The three coaches couldn’t be from more varied backgrounds.
There was Carolina’s Rod Brind’Amour, the second-year coach who had a Hall of Fame-caliber career that included a Stanley Cup and two Selke Trophies.
There was the Lightning’s Jon Cooper, whose playing career ended in Juvenile-AA, but established himself as one of the best — and now longest-tenured coach.
And Pete DeBoer, who took the Vegas job midseason after several campaigns with the rival Sharks, and is now behind the bench on his fourth NHL team.
But the three head coaches provided some interesting insight in a Zoom panel last week for the NHL Coaches’ Association Global Coaches’ Clinic. It was an hour-long chat, moderated by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, where they tackled some important issues for young coaches such as working with millennials, enforcing discipline, creating ownership in the dressing room and dealing with criticism.
Below are some highlights from their panel discussion.
On your first meeting with a team
Brind’Amour: That first meeting, I think it’s a time to really get your message across and, coming out of this, it will add more meaning. I think whenever we get back to playing hockey, that first message you bring does hold a whole lot of meaning, a lot more than maybe any other camp because of the circumstances that brought us back together. We have a lot of time to think about it. Every time you get in front of a group, it matters. This one puts more meaning to it.
DeBoer: I’ve got more experience in first messages than the other guys because I’ve been fired four times, so I’ve gone to four different teams and had to address them. I’ve got a couple of quick stories on the first messages. One was this year going to Vegas in January as a first-time coach with a group that really we had gone to war with the last three years, there was a lot of hatred. Not a lot of love lost. Now I’m walking into that dressing room with those guys and addressing them for the first time.
I put some thought into that message. I had a 48-hour window when I got the job and had to be behind the bench in Ottawa. I talked with Paul Maurice who had taken over a few teams. It was a combination of a bit of humor to try to take the edge off the situation and a strong message. The main gist of it was — some good people lost their jobs, Gerard Gallant, Mike Kelly and that staff. We all had to look in the mirror and get it fixed going forward.
The other (story) was my first year coaching in the NHL, I came out of junior to the Florida Panthers replacing Jacques Martin. He told me we needed a tough message in training camp. I ran the hardest training camp I ever ran in my life. And I’m lucky the guys didn’t walk out and strike two days into it. I’m surprised I actually survived it. We got through the year and Bryan McCabe was our captain, we got to our exit meetings and he said, ‘Listen, I’m excited about next year but you’ve got to take your foot off the gas in training camp next year.’ He was pretty clear as a veteran guy, ‘We let you get away with it once, but you better not try to do that again, because you’ll be playing with fire.’ You have to find that happy medium.
Cooper: For me, it’s a little different because I’ve been with this group for a while. When I first got the job, it was my first time in the NHL, I didn’t play in the NHL. I remember I had flown in from Syracuse, and Guy Boucher had lost his job, and that’s something I think we pointed out, the success, they built the program to a certain point and he had taken the team to the conference final just a few years earlier.
I made sure when I got in there I acknowledged that. One thing for me, walking in that room, it’s like that old deodorant commercial, ‘Don’t let them see you sweat.’ That’s my belief, you go in there with confidence. I just wanted to make sure I showed confidence and whatever the message is, the guys will remember it. You have to make sure it’s not just a fluff piece.
Flash forward to now, we’re in a different situation. My message to our guys for certain will be, ‘No matter what happens here, when we take the ice again, we’re not going to get everything back in one game.’ This is the season where it’s a little bit different. Regularly it’s a marathon, not a sprint, but this one might end up being a sprint. But we have to not try to make up for things that have gone wrong in the past in one game.
On dealing with the millennial players of this generation
Cooper: The players are different and the league has gotten younger. The old souls you used to see have gone away now, and you look no further than when you go back on the plane and you see less and less guys playing cards and more and more playing video games. You learn from your own kids in how they think, why are you playing this video game. Tell me your feelings and (enjoy the) camaraderie with your buddies. That’s the kind of approach I’ve taken.
You could be a lot more stern with players years ago, where today I think you need to put your arm around some guys a little bit more. Players before never used to ask, ‘Why?’ They just did it. And today’s younger players coming in, they want to know why? ‘Why are we doing this?’ It can be challenging. You go back to the lawyer days. ‘Never ask a question you don’t know the answer to.’ When you talk to players, you better know the answer, because there’s a really good chance they’re going to challenge you.
