An injury ended the playing career of Aeros coach Mike Yeo at 26, but he's already acquired some coaching chops by not taking the safe route.
MILWAUKEE -- Mike Yeo had the perfect job.
As an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins for five years, Yeo worked for a franchise with a core of stars that would be perennial Stanley Cup contenders.
Most young coaches would fasten himself to such luxury with Krazy Glue.
But Yeo wanted to be a head coach in the National Hockey League. And there were two problems: Yeo had never been a head coach. And he had never played in the NHL.
A minor-league grinder whose career ended at 26 because of a knee injury, Yeo knew how to achieve his aspiration. He would have to detach himself from Penguins coach Dan Bylsma's side, depart the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin safety net and return to the American Hockey League to run a bench for himself.
And that's what he does for the Houston Aeros, the Wild's AHL affiliate. And, as such, he figures to get major consideration for the vacant Wild post.
"I'm not Kirk Muller," Yeo said of the Montreal assistant and longtime NHLer who has never been a pro head coach, but is expected to soon land an NHL head-coaching job. "Because he's Kirk Muller, he's given more credibility, and I'm very accepting of that. I don't have the name. I didn't play  years in the NHL like Kirk Muller. The last couple years, this was something weighing heavily on my mind."
Yeo had been to the Stanley Cup Finals as Michel Therrien's assistant at Pittsburgh. A year later, he won a Stanley Cup as Bylsma's assistant. At the end of every season, Yeo sat down with Penguins General Manager Ray Shero to discuss his long-term goal. Shero would offer guidance, nearly giving Yeo the Wilkes-Barre job in 2008 when former Wild coach Todd Richards left for San Jose.
But Shero didn't want to take the valuable Yeo off Pittsburgh's bench. Suddenly, last year, interest from outside the Penguins organization flooded in.
"It's funny," Shero said. "When [Wild GM] Chuck [Fletcher] called to ask permission to talk to Mike, a day later, other teams called, too."
A perfect fit
Ultimately Yeo, 37, chose Houston. In his first year, Yeo, along with assistants Darryl Sydor and Brian Wiseman, coached the Wild's chief developmental affiliate to the second-best record (46-28-6) in the Western Conference.
The Aeros play a physical, defensively- responsible style, and Tuesday they will be playing Game 7 against the Milwaukee Admirals for the right to advance to the Western Conference finals.
"When I look back, I can say Mike was so ready to be a head coach," Bylsma said. "His work ethic is diligent. The guy is relentless in trying to come up with the right answers and trying to come up with the plan and message to the team.
"He did a lot of the nuts and bolts and a lot of the work in putting together the presentation of the system to the team."
Houston was a perfect fit. Yeo knew Fletcher from Pittsburgh. He knew Aeros GM Jim Mill for years. And he had a history in Houston, where he played five years and captained the Aeros to a Turner Cup championship (in the now-defunct International Hockey League) in 1999.
"I coached him all five years," said Phoenix Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, a former Aeros player, coach and GM. "Mike was a hard-nosed checker, good penalty killer and sneaky tough. He didn't look for [trouble] all the time, but if you came knocking on the door, you were going to get a surprise."
Yeo, a native of North Bay, Ontario, overcame four surgeries in his first three years of juniors. He once thought he had a contract with the Boston Bruins before failing a physical because of a recurring shoulder injury.
He was never the best player on his team, but he displayed other talents.
"He was so well-respected by his teammates because of how hard he worked," Tippett said. "It was always about the team winning. He had a way to portray that, which made him a real leader."
When unable to play anymore, Yeo became Glenn Patrick's assistant in Wilkes-Barre in 1999. In came Therrien in 2003, and the two were promoted to Pittsburgh in 2005 when Ed Olczyk was fired. Yeo was only 32 -- younger than many Penguins.
"It was [Therrien] and I. No other assistant coach, which is unheard of now," Yeo said, before adding with a laugh, "I got to coach Mario [Lemieux] for one game. I think he saw what he was getting involved with and said, 'I want nothing to do with this.'
"Getting a chance to work with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and many of their other young stars, it keeps you sharp every day. If you want to have credibility with these guys, you better be on the ball and you better know your stuff."
But Yeo was self-conscious of being a very young NHL coach, so he was always trying to prove himself.
"My first six, seven years of coaching, I went to every coach's clinic I possibly could," Yeo said. "I still am to this day a student of the game."
Bylsma said Yeo's work ethic, passion, loyalty, means of communication and knowledge of the game allows Yeo to attract immediate respect. Yeo's experience is why Shero doesn't think it'll take long for Yeo to become an NHL head coach.
"What he brings to the table is five years as an assistant in the NHL, someone who's been to two Stanley Cup Finals, won a Stanley Cup and won't be intimidated by players. I mean, he coached Sidney Crosby," Shero said. "That goes a long way when you're considering hiring a minor-league coach for an NHL job."
Yeo and his wife, Tanya, have two children, 14 and 12. He admits he's interested in the Wild vacancy after the Aeros' season ends, but hiring Yeo might be a tough sell for Fletcher, after originally choosing the inexperienced Richards.
However, Yeo has much more experience (12 years coaching, five in the NHL) than Richards did (one year as an NHL assistant).
"You're talking to a guy who had less experience as a head coach in the American League than Mike Yeo has now," said Bylsma, who coached 54 games in Wilkes-Barre before he replaced Therrien in 2009. "So do I think he has enough experience? No question at all. Is that the right fit for Minnesota right now? That's a different question. But I'm not sure I want to coach against Mike Yeo if he's in the National Hockey League."
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