Jeff Tambellini used the word breakthrough when talking about what going to the New York Islanders meant for his career.
“One phone call at the trade deadline,” Tambellini said, “and you go from the American Hockey League in Manchester right to Long Island.” Tambellini, now 34, was traded to New York from the Los Angeles Kings in March 2006 in exchange for veterans Mark Parrish and Brent Sopel.
Before the trade, Tambellini was drafted 27th overall in 2003 by the Kings. A Calgary native, Tambellini saw going to the Isles as a great opportunity. Not inflatable obstacle course only because he would finally get his shot, but because his dad, Steve Tambellini, had played on Long Island. The elder Tambellini spent three seasons with the Isles and won two Stanley Cups in 1979-80 and 1980-81.
“To get thrown into it right away, was an exciting experience,” Tambellini recalled when the trade first went down. “They were making the changes from the veterans to the younger players, so it gave me the break I needed to get a lot of playing time for the end of my first year as a pro.”
Tambellini played 21 games down the stretch of the 05-06 campaign, scoring just four points. Once the season was over — and the Islanders not qualifying for the playoffs — Tambellini went and played for the Isles AHL affiliate down in Bridgeport in the Calder Cup Playoffs. When the 2006-07 season got underway, Tambellini had earned a roster spot. One person Tambellini credits for getting that chance was head coach Ted Nolan. Nolan coached Tambellini for two seasons before being replaced by Scott Gordon.
“Ted was the first guy who believed in me as a pro,” he said praising Nolan. “He gave me the opportunity to play with top players. He put me with Miroslav Satan and Viktor Kozlov. For me, that was a fantastic way to start my career.”
Tambellini would play 23 games that season, but saw a lot of the year down in the minors again. He admitted it was tough as a young player having to go back and forth.
“As an American League player, you try to dominate offensively as much as possible. We had a lot of young top-end prospects. That internal competition to get on the NHL roster, and just to be able to stay.
“That year I felt like I established myself.”
Even with having to flip between Long Island and Bridgeport, Tambellini did find himself with the big club for the final week of that magical season.
The Islanders needed all eight points to sneak in to the playoffs. They would accomplish that feat winning their last four games, including the last two in Philadelphia and New Jersey. Tambellini would notch an assist in both those games helping secure that elusive postseason birth. That time still puts a smile on Tambellini’s face.
“Individually, that was my first real taste of playoff hockey. I remembered before the season The Hockey News not having us in the playoffs and everybody in the room took it personally. Getting hot toward the end, and being able to jump in on those last couple of games, was awesome.
“That last game in New Jersey was the biggest game of my career to that point.”
After the surprising run to the postseason, Tambellini would have a repeat regular season — spending time on the Islanders and Sound Tigers. Tambellini saw just 31 NHL games in 07-08.
It was during the 2008-09 season Tambellini finally became a full-time regular. The Islanders would finish dead last that season, but he played in 65 games and put up a reasonable 15 points.
“We had a young team that year, and a transition year for that group,” Tambellini noted. “We traded a handful of veterans toward the deadline. Frans Nielsen, Blake Comeau, myself, Bruno Gervais, Nate Thompson; a long list of guys who were just trying to establish themselves as NHL players.
“I was very fortunate to have the opportunity being in that period and that the team was looking for young guys to step up. It was an every day battle with a lot of great people in the room. A lot of young guys learned to be pros.”
Now he didn’t get to experience the same euphoria as his father did with the two Cup wins, but the seven-year pro realizes how appreciative it was to play in front of such a passionate group.
“That’s one of those fanbases that truly cares for their hockey team, and they’re so good to their players, ” Tambellini said in a passionate tone. Not many need to be reminded how tough times actually got during those seasons. “I was really fortunate to play there and the people were just great. They understood the rebuilding process that was going on. And they were loyal.”
Tambellini didn’t have to many stories to tell, but felt his time on Long Island was so valuable because of the quality people that he was surrounded by.
Throwing out names like Bill Guerin, Doug Weight (still with the organization), Mike Comrie; those guys were the funny ones of the group and how they ran the room, he gained a new respect for. Seeing first-hand that Guerin and Weight were from the old-school mentality, Tambellini enjoyed learning from them how to be a pro, on and off the ice. Those lessons learned have also found their way in to Tambellini’s coaching style.
After announcing his retirement, Tambellini took the role of Undergraduate Assistant Coach for the Men’s hockey team at his alma mater — the University of Michigan. He got the gig once he began to finish his Sports Management degree. It wasn’t the exact path Tambellini thought he would take, being his post-career plan was to be a general manager (same as his father who was Oilers GM for five seasons).
“Getting an opportunity to go back to Michigan last year, I got the call — even when I was still playing — if I had any interest to come back and coach,” he said. “For me, where my career stood, I thought that was probably my best offer. You never know when that’s going to come around again.”
After helping coach Michigan to the Frozen Four, Tambellini got a call from the Trail Smoke Eaters in the BCHL (British Columbia Hockey League) for an offer to be the head coach and general manager. He accepted. For Tambellini, it’s been a pretty wild year going from retirement, back to class, and now taking a big job.
Tambellini is now in his first full season as coach/GM of the Smoke Eaters.
But even coaching in a junior league like the BCHL, he still comes across his old Isles teammates and it’s just like old times.
“Anytime you see these guys, you haven’t seen them for five years or so, but you still pick up right where you left off.”