Brind’Amour: Having kids of your own helps, and I have college-aged kids. They want to know why. Back in the day, when I played, you never questioned the coach. You did what he told you to do. They want to know why and you better be able to show them. You have to know each player, they’re all a little different. Even though you may have the same philosophies and the same rules, each guy takes that a little differently. Getting to know them doesn’t hurt.
DeBoer: There’s an old quote that, ‘They don’t care what you know until they know how much you care.’ That’s never more important in today’s coaching and teaching. The era we grew up in, it was a dictatorship. When I coached in junior hockey, a lot of times it was a dictatorship and I wasn’t looking for conversations or in-depth analysis of what was going on, it was just, ‘This is how we’re doing it.’ But as a coach, you have to change. I agree with both guys, my kids helped me with that. You talk to them at the dinner table, you ask them who their favorite teacher is, it’s always people you connect with.
On whether you can show players more than 10 minutes of video at one time
DeBoer: No. That’s probably the limit. But if this was a call-in show, I might have 100 players call in and say, ‘He’s full of crap, he kept us in there for 20 minutes.’ I think there’s definitely a line there you’ve really got to get your message across quickly. We try to keep it to less than 10.
Cooper: When I first came into the league, I did primarily all the meetings. I still do a lot of them, but not as many — I hand a lot over to the assistants. When I find I’m drifting before the 10-minute mark, I know they are. It’s remarkable to me how in other sports, I talk to guys in football and the amount of video they watch, I don’t know how much they watch. It must be repetitive. I don’t know if it’s in our culture and how we’re wired but you can get a lot across in a short time. The tough part for coaches is that there’s so much you want to get in, but sometimes it’s better that less is more. Let them get the message, you make it short and to the point and get them out instead of clouding their mind and everyone walking out, ‘Gosh that was way too much.’
DeBoer: I’m going to jump in on that. If that’s one thing I could tell coaches, if they can work on that skill, that’s the skill to get. To be able to look at your game and get the fix down to one thing, one message, one thing that they need to get done for the next game and concentrate on that. So many young coaches – and I was guilty of that – it’s like a splatter gun — you try to fix everything. The really good coaches get it down to the one most important thing and get it back on the rails for the next game.
On if they go into the dressing room after the game and talk to the team
Brind’Amour: I don’t like going in after games but I started it my first year, I went in after a win, because that’s what the previous guy did and I followed what they did. Our strength coach asked me, ‘Why only come in after we win? That’s not right.’ I’m like, ‘You’re exactly right.’ I started this and now I’ve got to keep it going. I do think your emotions can get to you. I rely on my staff and have a good feel, they make a couple of points to hammer home. But in retrospect, if I look back, it’d take a lot of stress off me if I didn’t go in every game. But I started it and now that’s what guys expect. So I try to be short and sweet. I hate that the cameras are in there, and that’s a whole other issue about selling our game, we’ve got to do that a little bit more down here. I don’t like it because I know the camera is in there and I have to watch what I say. But I understand that.
But if I had to do that again, I probably wouldn’t go in every game because it adds a lot of stress. I think every time you talk to your team, you don’t want it to be fluff. It has to mean something. That’s a lot of extra meetings I’m throwing on my plate.
Cooper: I bet you in my career I’ve gone in 96 percent of the time. I didn’t know any better, I just came into the ranks from junior B to midget to junior and we always did it. When I got to the American (Hockey) League, for me it was a learning tool to address the team after. I know a lot of coaches don’t do it. I think I’m leaning towards Rod. At times, I wish I didn’t do it. But to be perfectly frank, one big thing is you could curb what guys say to the media. I can’t tell you how many times what the message I said after the game, I would read in the paper the next day on what the players said. Instead of, it’s a tough loss, bad things happened, you could curb it in a couple of minutes before you go out. I’ve used that as a tool. It doesn’t happen that often, fortunately, we’ve had a few more wins than losses, so it hasn’t been as bad.
DeBoer: If Jon is 96 percent, I’m the four percent that don’t go in. I used to, but I don’t anymore. I go in maybe 3-4-5 times a year, if I felt I really needed to send a message about something. I’ll tell you why I don’t go in anymore. I’ve found my postgame evaluation the next day after I rewatch the game is so much different than my perspective when I walk off the bench, about the individual players, about what I felt on the bench, was wrong compared to what I saw the next day.
