Mike Leone played for four current or former NHL coaches. ©2024, Dan Hickling, USHL

Jon Cooper, other NHL coaches helped Rochester Amerks’ Mike Leone grow: ‘People I lean on’

Mike Leone said he considers himself to be probably the luckiest guy in hockey.

The new Rochester Americans coach retired from playing at 28, never rising above the ECHL. But at each level of hockey during his days as a forward – junior, college and pro – he learned from someone who had been an NHL coach or would become one.

As a teenager with the Texarkana and St. Louis Bandits, Leone played for future Tampa Bay Lightning coach Jon Cooper, who was beginning his career in the junior North American Hockey League.

In college at Western Michigan, Leone played a year under future Detroit Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill before former Los Angeles Kings and St. Louis Blues coach Andy Murray took over the Broncos.

During Leone’s two seasons with the Toledo Walleye, future Red Wings coach Derek Lalonde led the ECHL franchise.

Leone, who was hired Thursday, said he considers those men his mentors.

“They’re people I lean on,” he said on a Zoom call Monday to introduce him as the 34th coach in Amerks history.

For example, in watching the affable Cooper, who has won two Stanley Cups, Leone said he learned how to build relationships with players and approach tough conversations.

“Him coming into the room of just caring about you as a person,” Leone said.

He said Lalonde “was a great communicator.”

Each coach impacted and helped Leone, who has been a head coach just two seasons, pave his own path.

“But my core values are very aligned with the coaches that I got to play for,” he said.

To Rochester general manager Jason Karmanos, it’s more than luck Leone, 36, played for such accomplished and respected coaches.

“In talking to him, you hear a person that listens very well, that learns from the people that he’s around,” he said. “You could say that it’s good fortune to cross paths, but I don’t believe it’s just that. I think a person like Leo ends up putting himself in those positions by the way he impacts the people that he works with prior.

“So he’s got a chain of people that he’s worked with over the years that are highly, highly respected people in hockey.”

Karmanos said he heard from more than 100 coaches last month after the Buffalo Sabres promoted coach Seth Appert to an assistant on Lindy Ruff’s NHL staff.

He talked at length with about 25 coaches before whittling the list to five. The final candidates interviewed over Zoom with Karmanos, Sabres GM Kevyn Adams and assistant GM Mark Jakubowski.

“We took a wide lens to this process,” Karmanos said. “We didn’t pigeonhole ourselves into thinking that the next coach of the Amerks had to be someone with a certain background.”

Of course, Leone certainly possesses a similar background and some of the same qualities as the loquacious Appert.

Leone has spent most of his coaching career in junior and college. Appert had never coached in pro hockey before the Sabres hired him to coach their AHL affiliate. Both coaches also take a people-based approach.

“The type of person he is, the communication skills that he possesses, how he built relationships talking to people he’s crossed paths with over the years,” Karmanos said of what stood out about Leone.

Karmanos said Leone’s last two jobs grabbed the Sabres’ attention. He served two years as an assistant coach at the US National Team Development Program – he worked for a year there with Appert – before a two-year stint as coach and GM of the Green Bay Gamblers, a junior team in the United States Hockey League.

Leone had never been a head coach or GM prior to his time in Green Bay.

“He was the GM and head coach there without prior experience and did an outstanding job,” Karmanos said. “When you’re thrown into a role like that, especially a dual role like that, without years of experience under your belt, that’s an incredible challenge, and he did a tremendous job. And we think that that prepares him for this job in a way that some other roles maybe can’t.”

The job in Rochester entails winning and developing prospects, an often tricky balance. Appert and his predecessor, Chris Taylor, did both.

Leone could have four high-end forward prospects – first-round selections Jiri Kulich, Noah Ostlund, Isak Rosen and Matt Savoie – on his roster. In Green Bay, he coached two notable prospects: defenseman Artyom Levshunov and forward Julian Lutz.

Levshunov could be drafted as high as second overall June 28. The Arizona Coyotes, who recently moved to Utah, selected Lutz 43rd overall in 2022.

Two years ago, Levshunov arrived in the United States speaking little English. Today, the Belarusian defenseman can comfortably hold court in front of a throng of reporters and cameras, joking and showcasing his personality.

At the NHL Scouting Combine last week, Levshunov, 18, smoothly fielded questions, explaining his hockey journey.

Leone played a pivotal role in Levshunov’s development as a person and player, helping the youngster acclimate to a new culture and brand of hockey when he joined Green Bay in 2022.

“He told me, ‘Just be yourself and play your game,’” Levshunov said.

Those simple words gave Levshunov comfort.

“He helped me a lot, actually, when I came (the) first time to America, yeah,” the prospect said Saturday following fitness testing in LECOM Harborcenter. “I mean, it was everything new to me. I came to a new country and I didn’t speak a lot of English. … But still I think he helped me on the ice. He helped me outside the ice, and we’re still in touch.”

Leone said the relationship he and other members of the Gamblers formed with Levshunov helped the newcomer grow comfortable.

“Arty had to trust us and our organization, and it was more of Artie just had to be himself,” he said. “It was a crazy time for him and his family. … In his one year in Green Bay, you got to see the best version of Arty Levshunov where people really start to notice the talent.”

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