Spencer Carbery took the long road to Caps' head coach job originally appeared on NBC Sports Washington
WASHINGTON -- Spencer Carbery's journey from minor league player to the new Capitals' bench boss was anything but a normal route. In fact, it was something he quite frankly didn't imagine would happen when he first entered the coaching world 13 years ago.
"I cannot say that I did [imagine this], I'll be honest with you," Carbery said Thursday, smiling at the podium of District E next to Washington general manager Brian MacLellan as he was introduced as the team's 20th head coach in franchise history.
Carbery met with local media for nearly a half-hour on Thursday. He was asked about coaching Alex Ovechkin as he tries to chase Wayne Gretzky's goal record, the Capitals' power play unit and many other prevalent topics. But for a good chunk of his introductory press conference, the 41-year-old was asked to reflect on his journey up until this point, grinding through the coaching ranks, both within and outside the Capitals' organization, to get to where he's at now.
As a player, Carbery wasn't a top draft pick or recruit. He suited up for Division III St. Norbert before turning pro in 2006 with the Tulsa Oilers of the CHL. He bounced around playing for a handful of other minor league clubs before finishing his career with the South Carolina Stingrays, Washington's ECHL affiliate, before retiring in 2010 to transition into coaching.
One year later, at just 29 years old, Carbery was named head coach of the Stingrays in 2011, a position he'd hold for five seasons, highlighted by an ECHL Coach of the Year award in 2013-14. He found immediate success as a head coach, largely due to his tireless work ethic.
“Spencer has one of the hardest work ethics you’re ever going to see in anyone in pro hockey," Stingrays president Rob Concannon told Al Koken. "He’s always the first one at the rink. He’s always the last one to leave. He’s a great communicator. He does a terrific job with young players, older players and I think Washington got a great coach here. He’s going to be very successful.”
After two years coaching elsewhere, Carberry returned to the Capitals' organization in 2018 as the head coach of the team's AHL affiliate, the Hershey Bears, a role he'd hold for three seasons. Carbery won another Coach of the Year honor during that span while navigating the Chocolate and White through the difficulties of the pandemic.
Carbery's first NHL coaching opportunity came in 2021 when he was hired as an assistant for the Toronto Maple Leafs. He found tremendous success in Toronto, too, turning the Maple Leafs' power play from an average unit into one of the NHL's top two in each of his two seasons in charge. His success north of the border firmly put him on the radar for multiple NHL coaching vacancies this spring.
The grind, journey and sacrifice Carbery went through over the past 13 years is the main reason why Thursday morning presented such a dreamlike feeling.
"I'm not a huge 'reflect back where you go things,' but it is pretty surreal to think," Carbery said. "Even when you bounce around in the minor leagues, I didn’t have this plan. A lot of coaches have a specific plan of how they're going to [be] when they retire. That just wasn't the way my path played out. So it is pretty surreal to think back on some of the times."
Carbery's experience in the Capitals' organization made him a top candidate for the team's coaching vacancy following Peter Laviolette's departure. His familiarity with the roster -- he coached six players in Hershey that suited up in at least one game for the Capitals this season, including top prospect Connor McMichael and defenseman Martin Fehervary -- was a big plus. He also had already built previous relationships with some of Washington's older veterans, just by being part of the organization for multiple years.
Even when Carbery moved to Toronto in 2021, MacLellan said he kept an eye on his former staffer. Going through the interview process, Carbery simply checked all the boxes MacLellan was looking for.
"Spencer came out on top from Day 1," MacLellan said. "Again, the history, the comfort level. We wanted to interview a couple of other candidates and we did. Spencer was going through his process at the same time. We were hopeful we found a match, but you never know how it will play out. ... Fortunately, it worked out for us in the end."
Multiple teams reached out to Carbery following the season. But as the 41-year-old interviewed around the league, he realized Washington was where he wanted to be.
"Without question, as I went through the process with my family, this has always felt right for me," he said. "This organization, the people that I have relationships with, the way they treat players, the players that they value. So as I went through it, everything kept drawing me to this organization and Brian and hopefully getting the opportunity to be the head coach here."
In his new role, Carbery is one of the NHL's youngest coaches. In fact, he's only four years older than Ovechkin. But Carbery feels plenty prepared for the job, largely due to the resources he's had throughout his decade-plus behind the bench at multiple different levels of professional hockey.
"I've been so fortunate as a young coach," he said. "I've learned from some unbelievable coaches, having been around Bruce Boudreau to Barry Trotz. I feel so fortunate because I'm able to take all of this different stuff and I'll steal it to be able to use it. … I just feel so lucky to have been in our organization and learn from some great people and then also step away and gain some more knowledge as well."
Thursday's press conference was a homecoming of sorts for both Carbery and the Capitals, but Washington's new bench boss takes over a team in transition with some challenges ahead. He understands that, too, and is eager to get to work.
"We have a highly motivated group of veteran players and leadership group, and we also have a group of players that it's my job to bring along and integrate into that group of young players," Carbery said. "So that, to me, is exciting. You have young players that are hungry to prove that they're capable, natural-ability players, and then you've got a group of veteran players that feel like they've got a bit of a chip on their shoulder. They're ready to prove something: that we are still a very strong team in the National Hockey League."