Blyth's Justin Peters begins coaching career with AHL's Senators
BY SHAWN LOUGHLIN
Blyth native Justin Peters, who spent over 15 seasons in various levels of professional hockey, has decided to retire, earning a job as the goaltending coach for the Belleville Senators of the American Hockey League (AHL).
The team officially made the announcement on Friday, with Peters and the rest of the team already working in Ottawa in hopes of a season this year. The league has not yet been given the go-ahead by the Canadian government, but Peters, in an interview with The Citizen, says he hopes the season will get going soon.
He said a number of scenarios have been presented, but the league hopes to play a season of between 30 and 40 games with a structure similar to that of the National Hockey League (NHL). Under that model, there would be a Canadian division in the league to eliminate cross-border travel to and from the United States.
The division would include the Senators (the AHL affiliate for the NHL’s Ottawa Senators), the Manitoba Moose (the Winnipeg Jets’ affiliate), the Toronto Marlies (the Toronto Maple Leafs affiliate), the Laval Rocket (the Montreal Canadiens affiliate) and the Stockton Heat (the Calgary Flames affiliate, which will relocate to Alberta for the season, despite being located in California).
This is Peters’ first coaching job, as he was still on the ice playing as recently as the 2019/2020 season in the Czech Republic. He considers himself lucky to have landed a coaching job right after choosing to end his playing career, because not every ex-player is given that opportunity. However, he just felt the timing was right.
He said the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in his decision-making process. Peters, who is 34, had already decided that the 2020/2021 season would be his last. With the uncertainty of the hockey world, when the chance to coach in AHL presented itself, Peters felt it was too good of an opportunity to pass up.
Peters feels well positioned to pass on the knowledge he’s accrued over the course of his career, learning from some of the best goaltending coaches in the business at times.
He said that not all ex-players are made to be coaches. In fact, he has played with some who, because they’re so naturally gifted, have been unable to relate to other players or help coach them along.
Peters added that there was a part of him that felt going through this process would set him up for future jobs, showing him the ropes and learning the interview process because he didn’t think he’d win the position. However, when the Senators’ search for a new goaltending coach was over, he was the last man standing.
While Peters says he was gifted with talent as a goalie, he always had to work for everything he earned as well, so he feels that work and those techniques will help the younger generation of players on the Senators.
One of the team’s goalies, in fact, is a second-round draft pick for the team who’s just now finding his way through the world of professional hockey. Peters, who was a second-round draft pick himself, says he can relate and is hoping to pass on all he’s learned.
For the last three years, as Peters figured the end of his playing career was nearing, he had begun thinking regularly about coaching, thinking he might make a good one. Now, he has dreams of one day being a goaltending coach in the NHL and he feels he couldn’t have been given a better start.
Peters is now working under head coach Troy Mann, who coached Peters during his playing days. Peters says that, despite being new to the world of coaching, he is being given every opportunity to make decisions, provide his opinion and feel like a full-fledged member of the coaching staff.
While Peters is excited to begin the next chapter of his life on the other side of the bench, it comes as a result of deciding to end his playing career. It wasn’t an easy decision, he said, but because of the timing of the coaching opportunity, it was easier than he anticipated.
With a wife and a young set of twins at home, Peters had played his last few years abroad, playing for two seasons in the Czech Republic and one season split between Latvia and Germany before that, meaning he was rarely in the same country as his family.
He said it was taxing on a young father who wanted to spend as much time as possible with his family. Now, coaching for Belleville, he’ll be just two hours from his Mississauga home once the team relocates to its home base in Belleville, instead of Ottawa. In Ottawa, training is ongoing in a “bubble” set up by the team in which they’re being tested daily for COVID-19.
When seasons begin, Peters said, he will also be spending one day per week with the Brampton Beast, the Ottawa Senators affiliate in the East Coast Hockey League (ECHL). That, for him, is even closer to home.
Peters played in 83 NHL games split between the Carolina Hurricanes, the Washington Capitals and the Arizona Coyotes. He ended his career with a save percentage of just over .900 and a goals-against average of just over three.
Peters played four seasons in the Ontario Hockey League, with the majority of his time being spent with the Toronto St. Michael’s Majors. He then split several seasons between the AHL and the ECHL, playing nearly 500 games between the three leagues.
He was also a bronze medalist for Canada in the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, serving as the national team’s third goalie.
Looking back, Peters told The Citizen, highlights of his career begin in his junior hockey career with the Huron-Perth Lakers and being drafted into the OHL – his first shot at professional hockey. The joy he had, joined with that of his friends and family, is something he’ll always remember.
Another memory that will never leave him was when he was drafted into the NHL. The sense of accomplishment in getting drafted into the best hockey league in the world, he said, was amazing. Plus, he will never forget returning to Blyth after being drafted and being greeted by a parade of supporters in Blyth and fire trucks on the highway celebrating what he had accomplished.
Another career highlight will always be having his first start in the NHL in Long Island, New York, making 34 saves and earning a 3-1 victory for the Carolina Hurricanes over the New York Islanders. He also remembers playing against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Toronto for the first time, bringing together many friends and family members from Blyth.
The icing on the cake of his career, he said, was being asked to be part of the Canadian Olympic squad in 2018. Earning a medal in those games, he said, is something he will always have, giving him something he can share with his children and grandchildren one day.
Reflecting on his playing career, Peters said one constant source of pride and encouragement was the support he always received from the Blyth and Huron County communities. Whether it was in his younger days in junior hockey or his professional career, the community always supported him, and for that he will be forever grateful.
When he would play games within a few hours of Huron County, he said he would always see familiar faces in the stands or after the game. When people couldn’t make it to games, he knew they were watching at home, keeping in touch and always pushing him forward.
Peters will be stepping into a winning franchise, as the Belleville Senators won the AHL’s North Division in the 2019/2020 season. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the playoffs were cancelled and the Calder Cup was not awarded that year.
For more information on the Senators, visit bellevillesens.com.