GLENS FALLS -- The call that changed Riley Cote's life came while he slept.
It was early summer in his native Winnipeg and Cote was preparing for his eighth season in professional hockey, a living carved out the hard way - in the corners, in front of the net, with his fists.
The e-mail said to call Philadelphia Flyers General Manager Paul Holmgren. He didn't waste any time throwing the idea at Cote: How about hanging up the skates and picking up a whistle? Would he be interested in an assistant coaching job with the Adirondack Phantoms?
Cote was caught off guard. After playing only 15 games with the Flyers in the previous season, he'd readied himself for a trip to Glens Falls this year. As a player.
This, well, this was something altogether different. This meant, at 28, giving up the only life he'd known. This meant throwing in the towel on a playing career in which he had never thrown in a towel.
You don't go from being undrafted to the CHL, to the ECHL, to the AHL, to the NHL by quitting. But he was also a realist. Ten years from now, hockey would be long gone. And the years until then, what would they be like? Bouncing from one minor league outpost to another, getting his head bashed in at each stop?
And if he turned this down now, with the organization he loved, the one whose logo he's inked on other's bodies, there would be no guarantee the chance would ever come around again. It's not like teams are falling all over themselves to give aging fighters prominent coaching roles.
So Cote added up the cold, hard calculus and made up his mind.
"I thought about it more and it made more sense for me," Cote said. "I made a decision and I still haven't second-guessed myself. I think it was the right thing to do for me. It was kind of up my alley. "
And so began the abrupt transition from player to being the youngest coach in the AHL.
Cote makes no bones about the way he played. Three seasons, he's had more than 250 penalty minutes in the AHL. He's taken shots that got him suspended. He has one goal in 76 career NHL games.
But he's also won a Calder Cup with the Phantoms, been a part of Flyers playoff runs, and been a respected guy in the locker room. Rather than disqualifying him from a coaching career, he believes his life on the hockey margins is his biggest coaching asset.
"I looked at it and said I could really see myself doing this job because, I'm a role player, so I'm on the bench trying to keep guys positive," Cote said. "Even though I was a meatball when I played, I do understand the game. It's just my skill level wasn't enough for me to be a power play guy, a 50-goal scorer. But I understand what it took to get there and I did make it.
"That's another thing, just teach these guys what it takes to make it. Some of these guys have skill levels way beyond what I ever did but they might not make it because there's something missing."
There were many things missing from the Phantoms last season, but toughness is near the top of the list. It's not just that they set a franchise-low for penalty minutes. It's that they weren't difficult to play.
Cote's formal duties include coordinating the penalty kill, running a few drills, and acting as a middleman between Greg Gilbert and the players. His informal role will be to instill that nasty dimension last year's club too often lacked.
"Some guys want to take the easy way out, stick first in the boards, and if I see that I'm going to tell them," Cote said. "If you get a guy lined up, run him. So what if he gets mad. If he gets (ticked) off, you don't have to fight him. But you want him on the ground. That's hockey. That's how you win games. That's the difference between the guys in the minors and the guys in the NHL."
For Cote, the differences between him and the guys are slim. At least two players, captain Dan Jancevski and goalie Johan Backlund, are older than him. He's played with several of these guys.
But he knows that respecting him as a peer and respecting him as a coach are two different things, and he doesn't believe that one will automatically translate to the other.
"I'm not going to come here just because I played for the Flyers last year and think the guys are automatically going to give me respect. You still have to build relationships with guys and earn their trust and respect," Cote said.
"I come in here and I treat every single guy the same way. The same way I treat everybody on the street. I know I'm a coach now, but these guys are human beings. I know what's it like to play, I know what it's like to be a player, I know what's like to be in the doghouse. I understand all that stuff. So for me to come in and just change my whole personality and my whole approach because I'm on the other side of it now, I think that would be the wrong thing to do."
Respect is a big thing in Cote's world. Like many enforcers, off the ice, he's contemplative, sincere and gentle.
He grew up religious, but considers himself more spiritual than anything. It's a trait best traced through his tattoos, which cover his torso and arms.
He got his first when he was 18 and never expected for it to go this far. Each one tells a story.
"For me, it's like a timeline of my life," Cote said. "They all mean something. I see them and I know where I'm coming from, where I'm going."
He has a bible verse on his back, a mad professor cranking the wheel of life on his arm, and one yet to be finished on the other.
Each one is designed by his friend, a tattoo artist now working out of Worcester, Mass. Cote once floated him a loan to open a shop in New Jersey. In return, he got tattooed for free. Cote would throw his friend an idea and he'd come back with a sketch.
"It's kind of a spiritual experience," Cote said. "You kind of sit back and there's the initial pain. And you kind of get the itch for the pain. It sounds weird. You sit there and you talk and you might go half hour, 45 minutes without talking to each other but you're kind of in the zone. You sit there, you think."
At some point this year, undoubtedly, Cote will make the trek to Worcester for the art that signifies this step of his life.
What it will say, what it will represent, he doesn't yet know.