Jared Bednar is one step closer to his dream of coaching in the National Hockey League, but then so is Cail MacLean.
Less than a month after leading the South Carolina Stingrays to the franchise's third Kelly Cup title, Bednar stepped down as head coach Wednesday to become an assistant coach for the Abbotsford Heat, the American Hockey League affiliate of the Calgary Flames.
MacLean, the Stingrays' assistant coach last season, became the franchise's fifth head coach Wednesday.
Bednar has been with the Stingrays as a player, assistant coach and head coach since 1995. He won two Kelly Cup titles as a player and in just his second season as a head coach guided the team this year to its third title.
Bednar said the decision to leave was difficult, but the timing was right for him to take the next step.
"It's tough to leave a place like this," said Bednar, "but my goal from the start has always been to coach in the NHL, so eventually I knew this day would come."
Until three weeks ago, Bednar had never met Abbotsford coach Jim Playfair. The former Calgary head coach won an AHL Calder Cup title with Saint John in 2001. He guided Calgary in 2006-07, when the Flames went 43-29-10 to place third in the NHL's Northwest Division.
One phone call from Playfair days after the Stingrays' Kelly Cup victory over Alaska led to another call and a formal interview in Calgary last week. The two met again during last weekend's NHL draft in Montreal, and Bednar was offered the job.
"The Flames are an organization that likes to build from within," Bednar said. "I didn't know Jim before this process began, but he did his homework on me and I did my homework on him. He's a great coach with a great reputation. He's very driven, and he wants to get back to the NHL. The fact that he was willing to go back to the minor leagues to dial in his game shows me his commitment."
Bednar, 37, had other options and was considered a candidate for the head coaching job at Hershey, the Stingrays' AHL affiliate. Bears coach Bob Woods, who just led Hershey to the Calder Cup title, left to become a Washington Capitals assistant.
"I sat down with the Capitals and talked briefly about the Hershey job," Bednar said. "We never really got to a formal interview, but there was some interest. In the end, it was a timing thing for me and what was the best fit for me and my family.
"At this point in my career, I might not the best coach for Hershey. I could have waited around and gone all in with Hershey and see what they were going to do. But at the end of the day, I wasn't convinced that going to Hershey was the best thing for me at this time in my career."
It was a bittersweet moment for team president Darren Abbott, who had a large role in hiring Bednar as the Stingrays' coach.
"We try to be a developmental organization, and I don't think there's anyone more deserving to move on to the next level than Jared," Abbott said. "I'm convinced that one day we'll see Jared behind an NHL bench. It's a tough loss for me both personally and professionally.
Longtime defenseman Nate Kiser said everyone knew Bednar's opportunity would come.
"He's got a very bright future at the next level," Kiser said. "You couldn't ask for a better guy and a better coach to replace him in Cail. The Stingrays are a very lucky organization to have two people like Cail and Jared here at the same time."
MacLean, 32, played for 15 teams during an 11-year career in the AHL and ECHL. He led Trenton to the 2001 Kelly Cup finals, which the Titans lost to the Stingrays, and was team captain in two of his three South Carolina seasons.
"Obviously, I've still got a lot to learn, but I feel like I'm ready for this," MacLean said. "I had a great mentor for a year in Jared, and I'm certainly not going to lose his phone number. He'll be a valuable resource."
Bednar said MacLean is ready to be a head coach.
"I think Cail is going to be a great coach," he said. "I think since day one he's been a great leader for us. He's been the voice of reason in our locker room. He knows the game. He's a great teacher and a fantastic leader on and off the ice. When I got the head job, there was talk that Cail might be the head coach, and back then I said publicly that I would have no problem working for him as an assistant coach, and I still feel that way. That's how much I respect him."