My messaging was all over the map. If we won 70 games a year like Coop, I might be walking into the room every night slapping everyone on the back and telling them how great everything is. I used to speak too much out of emotion and too much from an unrealistic perspective on what I saw that night. By going the next day and rewatching the game, I realize how off I was both on individual and our team game a lot of nights. That’s why I don’t go in.
Cooper: The big thing for me and I don’t know if I’m right in this, as much as your emotions, the players are way more. They were just out on the battlefield. We were on the bench. You could tell by the way the tape is being ripped off the shinpads and skates how things have gone in a game. And that’s where I don’t know if I do mine by habit and curb some things.
Brind’Amour: I love what Coop said about putting a bow on it and moving on. You don’t want to be in long, they want to get the hell out of there. Say, ‘This is what I saw,’ win or lose, you could be no good that night and win the game, but let them know it wasn’t good enough. Same thing if you lose the game and you could have played a great game. Hearing from you it wasn’t so bad, and that’s the way we do things, puts them in a better frame of mind going home.
On how you discipline players: Hall of Famer Scotty Bowman said in his book that ‘the one thing I have is ice time’
DeBoer: I have a quick story on that. Last year, Game 7 against Vegas, we were in San Jose and Barclay Goodrow, who plays for Coop now, he turned a puck over, missed an assignment in the middle of the second period and it cost us a goal. I sat him for probably a period. I put him back out late in the third and overtime, he scored the double-overtime winner in Game 7 for us to advance. The message there is, yes, you have to discipline your players at different points for different things. But they have to know they’re going to get another chance to fix it. They also have to know if you’re doing it, if you’re sitting them for the entire game, an assistant has to sit down with them and go through video and show them how to fix the reason they’re out of the game. They have to know there’s an answer there, and then give them the opportunity to fix it.
Cooper: I’ve heard that term a lot with Steve Yzerman, so it has been passed down from Bowman to Yzerman and to me that ice time is the hammer. I’m a big believer that you treat everyone fairly, but you don’t treat everyone equally. It’s just the way it is. Everything comes down to expectations. If you set expectations for the player and you’re on the same page in how that’s going to go, then the taking of ice time, it becomes warranted at some point. Showing them, ‘This isn’t a punishment of hey, I don’t like you, or I don’t like your game. We have certain expectations for you and how we’re doing things, and you’re not meeting them.’
In the dictatorship, that wouldn’t even come to the forefront. But in today’s game, you’ve got to lay out expectations for the player and in the end, it’s the ice time. These guys all want to play, and by no means, nobody is in this game trying to embarrass anybody. But at times when you’re missing shifts, it’s going to happen. You need a reason why. And having expectations laid out is a big part of it.
On creating ownership among players to where, basically, they run themselves by the end of the season
Cooper: I’ve gone through that experience, and it’s harder and harder every year with the new players coming up and the accountability aspect to players running the room. These players that are coming up are so talented, have so much individual skill, they’ve got coaches here on every level. The one aspect I think is lacking is the leadership aspect of players. They’ve been told what to do for so long coming up, it almost becomes a little bit robotic. And then when they get to you, they’re still looking to you for what to do.
In teams I’ve had success with and won championships, I go back to Norfolk (AHL Calder Cup title) in 2012, if I didn’t show up for three weeks at the end of the year, they wouldn’t have noticed. That’s when you know you have a special group. I’ve had teams like that in Tampa and we haven’t ended up winning the Stanley Cup that, by the end, they end up coaching themselves. But it takes a lot of buy-in from players and an extremely strong leadership group. There is part of training where you can help train your leaders, but in the end, some of the players have to have it in them, that’ll take ownership in the room.
DeBoer: It’s a great point for young coaches. Your work is done during the year, and the two times I’ve been to the Cup Finals, you’ve got to fight the urge at that point. You’ve done your coaching and the players have taken it over. They know your expectations. They know what’s what and now the coach almost steps back. When you go on those types of runs, the room takes over.
