Orlando Solar Bears)

Former Ottawa Senator Matt Carkner has always been an easy guy to root for. Off the ice, Carkner has always been quick with a smile or laugh – a friendly giant. On the ice, he wasn’t quite as social, defending his Ottawa teammates as fiercely as he defended his end of the ice. His path to the NHL was a tale of both resilience and local boy-made-good.

After four seasons with the Peterborough Petes, the 41-year-old Winchester native was drafted by Montreal in 1999, then powered through eight American Hockey League seasons. Some pros might think eight is enough, but Carkner persevered. He got a taste in 2006, playing one NHL game for San Jose, then another for Ottawa in 2009. Finally, in the fall of 2009, he became an NHL regular, playing his first full NHL season for his hometown team. Carkner would go on to play 237 games in the show with the Sens and Islanders.

But these days coaching is Carkner’s passion. After his playing career ended, he spent five seasons as an assistant coach with Bridgeport. He oversaw defensive zone schemes, penalty-killing, skill development, video pre-scouting and analytics. After a year away, he jumped back into the coaching fray this week, officially taking over as the new head coach and GM of the Orlando Solar Bears, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s affiliate in the East Coast League. He spoke with Faces about the new job, along with a little Senator nostalgia.

New Solar Bears Coach and GM Matt Carkner speaks with the media June 21st, 2022 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo credit: Gary Bassing/Orlando Solar Bears)

Faces: So it’s your first professional head coaching job. Were you actively pursuing this or did Orlando approach you? How did it all come together?

Carkner: I did a lot of researching and looking around, trying to narrow things down and just see what fit. The last little while, I narrowed it down to staying in pro hockey. I did some AHL assistant coach interviews, which was great. A lot of good people, a lot of good coaches. And then I had a chance to do a couple interviews on the East Coast League level. Ultimately, they flew me down here to Orlando to see the facilities and see what they’re all about. I’ll tell you what, it’s top notch down here. The facilities are unbelievable.

The ownership is family and community oriented. They want to support the team. They want the players here to develop and grow. I realized I wanted to be a head coach and I figured being in charge and getting that experience running a bench is something I’m not going to get by making a lateral move and staying on as an assistant. So, this was a good opportunity for me.

When did the coaching bug first hit you?

It actually happened when I was injured on Long Island as a player. I asked (Islanders executives) Garth Snow, Doug Weight and (Isles coach) Jack Capuano if I could come on a road trip and they brought me on the road. I was still injured, not able to play, but they sat me down and talked to me about the opportunity to coach. They thought I should do it because I had been a mentor in the locker room and that type of thing.

That’s when I realized I wanted to take that chance. I wasn’t ready to stop playing at that point. But about a year and a half later, my back was toast and I took the full-time role of assistant coach. It was a lot of work. It was different, but very rewarding.

You have an amazing story, playing eight years in the AHL. What’s your memory of those days? Was that an enjoyable time or a frustrating one, being so close to the dream for so long?

It’s a little bit of both. But my experience now helps these young kids get through their adversities because I had a lot coming up as a young guy and I had to do it the hard way. I came in and I think I had 355 penalty minutes my first year. And I had to fight everyone. I thought I was a player. I wanted to be a defenseman first, play the game and then deal with that stuff when it came to me…and it came to me a lot that year. So, I had to grow quick. And then the second year, I took a really big step. My coach came to me and he said, “Carks, you’re close. Just keep playing. You’ll be called up any second.”

And then I blew my knee out and everyone else got called up. Then they traded players so it just took a while. And then I recovered from that. They had the (2005) rule changes where you couldn’t clutch and grab. So, I had to learn how to skate [laughs]. It seemed like everything kept piling up on me.

But my biggest thing was my belief in myself, that I was able to play at that level and I deserved to be there. I just kept plugging away. And that’s what it takes. It’s just work and dedication.

Your first full NHL season was 2009 in Ottawa, right?

