TRAVERSE CITY — Once upon a time, Adam Nightingale’s parents stood dutifully beside Cheboygan’s outdoor rink, watching their son play hockey and waiting to help shovel snow off the ice between periods.
Now all they have to do is turn on a TV.
Once a celebrated star of Cheboygan youth hockey, Nightingale is entering his third season as an assistant coach for the Detroit Red Wings.
Nightingale, who also played collegiately at both Lake Superior State and Michigan State, spent 2016-17 as a video coach with the Buffalo Sabres before joining the Wings in 2017. He makes the jump from the video room to the bench at the behest of Wings head coach Jeff Blashill.
“I’ve been very lucky to be around some great people, going all the way back to my playing days,” said Nightingale, whose promotion was announced in May. “I never got into this thinking I was going to be an NHL coach some day. That was never really a goal of mine. I was just lucky to be with people that I could learn from, both as coaches and as people.”
Nightingale left Cheboygan as a junior in high school to play for the Soo Indians, where he honed his skills against top Jr. A competition. After college, Nightingale played professionally in the East Coast Hockey League, spending four seasons with Greenville and Charlotte. He joined the Michigan State hockey staff in 2010, serving as Director of Hockey Operations. Nightingale then returned to Shattuck St. Mary’s as head coach of the bantam team, winning a national title in 2016.
After his stint with the Sabres, Nightingale coordinated video for Team USA at the 2017 IIHF World Championships under Blashill. The head coach immediately recognized Nightingale’s keen eye and analysis.
“He has a very, very bright hockey mind and a bright ‘people’ mind as well,” Blashill said. “That much was evident right away. Now, we want to continue his impact on our staff and team by bringing him into a role that’s up the ladder a bit.”
Getting into coaching from the video wing of the discipline provided Nightingale with a unique perspective on the game. As a video coach, he would get to break down opponents and their tendencies — and provide insight on game day replay challenges.
“As a video coach, you are a kind of pre-scout,” Nightingale explained. “You’re looking ahead to the next four opponents, whittling the game down to 30 clips or so, then meeting with the coaching staff to go over what to expect and how to react. You are able to get a good feel for teams. Plus, there’s an in-game element. The coaches have a TV down there (on the bench) to see what happened, but you’re upstairs with all the angles and without 20,000 screaming fans. It’s an important part of the role, too.”
While well-versed in the Xs and Os of coaching, Nightingale says the profession also requires an interpersonal component.
“Coaching is in many ways about relationships with the players as people,” he said. “And again, I’ve been fortunate to be able to see how some great coaches have gone about that. From Tom Ward at Shattuck, to Rick Comley and Tom Anastos at MSU, with Dan Bylsma in Buffalo, and now with Blash, they’ve been great role models for me as coaches and as people. I’ve been super lucky.”
Blashill sees the same qualities in Nightingale.
“He’s got just a great ability to connect with players,” Blashill said. “He’s very comfortable in his own skin, and he brings a lot of those great characteristics to the bench.”
While hockey may be his passion, Nightingale and his family still enjoy the chance to come back to northern Michigan each summer.
Among his favorite rites of summertime is wetting a fishing line or two.
“It’s nice being just three and a half hours from home,” Nightingale said. “We get up 4-5 times a summer, and we get to fish a lot. My parents have 80 acres with some water, and a (cottage) near Vanderbilt. We’ll go for walleye on the Cheboygan River, small mouth (bass) on Mullet Lake, some northern pike. We bring in a few, but with three kids ages 11, 9, and 7, there can be chaos in the boat.”
Nightingale also credits his wife, Kristin, for supporting him in the nomadic life of being hooked on coaching.
“She’s a saint,” he said. “We’ve moved so many times. When I first got into coaching, I had to leave a good job in construction and it was a bit of a cut (in pay). Plus, she was pregnant and obviously we needed to have (medical) insurance. But she has supported me all the way, and that’s so important.”
Nightingale’s support system extends back to his playing days in Cheboygan, even before the Ralph G. Cantile Arena was erected in 1992.
“I keep saying it, but I was very lucky,” said Nightingale, whose brothers Jared (MSU) and Jason (Notre Dame) also learned the game in Cheboygan before starring in the NCAA ranks and beyond. “We had parents who were so supportive. They would be out there, knee-deep in snow with their shovels. It’s pretty hard to be successful at any level of the game without having some pretty great support behind you, and we certainly had that.”
Nightingale, Blashill and the rest of the Red Wings wrap up their northern Michigan stay with a Monday morning practice session, following the annual Red and White game Sunday at noon. The team opens its preseason slate Tuesday against Chicago, with the regular-season debut Oct. 5 in Nashville.