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Warren Rychel starts new chapter in hockey life, taking coaching gig in Barrie

Warren Rychel was out of the junior hockey scene and sitting at home watching a movie when he missed a call from Barrie Colts owner/president Howie Campbell one evening this summer.

Warren Rychel was out of the junior hockey scene and sitting at home watching a movie when he missed a call from Barrie Colts owner/president Howie Campbell one evening this summer.

Little did Rychel know there was an offer to get back into the game waiting for him on the other end.

"I thought, 'what's this guy want?' And I let it go," said Rychel, who has known Campbell for years. "He then texted me in the morning saying to call him.

"He asked me to come meet him. That was less than two weeks ago and it's all history from there."

Rychel accepted the head coaching position with the Colts on Sept. 9. It came as a surprise to many after it looked like he had walked away from the Ontario Hockey League. The former Windsor Spitfires executive also never envisioned replacing Dale Hawerchuk, who is on a leave of absence for medical reasons after being Barrie's bench boss since 2010.

The OHL season opens Thursday with the Niagara IceDogs hosting the Sudbury Wolves. Barrie's opener is Friday in North Bay against the Battalion, the same night as an OHL final rematch between the defending champion Guelph Storm and visiting Ottawa 67's.

After more than a decade as co-owner of the Spitfires, Rychel sold his share in June hoping to make a change in his day-to-day life. Believing that he had accomplished everything he could with Windsor as Spitfires vice president and general manager, he parted ways with the organization and had a new goal of getting to the NHL level in some capacity.

He had mixed emotions when he parted ways with the Spitfires, his hometown team that he watched as a kid before going pro in 1987. But he said the timing to sell "made sense" in more ways than one.

"I was hoping to catch on with an NHL team, management or development department. I had some leads (but) wanted to make sure it was a good fit for me after 13 years in the OHL," Rychel said.

"I'm 52 years old, it had to do with financial as well. It was favourable for myself and family. Time to start to move on to something in the NHL, time for a change, combined with financial it was something I couldn't refuse."

Working for an NHL team didn't end up happening for Rychel, and he had no intentions of returning to junior until Campbell reached out. But after talking with friends and family, he felt it was the right opportunity.

Even though his coaching experience is minimal — some summer hockey back in the day with his kids and nine games last season when Spitfires coach Trevor Letowski was away at the world junior championship — Rychel is confident that he can help take Barrie to the next level after the club missed the post-season two of the past three years.

Since accepting the position, he's leaned on friends for help, including NHL coaches D.J. Smith and Bob Boughner, as well as Rocky Thompson of the American Hockey League, for a better understanding of what it takes to run a team from ice level on a day-to-day basis.

"I've worked with good coaches, played for good coaches," said Rychel. "It's change for me but I do have an appreciation for coaches for sure and the work they do."

Rychel has been forced to play catch-up, so he has been spending extra time with Colts staff Todd Miller, Billy Smith and Taylor Carnevale. But with only three pre-season games under his belt ahead of Friday's opener, he jokes there could be some hiccups.

"I'm sure there will be a few too-many-men on-the-ice penalties," he said.

Rychel, who played 406 NHL games between 1988 and 1999, had tons of success with Windsor, putting together three Memorial Cup championship teams (2009, 2010, 2017) and being named OHL executive of the year in 2009.

He is keeping the door open for an NHL opportunity if it comes. A chance to be a first-time coach could bode well for him if the Colts can taste success like the Spitfires.

"I left home at 17 and have been in hockey ever since," said Rychel. "I was successful in the GM job and this adds to the resume. If I do well here it helps the big picture but I'm not worried about the NHL (right now). I'm worried about making the Barrie Colts a better team."

Kyle Cicerella, The Canadian Press