Elias is part of Varada’s staff with the Czech national junior team at the 2019 IIHF World Junior Championship soaking up his first coaching experience as an assistant.
“Had to think about it,” Elias said. “I didn’t want to get into coaching right away, but this is a good opportunity and I’m happy I did. It’s a lot of work, but at the same time, it’s quite rewarding to work with those guys.”
Injuries limited Elias to just 16 NHL games during the 2015/16 season and ultimately led him to step away from New Jersey after parts of 20 seasons. Last February the Devils retired his No. 26 prior to a game against the New York Islanders making him the first forward to have his number raised to the rafters by the organization.
Elias holds the Devils records for career points (1,025), goals (408), assists (617) and is the franchise leader in playoff points (125).
A second-round pick of the New Jersey Devils in 1994, Elias famously assisted on Jason Arnott’s overtime goal in the 2000 Stanley Cup final bringing the franchise its first Cup. Elias would add a second Stanley Cup in 2003.
The native of Trebic in the Czech Republic has a lengthy international resume, which includes four Olympics and four World Championships where he collected a total of three Bronze Medals.
“I don’t miss it, I really don’t,” said Elias. “I enjoy being on the ice (coaching). I see these kids, now the young guys competing and dealing with adversity, learning things and going through the process to be the best. I love it.
“I don’t miss the travel (of playing) too much. The camaraderie, yes. Obviously that’s what special about team sports. But at the same time, being around here, being on the coaching team, we have (camaraderie). Even if I’m not with hockey, I have a lot of friends that we do things together, we travel together, we ski together so you do kind of have your own teams. Maybe not on the ice.”
Now in his third season removed from the game, the 42-year-old is happy with his decision to step away from the game saying it allows him to spend more time with friends and his young family.
“My transition to retirement was quite easy,” he said. “Obviously with the help of the family, we moved back to Europe, that wasn’t easy, but at the same time, we have a lot of friends and my parents live there. The kids adjusted well and doing that, with two young girls, spending a lot of time with them, travel, skiing - a lot of things.”
Skiing, according to Elias, has filled the void left behind by hockey. Unable to take up the sport as a player for fear of injury, his new-found love for the slopes has allowed him to travel the world as well.
“I love it. It’s challenging, I’m not good at it yet. I’m OK, but I’m not great,” Elias admits. “I want to get better and challenge myself. That’s the way we were brought up always having challenges in our lives.
“I really enjoyed Seattle actually, Mt. Baker, I really loved it there. In Europe, you cannot go wrong anywhere. Austrian Alps, Italy - it’s beautiful.”
As he begins his first foray into coaching, Elias says his final few seasons playing for New Jersey helped prepare him for the role behind the Czech bench.
Missing a total of 96 games with injuries over his final three seasons, Elias spent more time helping the younger players adjust to the rigors of NHL life.
“You’ve just got to learn how to communicate with them,” Elias said. “For me, my role is mainly… doesn’t change much from the hockey role. I was trying to help out even my last few years. Last couple years obviously you become… you’re in a role where you want to help out the young kids and young players and it’s the same thing now, so it doesn’t change much.”
With a 20-year playing resume under his belt, Elias has plenty of coaching influences he draws from now.
“I always liked Larry Robinson. Obviously the way he coached, his style, his demeanor, the way he communicated with players,” said Elias. “Pete DeBoer, was great. He really was very knowledgeable and knew how to talk to those guys. John Hynes, I only had him for one year, but I loved the way he runs the team and the way he coaches. Jacques Lemaire.
“Even maybe some of the coaches that I didn’t get along with, you look at some of those things now, and why they did that and the way they did that and obviously we all have a different personality and we all react differently. We all want to get the message out different ways. Some things I liked, some things I didn’t. But they all kind of piled in and you take some of those better things.”
Despite having played during the 2015/16 season, Elias notices a significant change in the way the game is played today.
Elias admits today’s faster game would’ve likely benefited his style of play further, but notes he was able to take advantage of the weaker skaters.
“These kids are amazing. The learning process behind it, the details, skating ability - everything. You look at some of those goals that are being scored on a daily basis in the NHL and it’s like, ‘oh my god, the skill is sick’,” Elias said. “The league has changed with everything, with the business side and the playing side and I’m a big fan, I love watching these games.
“When I had my most successful seasons, we had such a great team and I had such great line mates, we were playing this style already back then and I was happy back then because maybe a lot of those guys couldn’t skate as well.”
Which young players does Elias keep his eye on now?
“I’ve really really enjoyed watching (Mitch) Marner. I’m a big fan. I think the way he sees the ice, his creativity for a small guy, it’s amazing,” he said. “Obviously (Auston) Matthews and (Patrik) Laine and all these guys. Connor McDavid is just ridiculous.
“Even these guys, the kids that are here for the World (Junior) Championship, you look at Ty Smith and you look at (Quinn) Hughes, like, ‘wow’. For a little guy, as a defenceman, no big deal, he just gets it.”
In addition to coaching, Elias had a brief stint working as an analyst for the NHL Network after he stepped away from playing.
With a few different post-playing experiences under his belt now, Elias doesn’t appear ready to commit 100 per cent to coaching.
“I knew that it’s a lot of work, I knew they put in a lot of hours,” said Elias. “But at the same time, this is a lot. I love the situation that I’m in right now. Helping out with the national team, being assistant coach and learning what it takes to be the head coach and everything around it. I think I’m really comfortable in the situation that I’m in right now.”