(This story was written by George Richards and first appeared on our sister publication Florida Hockey Now)
Andrew Brunette has been part of the Nashville Predators since Day 1.
He played in their first game against the Florida Panthers, a 1-0 loss to Ray Whitney and company, before scoring the team’s first-ever goal three days later in their second game against Carolina and coach Paul Maurice.
But Brunette also has a history with the Florida Panthers, a team he joined as an assistant coach under Joel Quenneville in 2019 and eventually took over as interim head coach in 2021.
Monday night, Brunette faces his former team as an opposing head coach for the first time when the Predators host the Panthers at Bridgestone Arena. Brunette remains popular among those who played under him during his time with the Panthers, as evidenced by the line of Panthers waiting to speak with him following their game last year when he was an associate head coach under Lindy Ruff with the New Jersey Devils.
And why not?
Brunette, who played 1,110 games in the NHL and was part of first-year expansion teams in Nashville and Atlanta in consecutive seasons, is known as a players’ coach and one a good number of Panthers have great reverence for.
Upon being hired by the Predators, Brunette said, “as a player, I know when I didn’t have fun, I stunk.”
During his season in Florida as the interim coach, the Panthers had themselves some fun. Brunette helped lead Florida to the Presidents’ Trophy during that 2021-22 season as it set franchise records for wins, points, goals, and more.
“It is a lot of fun, and I joke all the time, but I don’t know if you’ll ever be around a team like this,” Brunette said after the Panthers won the 10th of a franchise-record 13 consecutive games. “I just love watching them interact and am jealous I’m not playing. I am lucky enough to be a part of it. Their compete level … if you’re around them to see them day-in and day-out and see how hard they practice, how hard they compete, it has been a joy.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever see another group like this. It’s special.”
Brunette was a finalist for the Jack Adams Award for NHL Coach of the Year and was also an All-Star for the first time as coach of the Atlantic Division team with Jonathan Huberdeau. Honors, of which, were well deserved.
“We had a good foundation, the team was buzzing when he took over but he did a really good job with us,’’ Panthers forward Sam Bennett said. “Actually, he did a great job in leading us to the Presidents’ Cup and helping us have a good year. It did not end well in the playoffs, but it was a great year.
“I had a great relationship with [Brunette], he was really super-good to me here. I think he has the potential to be a really good coach. He is a players’ coach, likes being around the guys and having a good relationship with them. I know everyone enjoyed having him here when he filled in as a head coach for us. He is a good coach.”
Although he was not offered the job full-time when the Panthers were swept out of the second round by Tampa Bay, his former players are happy he got a chance to coach his own team.
Brunette ended up leaving the Panthers for New Jersey a few weeks after Maurice was named their new coach in 2022.
“I think he is going to do a really good job,’’ Panthers defenseman Aaron Ekblad said. “He does a great job of chatting with players and knows when to be firm. He has great ideas and the experience he had here will only bode well for him. As a head coach, I am sure there are a lot of nuances I do not see on a daily basis that they do that make them great. He was an assistant GM as well, so, he has a lot of experience.’’
Said Panthers forward Ryan Lomberg: “We obviously had a good year with him as our coach and he has a very competitive team in Nashville. I am happy he got that opportunity, got the chance to have something his own.”
Once Barry Trotz took over as Predators GM when David Poile stepped down, it became pretty obvious Brunette would be a great fit back in Nashville. Not only was Trotz the original coach of the Predators, he also coached Brunette in the AHL when both were with the Capitals’ organization in the early 1990s.
Brunette brought former Florida captain and assistant coach Derek MacKenzie with him to Nashville. The Panthers players are excited to see him, as well.
“He knows how our organization works and is run from top to bottom, understands what we are trying to do with this club,” Trotz said when introducing Brunette as only the fourth coach in franchise history. “We’re trying to get younger. We’re trying to retool, build a team that can win a Stanley Cup. … I have the utmost confidence that he can lead us to where we want to go.’’
So far, so good.
Despite the “retool,” the Predators have three winning streaks of three or more thus far this season, including a six-game win streak from Nov. 18 to Nov. 28, and they come into Sunday holding the second wild-card spot in the Western Conference with a 25-20-1 record. Nashville is fresh off a 3-2 loss in Arizona but has won six of its past 10.
Monday’s matchup will also be a reunion in more than one way as Nashville celebrates its first team with a number of the original Predators in town to drop the ceremonial first puck.
Fans will receive a modern recreation of the Predators’ first team poster taken at the Grand Ole Opry in 1998. Brunette is in both pictures.
In the original photo, Brunette is hanging out in the back; in the new one, he is front and center wearing the same black cowboy hat Trotz rocked in the first version.
“Back then, there was not a chance I’d ever want to coach,” Brunette said in a story for NashvillePredators.com.
“It’s kind of full circle, coming back to Nashville to coach games, but also coming here today. It’s just kind of another nostalgic event for me.”