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Phantoms coach Scott Gordon yearns to return to the NHL, but enjoys life in the minors

After stringing together five straight winning seasons in the minors, the Islanders hired Gordon as their head coach in 2008. It did not go well.

Phantoms coach Scott Gordon behind the bench.
Phantoms coach Scott Gordon behind the bench.Read moreJustSports Photography, Lehigh Valley Phantoms

Scott Gordon doesn't hear the drumbeat.

That's what he says anyway. And if you know anything about his background, it's believable.

All the recent talk about firing Flyers coach Dave Hakstol after the team's slow start has made it up the Northeast Extension to Allentown.  But Gordon, the Lehigh Valley Phantoms coach, now in his fourth season, insists he's oblivious to it.

For a simple reason.

"I didn't think about coaching in the NHL when I was at Providence, and I don't now,'' he said, referring to the Providence Bruins of the American Hockey League. "I just worry about what's in front of me. I'm not a high-stress guy. I do what's in front of me. That's my job, and I worry about that.''

Gordon's job is to get prized prospects ready — mentally and physically — for the rigors of the NHL. His job is to coach up suspects and roster-fillers, too.

Entering last weekend's games, his overall record as Phantoms coach is 134-80-31. But the real record is what type of pros have emerged under his guidance. Travis Sanheim was always going to play in the NHL, but the two-way game he has displayed with the Flyers this season traces to his AHL tutelage under Gordon. Similarly, Robert Hagg, a 2nd-round draft choice in 2013 who was known for his offense as a youngster, has developed a hard-hitting, stay-at-home style with the big club thanks in part to more than two seasons spent with Gordon and the Phantoms.

Those are some obvious examples. But if you know anything about his background, it should not surprise you that Gordon sounds equally proud of the recent promotions of Nic Aube-Kubel and Tyrell Goulbourne.

"You look at a guy like Tyrell, who was playing in the East Coast League, and a year later he's playing in the NHL,'' said Gordon, 55. "That feels good.''

He knows that feeling. Gordon did his time in the ECHL as an undrafted goaltender out of Boston College in the 1980s. Dispatched to Johnstown by the Quebec Nordiques after two uneven AHL seasons, his first game there was spent sitting in the stands as the Chiefs backup. There wasn't enough room on the bench for him.

Once he got into games, he struggled there at first as he had in the AHL, the stress of trying to impress compounding his problems. "I remember saying to myself this is probably going to be my last year,'' he said. "Things hadn't gone the way I hoped they were going to. … I don't think I ever thought I was going to play in the NHL once I started playing in the minors. Because I just knew how hard it was.

"I got up the next morning and said, 'Well, if this is going to be my last year, I'm going to enjoy it. And I did. And things started to turn.''

He finished that season strong. Struggling themselves at the time, the Nordiques invited him to training camp the next year in Quebec. He played well enough to earn an exhibition start and a spot on their AHL affiliate in Halifax, where he became the starter.

One year to the day from when he was sitting with the fans, Gordon was called up to the Nordiques.

He was the first-ever ECHL player to make that jump, paving the way for dozens more. "I just kept my focus on what I was doing,'' Gordon said. "And that's been my approach since I began coaching.''

It's also been his message since retiring in 1994 to work as an assistant coach for an ECHL team in Atlanta. Four years later, he was hired as the head coach of an ECHL team in Roanoke. He landed in Providence after that, first as Mike Sullivan's assistant and later as head coach.

After stringing together five straight winning seasons, the Islanders hired Gordon as their head coach before the 2008-09 season. It didn't go well. Two losing seasons and a rough start in the third cost him his only NHL head job. Then, a three-year stint as Ron Wilson's assistant in Toronto ended when new general manager Brendan Shanahan cleared the deck on his arrival in 2014.

He was hired by the Phantoms to replace Terry Murray in 2015. He's been in Allentown since, reaching the playoffs in the last three seasons, including the Calder Cup finals last spring, losing to the Toronto Marlies. Nine players on the current Flyers have played for Gordon, and his current Phantoms team has players such as Carter Hart, Phillippe Myers and Sam Morin,  who are expected to join the team either this season or next.

An undrafted hotshot college goaltender out of Yale, Alex Lyon – like his coach — struggled at a times as a professional, and his relationship with the Phantoms coach has sometimes mirrored that. But Lyon, 25, is also smart enough to appreciate the fruit of those struggles.

"I truly think Scott Gordon comes to the rink every day and does his best to make the Flyers and the Phantoms better,'' said Lyon.  "I have improved a lot as a person and as a player. … Sometimes it's hard to see it. But I think he does care about his players.''

Said Gordon, "The fun part for me down here is actually seeing the players progress. It's nice to be able to see Tyrell and Nic get called up. And you don't really get that in the NHL. There's not that same satisfaction. You might help them along the way in the NHL, but usually they're pretty good players. There's a lot more work to be done down here because maybe they're not gifted in maybe one or two areas whether it be skill, hockey sense. There are different things they're lacking. That's the challenge.''

Is it enough of a challenge to keep him in that cocoon? The Phantoms' success might soon offer Gordon another chance to coach an NHL team, either down the turnpike extension or elsewhere.

Gordon's insists he's not thinking that way. But he's also honest, sometimes brutally.

"The NHL is the highest level, and everybody strives to be at the highest level,'' he said. "It doesn't matter what job you have in hockey. Nobody dreams about holding up the Calder Cup. I would very much like to do that. Don't get me wrong. But at the end of the day, we all want to hold up the Stanley Cup and have an impact on that happening.''