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Canucks: Well-travelled Jeff Ulmer brings a global view to Abbotsford coaching staff

‘Like a mercenary’: Baby Canucks bench boss Trent Cull’s new assistant played for 26 teams over more than two decades

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There are hockey vagabonds — and then there’s Jeff Ulmer.

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Ulmer, hired last month as an assistant coach for the American Hockey League’s Abbotsford Canucks, has played in more places than just about anyone.

And that long, meandering, at-times fascinating course makes for someone with coaching ambitions.

Beginning with a year of junior hockey with the famed Notre Dame Hounds in Saskatchewan in 1994-95, the 44-year-old Regina native played for 26 teams — including 21 games for the New York Rangers in 2000-01 — before retiring as a player in 2018.

Needless to say, there’s hardly a hockey culture he hasn’t been exposed to. First he chased the North American hockey dream, skating in the International Hockey League, in the AHL and for the old Canadian national team program, on top of his National Hockey League cup of coffee.

But from 2003 until he retired in 2018, outside of one season, Ulmer played the rest of his career in Europe, playing in well-established hockey cultures like Sweden, Finland, German, Switzerland and Russia, but also in outposts like Denmark, Scotland, Wales, Slovenia, Belarus and Austria

“Like a mercenary,” he chuckled over the phone recently, as he packed up his house in Arizona in preparation for the move north to B.C.

“For my first five, six, seven years in Europe, whatever it was, I was single and I was just willing to go anywhere and keep chasing not so much the highest contract but just the best situation and sometimes that brought me to Siberia and then another time to these small towns in wherever it be, Switzerland or Sweden or Finland,” he said. “And sometimes it was multiple teams, like I went to Russia but took a buyout, went to Switzerland on a two-month contract, and then I went to MoDo in Sweden all in one season. I was just willing to go anywhere that there was good hockey and keep chasing the highest level.

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“It be some kind of record! And that’s not even just staying in a hotel (for short stints). I was actually getting an address or getting a house or a furnished place and settling in, and then moving on to the next one. It’s a lot of moving parts, but looking back on it, getting to see all these different customs and learning a bit of the languages and stuff like, that was as great an experience that not many people get to do and I’m thankful for each and every one for sure.”

Jeff Ulmer, then with Duesseldorf, celebrates after scoring against Koelner Haie in a December 2011 German league game in Duesseldorf, Germany.
Jeff Ulmer, then with Duesseldorf, celebrates after scoring against Koelner Haie in a December 2011 German league game in Duesseldorf, Germany. Photo by Lars Baron /Bongarts/Getty Images files

That awareness of how each part of the hockey world has a different take will help in the long run, he said.

“I think I got a good feel for almost every hockey-playing country, especially the ones I played in, so it helps,” said Ulmer. “I mean, you can relate to guys over here, you see their style of play and you think back to how was it when I played in the league where they’re from and it’s all helped me.

“It’s kind of cool. Here (in Arizona) it was skating with Michael Grabner … and we got to talk about Villach (Austria) where he’s from and we talked about the coaches and the rink and all that stuff and he can relate to that. And then with Antti Raanta — I helped out with the goalies, with Corey Schwab and the goalies, sometimes shooting on them before practices — and Raanta was saying, ‘You know, I remember you when you played in my hometown and in Rauma (Finland), I was one of those kids on the glass.’ And I was like wow, you don’t think of it that way but it’s these guys, that may not be quite good enough to play in the NHL and they could be AHLers for a few years and then go over, and they’re looked upon like stars in these guys’ hometowns in Europe, so it’s a cool thing and I got to experience a lot of those, so that was that was special for me.”

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After retiring, Ulmer joined the Arizona Coyotes in 2018-19 as director of player development. But after a change in ownership in the desert and the dismissal of Coyotes GM John Chayka, he found himself looking for a new job.

His long career of getting to know people came into play. He had played collegiate hockey with Ryan Johnson, GM of the Abbotsford Canucks, at North Dakota.

“He was a year ahead of me. So I’ve known him since, I mean, since we were teenagers,” he said.

Another teammate during his first season as a pro with the Houston Aeros of the defunct International Hockey League was Trent Cull, who happens to now be Abbotsford’s head coach.

“I got along with Trent really well. He was a little bit older than I was and he’d been a few years or so in the pros. It was my first year pro that I played with him, but he got to see kind of what I was like as a teammate,” said Ulmer.

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But the uncertainty surrounding the AHL’s season last fall, followed by the decision to split the Canucks’ Utica Comets affiliation with the St. Louis Blues, meant there wasn’t a job opening for him. Still, Ulmer kept in touch with his old teammates.

He stayed home in Scottsdale, Ariz., with his wife and young daughters. He consulted with players in the area and remotely to help them stay fit while the NHL remained on hiatus.

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“So kind of a coach in that way, and actually I think I gained quite a bit from doing that one-on-one kind of coaching,” he said. “It was just a different avenue for me to learn, and the one-on-ones with different players definitely helped.”

The Abbotsford job opening came up and Ulmer did a series of interviews while the Canucks assessed if he’d be a good fit for their AHL staff.

“I even got a call from from Travis Green and some other guys just to chat, and they got to see some ideas that I had and how I thought about the game and some different ideas, and I guess that all helped,” he said.

It will be the first time Ulmer is a full-on coach, but he said he has no nerves about what’s to come. After playing, being a coach is what he’s always wanted to be.

“No, not really, I think I’ve prepared myself almost as good as you can for a first year in coaching with all the playing experience and then a couple years of being on the ice with the Coyotes’ players and dealing with NHL guys,” he said. “You know that first game on the bench there might be some nerves, but I just feel like I’ve spent so much time with players and on a bench myself that it’s second nature.”

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