ALLEN, Texas–Steve Martinson was the definition of a hockey journeyman, playing professionally with 14 teams over 14 seasons in six different leagues.
“I was kind of a hired gun,” Martinson said. “So I played for a lot of different teams and a lot of different coaches.”
A hired gun, indeed. Martinson policed the ice. And he fought. According to the website dropyourgloves.com, Martinson participated in 217 career fights – and another 17 in NHL preseason games. He fought NHL tough guys Bob Probert, Dave Semenko, Shane Churla and Basil McRae. He scored only 89 goals in his 579 career games but spent 2,918 minutes in the penalty box.
Martinson did more than just fight, though. He watched. And he learned. His playing career became a graduate course in championship hockey.
Martinson played with Hall of Famers Steve Yzerman, Adam Oates, Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson, Chris Chelios, Patrick Roy and Mike Modano. He roomed on the road during a season in Montreal with Chelios and during a season in Tulsa with John Vanbiesbrouck. Chelios would later win Norris Trophies as the NHL’s best defenseman and Vanbiesbrouck a Vezina Trophy as the game’s best goaltender.
Martinson played for Jacques Demers, Pat Burns and Gainey in the NHL. Demers and Burns won Stanley Cups and Gainey took a team to the finals. Martinson also played for nine more coaches at the minor-league level who were on their way to becoming NHL head coaches.
Martinson has put the lessons he learned on and off the ice from coaches and players alike to good use over the last 23 seasons. Last weekend he became just the third coach in pro hockey history to win 1,000 games, joining NHL Hall of Famer Scott Bowman (1,244) and ECHL Hall of Famer John Brophy (1,027). Martinson also became the winningest American coach in pro hockey history.
“I never looked (at the victories),” Martinson said. “It was always about winning championships. I’ll never sit back and think, `I’ve got 1,000 wins.’ They’ve all been just another game for me. My focus has always been trying to have a team every season that’s good enough to win it all.”
And win he did. Martinson has coached in four different leagues and won championships in all of them. He won five Taylor Cups in the WCHL with the San Diego Gulls, a Colonial Cup in the UHL with the Rockford IceHogs, two President’s Cups in the CHL with the Allen Americans and two more Kelly Cups in the ECHL with the Americans. His four titles in Allen came in succession from 2013-16.
That’s 10 rings in 22 seasons. His teams qualified for the playoffs in 21 of those seasons and won 13 division titles. And Martinson did it the hard way – all of his victories came at the Double-A level or lower, where he was his own general manager and often the only coach on the ice.
Martinson, 61, didn’t have the help building and coaching teams that Bowman and Brophy enjoyed during their tenures in the NHL. Right behind Martinson on the all-time win list are Barry Trotz (987), Ken Hitchcock (954) and Joel Quenneville (919). All are Canadians and all succeeded at the NHL level, winning Stanley Cups.
At the ECHL level, Martinson was often putting together a new team from scratch each offseason. He never had the benefit of an Yzerman for nine years and a Guy LaFleur for seven like Bowman. He never had a Modano for seven years like Hitchcock or an Alex Ovechkin for four years like Trotz. Yzerman, LaFleur and Modano are in the Hall of Fame and Ovechkin is on the way.
The only “name” players Martinson has coached in his 23 seasons were winger Ron Duguay for 17 games in San Diego at the tail end of his career and goalie Aaron Dell for 44 games in Allen at the very start of his career.
And at the ECHL level, a coach is expected to compete despite having his best players routinely called up by AHL teams. Martinson is suffering through his worst season this winter with a 22-36-4 record. But his Americans have had to play a chunk of it without starting goalie C.J. Motte, an in-season callup by the AHL Iowa Wild. The Americans are 5-22 this season without Motte in net.
Earlier this month, Martinson’s best defenseman and best forward were recalled on the same day by different AHL teams. They haven’t returned. Bowman never had to worry about losing an Yzerman, Robinson or Roy to a call-up.
But coaching was never supposed to be in the cards for Martinson. He graduated from St. Cloud State with a degree in business management and took a job with Smith Barney in San Diego in 1994 at the conclusion of his playing career. He coached the city’s roller hockey team on the side, then agreed to coach the Gulls when San Diego was awarded a WCHL franchise in 1995.
“They offered me a chance to coach so I thought I’d give it a try,” Martinson said. “I figured I could always go back to brokerage.”
But Martinson wouldn’t have to. Failure has never been in his cards.
“When I interviewed at Smith Barney and took their aptitude tests, they told me I scored really high,” Martinson said. “I was doing very well at that. When I sold furniture (in San Diego) for the guy that owned the team, I outsold everybody. And I never sold anything before in my life. My track record is that I’ve done well at everything I’ve tried.”
When Martinson was named coach of the Gulls, he drove two hours up the coast to visit with a few of his former Montreal teammates.
“I met with Larry Robinson and Rick Green when they were coaching the Kings,” Martinson recalled. “I said I wanted to see what they were doing system-wise, so I just took all their stuff and then started adding some things I liked. With my (past) experiences, I took the good things from different coaches that I liked and left the bad things behind.”
Early in his career, Martinson was just a phone call away from his mentor – and his wife’s grandfather — Frank Mathers, who was been enshrined in the Pro Hockey Hall of Fame as a builder and the AHL Hall of Fame as a coach. Mathers won 596 career AHL games at Hershey and collected eight Calder Cups in his career with the Bears – two as a player, three as a coach and three more as a general manager. But Mathers passed away in 2005.
So Martinson became a product of an impressive hockey think tank.
“I started out in Double-A (as a player), spent most of my career in Triple-A and played those 50 games in the NHL,” Martinson said. “So I got to see a lot of different levels of play. I think I know how to put together a team that can win a league. It isn’t always how skilled your team is. I think you can maybe win a little more with a physical team.”
Physical is the way Martinson played and the style of hockey he wants his teams to play. The Americans were penalized a league-high 1,644 minutes in 2015-16 and still won an ECHL championship. But physicality was only part of the equation. His Gulls scored a league-high 400 goals in 1996-97 and won a WCHL championship. His Americans allowed a league-low 176 goals in 2012-13 and won a CHL title.
“We’ve had really entertaining teams,” Martinson said. “We’re never going to become a dump-and-chase team because it’s a horrible game to watch, a horrible game to play.
“We’ve had skill, speed, toughness, size. We always had the same team… just different names. I don’t think we always won because we were the most skilled team. But I think our skill played harder than the skill on the other teams. What I’m proud of is we’ve had teams play the game the way fans like to watch a game. Regardless what you think about my style or my teams, we win.”