By Greg Bates
After bouncing around professional hockey leagues, Spencer Carbery said he knew his dream of making it to the National Hockey League (NHL) as a player was fading.
The 29-year-old had wrapped up his second season with the South Carolina Stingrays of the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) when he started to ponder life after hockey.
“I was planning to go into the financial industry and get into financial planning or work at a bank,” Carbery said. “I started looking into job opportunities, and I got approached by (Stingrays) Head Coach Cail MacLean. I was going to play one more year, and MacLean asked me, ‘What do you think about being our assistant coach for next year?’ I said, ‘I’d like to play another year.’ He said, ‘Well, I didn’t ask you to play.’ I always tell that story because I think it’s funny. He said, ‘I’m asking you about coaching.’ I said, ‘Sounds like my (playing) career might be ending shorter than I anticipated.'”
Carbery, who played three seasons at St. Norbert College (2003-06), consulted with his wife about the job offer.
One major hang-up was the low pay.
Carbery said he weighed his options and thought he could work with youth hockey players and conduct private lessons to earn additional income.
Carbery took a leap of faith and accepted the job – a moment that changed his life.
Twelve years and five teams later, Carbery is coaching in the NHL.
He recently finished his first season as an assistant coach for the Toronto Maple Leafs, helping the team reach the postseason.
Carbery, who was born in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, said he never thought he’d make it to the NHL as a coach.
“When I first started coaching, it was the furthest thing from my imagination,” he said. “But then one day, you’re thinking maybe it’s a possibility – a long journey and a grind but cool to reflect on the 12 years when I first started and now to be coaching in the best league in the world.”
When Carbery left St. Norbert and was bouncing around the lower levels of professional hockey, he said he didn’t think coaching was in his future.
“I took that first position and immediately fell in love with the profession,” he said. “I liked it more than playing. It was fulfilling to help players reach their potential. I was always fascinated with how you could create advantages for your team through pre-scouting and matchups against teams and then also helping individuals reach their maximum potential – I was never able to get to that point (playing).”
Longtime St. Norbert men’s hockey coach Tim Coghlin has become a mentor to Carbery on the bench.
When Carbery was playing for him, Coghlin said he wouldn’t have predicted his former player would become a coach.
However, Carbery has been successful at every stop.
“He’s always had a personality people want to be around,” Coghlin said. “His work ethic is his strength. He’s a highly self-motivated person whose passion and drive are contagious. He’s an excellent communicator.”
Carbery said he learned many valuable lessons from Coghlin during his time at St. Norbert.
“I reflect and stay in touch with Coach, and we chat throughout the year,” he said. “I’m fortunate to have had that time at St. Norbert. I think back on that time and thank God (Coghlin) stuck with me, believed in me and gave me chances. It’s a quality program coach is directly responsible for. I became a man and a true person when I went to St. Norbert and was involved in that hockey program. I learned how to be a good teammate, how to manage my time, deal with adversity and what it meant to put in work and grind for something.”
Carbery had a solid three-year career at St. Norbert, tallying 100 points (55 goals, 45 assists).
He started his college career playing at the University of Alaska-Anchorage in Division I – however, he transferred to the Green Knights program after one season.
“He was impactful right away, helping St. Norbert to two NCAA finals in 2004 and 2006,” Coghlin said. “During that time, he grew tremendously as a player and matured as a man. His perspective changed, I believe.”
Carbery said he still follows the St. Norbert men’s hockey program closely.
Coghlin and his teams have captured five national titles since he left the campus 16 years ago.
“It was great because after our classes left, we were right there, knocking on the door,” Carbery said. “(Shortly) after I graduated, the program finally broke through and got that national championship. Now, it’s a well-oiled machine, churning out national championships each year. I send Coach multiple texts and bother him and get to meet some of the alumni. We still have group chats.”
Climbing up the ranks
After one year as the Stingrays’ assistant coach in 2010-11, Carbery was promoted to head coach after MacLean moved on.
He spent five seasons at the helm, amassing a record of 207-115 and was twice named ECHL Coach of the Year.
Carbery then became the head coach of the Saginaw Spirit of the Ontario Hockey League (OHL).
After one season there, he spent 2017-18 as an assistant coach of the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League (AHL).
The Hershey Bears needed a new head coach, and Carbery was hired.
In three seasons, he logged an impressive 104-50-9-8 record and won AHL Coach of the Year once.
That’s when the Maple Leafs came calling, and Carbery was hired in July 2021.
Now that Carbery is coaching at the elite level of hockey, he said it humbles him to think back about his first coaching gig when he made peanuts for a salary.
“That keeps me grounded, staying humble and down-to-Earth,” he said. “I don’t take anything in this profession for granted, and I’m thankful for everything I’m able to get in terms of resources. I still make sure to think back about riding on a bus 12 hours from Kalamazoo (Michigan) to Charleston, South Carolina, through the night.”
Carbery said he’s focused on his duties as an assistant coach for the Maple Leafs.
If he continues to show NHL teams his worth on the bench, a head coaching job could come soon.
“The fact he was responsible for the top power play in the NHL tells you the trust he’s earned along his journey,” Coghlin said. “It’s nothing short of amazing. I’m both proud of him and proud for him. He’s earned everything on his plate and will be a head coach in the NHL. I have no doubt about that.”