When then-Lightning coach Terry Crisp, at the start of the 1996-97 season, asked Nigel Kirwan, then head of the team's community hockey program, to work for him as video coach, Kirwan had a quick answer. "I told him to go fly a kite, though I used different words," Kirwan recalled recently. "I thought he was playing a joke on me, because he was a prankster." Fifteen years later, Kirwan still has the job, outlasting seven coaches, five general managers and four owners. He is a survivor, a Winnipeg native who began working for the club selling tickets during its first season and who got to know Crisp while running the community programs. He has seen the best and worst of the franchise, and has his name on the Stanley Cup.
Coming to this as you did, kind of through the back door, do you marvel you are a 2004 Stanley Cup champion?
That, to me, is a little surreal. I still tell people I get embarrassed a little when I see my name on the Stanley Cup. You see Steve Yzerman's name on there and Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky, and it's very logical. I see my name and almost cringe. What am I doing on there?
How did you get this job?
I started out in sales, and then on the side, I got involved with USA Hockey, developing hockey in-state. I started coaching kids, and through that the Lightning created a position, director of amateur hockey, that by default fell to me. Doing coaching clinics, I integrated the coaching staff into them. That turned into lunches and drawing on napkins with the head coach and picking his brain for ideas. Crispy and I hit it off and became friends.
Are you amazed you're still here?
I don't look at my own story and think it's amazing to be a survivor. It is a privilege and an honor to be here. I'm a little surprised at how quickly the time has gone by, and when I think about the number of years, that is a little bit astonishing to me.
Do you feel a bit proprietary about the franchise?
Not really. I think that would be a little arrogant of me to think that way. I'm part of a much bigger group and a broader team. I'm just fortunate to be part of it.
Who is the most unique personality you've seen?
(Coach) Guy Boucher is pretty unique for his approach and methodology. Player-wise? Who's the biggest goofball to come through here? Andre Roy (2002-04, 2006-08) was a pretty unique character. Just … the way he loosened up the locker room.
An underrated player?
Cory Sarich (1999-2007, now with the Flames) comes to mind. He didn't get the props I think he deserved just because of the compete level and the way he battled. He wasn't a fighter, but when he dropped the gloves, he held his own and defended his teammates.
What do you do during games?
I say I play the piano during a game. I log everything that goes on into a computer so we can instantaneously access any information we need either to make course corrections in between periods or postgame. The information goes to every coach on their own computer. Think of it as a big network. What happens on my computer goes out to all the computers, and those guys can open it up and see anything they want.
What about practice days?
I spend the bulk of my time prescouting opponents.
You are still good friends with former Lightning coach John Tortorella. Was he misunderstood?
I think so. The media portrays him as an angry little madman, and that's so not the case. Part of it is his own fault. He doesn't like talking about himself. He doesn't let the public see the side of him that those who worked for him really know, a kind-hearted, gentle, very generous man, very funny.
How gratifying is seeing the team again on an upswing?
It trickles down from the top, and unfortunately you saw it go the other way the past two seasons. Now you see (owner) Jeff Vinik come in with a vision and a sense of direction. It's the trickle-down effect. We saw it in 1999 (when Bill Davidson bought the team) and then in 2001 (when Tortorella took over as coach), and you see the similarity now.
Has your skin color ever been an issue?
Never. At absolutely no point in my career have I ever sensed any minute amount of racism. It's a nonissue in this game.