My leadership story on Joe Thornton. Game 7 against Vegas last year, we’re down 3-0 and we get a five-minute power play. We go out and score four goals on the power play and win in double overtime. I remember the first unit – and Joe Thornton wasn’t on our first unit – the Hall of Famer, maybe the best setup man of all time other than Wayne Gretzky as far as distributing the puck and making other guys better, making a living on the power play. However, our first unit kept scoring, and we got to the four-minute mark, we tied it up 3-3 and I decided the first unit was tired, they scored three, let’s give the second unit some ice time. I remember Joe looked at me and said, ‘No, leave them out there. They’re hot. Leave them.’
I look back at that now, you’ve got a Hall of Fame player that made his entire career on playing in those moments, of being the difference, hopping over the boards and getting the winning goal on the power play, and he deferred. He had enough presence and leadership and security in himself. And sure enough, the first unit scored again even though they were dead-ass tired. That’s something I’ll never forget.
As a former player, how do you convince players to take that leadership and that control that naturally came to you
Brind’Amour: I didn’t. That’s why I’m lucky. Our sport is the greatest team sport in the world for a reason. You better have good leaders. I was lucky walking into a room where I knew all the players. I knew what everyone was capable of. I had that great relationship with the guys that were the leaders — Justin Williams. I don’t really have to say too much, you’re in sync. He knew what I was all about, he buys in and it just filters downhill. It was zero worry or issue about the buy-in and you have to have a huge buy-in as a team. In most sports, that weak link will come up and get you.
We were fortunate enough to have leadership in place and Coop is right when he says kids nowadays, there’s a lack of leadership. I’ll be honest with you. That’s why it’s important to have Justin Williams or Jordan Staal in the locker room where they can watch and see what it’s all about and learn from them.
I played a lot of years in the NHL and I never remember blaming the coach for a loss or patting the coach on the back, ‘You got us that win tonight.’ It never entered my mind. You prepare them, get them ready to go and at the end, ‘Boys, it’s your show.’
DeBoer: Last year, I remember in Game 1 of the Cup final, we win in St. Louis with a hand pass. I’m sure you guys remember that. And how (Blues coach) Craig Berube handled that. It’s clear the hand pass should have never been a goal, everyone knew it shouldn’t be a goal, and they lost Game 1 of the conference finals because of that.
I remember reading quotes from players the day after, the composure and messaging he did after that game with his team and they came back and maybe played their best game of the series in Game 2 and went on to win the Cup. That for me was one of those coaching moments where it could have gone one of two ways. If he goes into the room and goes off the deep end on how they got screwed, maybe this team loses composure. Instead, he was the voice of reason and they collect themselves and go win a Stanley Cup. I give him a lot of credit for that.
Cooper: Craig nailed it. But you still need people that when Craig leaves the room, saying, ‘He’s right.’ And let that trickle down. Because that could have spiraled the other way. It’s a testament to the coach and the team and their leadership with how that played out.
On how they handle criticism, whether it’s on social media or not, and advice to young coaches on making sure you’re confident in yourself
Brind’Amour: It’s making sure you have trust in some people, whether it’s your parents, your friends that you can throw something off of that’s bothering you. The easy answer is ‘Don’t read that stuff.’ But they all do. Or you hear about it. How do you handle that?
For me, it doesn’t do any good when you keep it inside. That’s why you need a circle of people, maybe it’s one or two, someone you can trust to talk things through. I have one of my best friends in the world, he’s not a hockey player, but he’s my right-hand man. And I don’t know where I’d be without him, being able to talk things through.
It’s important that you have that.
DeBoer: There isn’t a right answer. It’s the age we live in, people can hide behind comments, they can be ruthless, they can be mean. There’s no accountability for it. This generation has to have a thick skin. We get paid to accept that type of criticism. The toughest part is on the families, your kids read it, your wife reads it, your mother and father read it. They take it a lot more personally than we do. We have the maturity and we know what we’re dealing with. I think it’s just the support and always having those lines of communication open.
Cooper: You have to sift through the embarrassment. That’s the hardest part. You’ve got to get kids to open up. I try to do that with my kids. You do need a circle of trust and people that you can lean on for whatever happens. Criticism is a part of life and unfortunately, social media has brought it to the forefront.
When I was coming up through the ranks and got to the NHL, I was reading the press clippings. You see your name in the paper, ‘Wow this is really cool.’ But now I don’t read any of it. To me, it’s just counterproductive. I talk to my kids about it and if they’re still a little bit young, with the players, it’s turning criticism into a positive outcome.