The thing I love most about NHL coaching is that in a lot of ways, it’s really more about persona and performance than Xs and Os. You can have no understanding of hockey and still motivate your players, probably relying on your assistant coaches to handle the tactical issues, and you can probably have a decent team. But if you’re a brilliant hockey mind and can’t motivate your players, odds are, your team is going to be pretty bad.
For my money, no one was a better coach/performer than Pat Burns when he was with the Devils. The man started out the 2002-03 season demeaning the players, putting them through tough drills, and making their lives miserable. During the course of the season, Burns would ever so gradually take his foot off of his team’s neck, so that by the time the playoffs came around, the players loved him, simply because he stopped torturing them. The team hung on his every word and were ready to follow him anywhere, simply because he let up on them at just the right time in the season.
But some current coaches have a pretty good mind game. The Leafs Ron Wilson would have to be at the top of the list of current coaches. After Tuesday’s brutal loss to the Panthers, instead of coming down hard on the team, Wilson left them alone, choosing to talk about how he relaxes and his preferred TV shows, allowing his team to move forward from a bad loss.
But Wilson knows when to apply pressure, too, as he’s done when calling out goalie Vesa Toskala and as he did recently with Nik Antropov.
Wilson knows when to push and when to pull. It’s like watching Meryl Streep at work.
And some coaches know line construction is a good way to heal wounded psyches. Down in Tampa, coach Rick Tocchet has the underperforming Steve Stamkos playing with Steve Downie, who’s around the same age as Stamkos, and the grizzled veteran Gary Roberts. Stamkos has two assists in the past two games with Roberts and Downie, which is huge. And you have to believe the success is gong to give Stamkos confidence.
And when all else fails, a good coach knows when to be cryptic. Thrashers coach John Anderson was asked what his out-of-the-playoffs team is playing for:
Jobs…especially mine. I would think pride. We’re all getting paid. We owe it to the Atlanta fans to play as good as we can.
And then, moments later:
I’ve never worried about my job…because the only thing I can do is the best I can. I’m trying to do that right now.
So think about playing for your job without somehow worrying about it, or just play hockey without thinking and making your head hurt. I think we know what the Thrashers will choose.