Yeah. It was right about that time. And I actually tried out for the team in Ottawa as a forward. I remember going through it as a forward, trying to learn a different way, trying to earn my spot. And then I think there were a couple injuries and some poor play during a preseason game. (Former Sens head coach) Cory Clouston sent me out on defense and the rest was history. I made it as a D.

What do you remember most about your time in Ottawa?

Oh, man. There are too many things that stand out. You know, just coming in the locker room and seeing guys like Alfie, Philly and Neil. They’re all in the locker room and I watched those guys throughout the years. To be amongst them and welcomed as a teammate, that was phenomenal for me. Then the first game I played in my home rink. I had all my family and friends there. I think I got a goal and an assist and I couldn’t get a fight [laughs]. But those were all great experiences just being around your team and in a good environment.

We had some pretty decent teams. Through those years, we should have won a couple of those rounds and it didn’t happen. But there were some good moments along the way there.

Well, the 2010 triple overtime goal against Pittsburgh is the one I’m sure Sens fans ask you about all the time. There’s Matt Carkner out there taking a slick feed from Alfie and burying the winner to end the longest game in Sens history.

Oh, man. That was surreal. It was great. A kid like me, blue collar, just worked my way all the way up and getting to have that type of experience and opportunity. Honestly, I think I should have scored maybe two or three goals that game. I was up the ice all night. I don’t know what was going on, but I just felt good. I always felt I raised my level in playoffs.

To be honest with you, we were all exhausted. I was just trying to get through the shift. Alfie decided to feed me a puck. Uh, he probably was hoping someone else was open [laughs], but I was open and I took the shot and yeah, it was great.

The other popular memory Sens fans have is the Brian Boyle situation in the 2012 playoffs against the Rangers. Boyle was taking liberties with Erik Karlsson and you took care of it. Whose idea was it to have you come in and sort Boyle out?

Me and Zenon Konopka figured we’d be inserted into the lineup to add a little bit of that grit and that intensity. I pretty much told (Sens head coach) Paul MacLean I’m going to take care of it. Don’t worry about it. And the game happened. It happened to be my first shift and Boyle was out there. I just saw him and I said, “Hey. Be ready. Protect yourself.” I think he finished a hit on my D partner. I went after him and…you know, the rest is history.

It was just a message that needed to be sent. All the guys jumped in and it was a big pile. We ended up killing off my five-minute major, which was good. I was pacing a little in the locker room after being kicked out of the game. I was a little nervous about that one, but you know what? They pulled through and we won the game. We started to come back in the series and we took it to seven. My knee blew up for Game 7 and I wanted to play, but Paul MacLean reassured me, “We’re going to have you in there for the next round. We’ll take care of business.” It just didn’t happen.

So, what is the long-range goal? An NHL head coaching job? Is that something you’re keeping an open door on?

Yeah, absolutely. You gotta have vision and goals. But right now, my goal is to focus in 100% here in Orlando and do the best I can develop players, win, build some relationships, and take the next step.

Can you tell us about your family?

I have my wife, Kary and my two boys, Chase and Corbin. The past six years we’ve lived just north of Bridgeport, Connecticut – a town called Trumbull. Chase is 16 and Corbin is 15. They’re both going to be attending South Kent school – a hockey academy up in Connecticut.

Very cool. Are they ringers?

Well, they don’t have their dad’s hands [laughs] and that’s a good thing! No, they’re good players. They’re figuring it out. It’s getting to that crazy time where they’re becoming OHL Draft eligible and they’re getting people watching and that kind of thing. It’s going to be one step at a time.

Do you ever get back to Ottawa or Winchester?

I haven’t in the past couple years. COVID really slowed that down. But I do have a little cabin out near Westport. It’s off the grid. I come back for about two weeks and we just tour all over and meet friends and family.

Just like his playing days, Carkner will now need a lengthy minor league tour before the NHL shows interest someday. Who’d be surprised if he climbs a second NHL mountain?

 

By Steve Warne | Faces Magazine

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