Last June during draft week in Vancouver, I was invited by the NHL Coaches’ Association at their annual Coaches Clinic conference to moderate a panel featuring Scotty Bowman, Darryl Sutter and Terry Crisp.
It was spectacular. Them, not me.
But as I stood on stage directing traffic for that amazing panel, I kept scanning the large conference room and the sheer number of coaches on hand from all kinds of levels of hockey.
It really hit home for me in that instant the kind of fraternity the coaching world is, not just at the NHL level, and the desire to help out coaches from all kinds of leagues and walks of life.
It’s been an important motivation in recent years from the NHLCA to have NHL coaches give back and help those aspiring to be in such roles one day, which is at the root of why the organization introduced the pilot Mentorship Program last month, which consisted of four livestream “webinar” events featuring four NHL head coaches:
- Feb. 10, Jared Bednar from the Colorado Avalanche presented to AHL coaches.
- Feb. 13, Bruce Cassidy of the Boston Bruins spoke to ECHL coaches.
- Feb. 24, David Quinn from the New York Rangers spoke to NCAA coaches.
- March 9, Jeff Blashill of the Detroit Red Wings did his webinar for USHL coaches.
The original plan was to wait until next season to fully roll out the Mentorship Program, but given the real-life circumstances we all find ourselves in with the COVID-19 crisis, the NHLCA decided it wanted to help during a difficult time and thus bumped up the full launch starting Friday with 20-plus, livestream webinar sessions taking place over the next six weeks and featuring more NHL head coaches.
Buffalo Sabres head coach Ralph Krueger, for example, will do a webinar next Wednesday for more than 400 coaches from nine European hockey federations: Sweden, Switzerland, Germany, Finland, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Denmark and Great Britain.
“I think it has always been important. I mean, I went through it a couple of decades being more on the international stage where you naturally end up educating and passing on your experiences really without holding back,” Krueger told The Athletic on Thursday. “It’s something in my new role now back as a head coach in the NHL, I really embrace the opportunity to give these experiences to coaches — not only in North America but for me also to be responsible in spreading the word to Europe and helping them to understand at the top of the game.
“For me, an international webinar with 400 coaches next week, that’s very exciting. And under these circumstances, all the more an opportunity to pass on what’s still important, the development of players at the grassroots level and what they can learn about what’s needed in the final product in the NHL.”
It’s a crazy, competitive world in coaching, but Krueger’s philosophy is to share it all.
“I’m 60 now, I just flow pretty freely, I don’t hold anything back in these kinds of things,” said Krueger. “You put it all out there. Because in the end, it’s up to them to put the whole package together. It’s going to be fun.”
It was a no-brainer for Cassidy to say yes when the NHLCA reached out to him about doing a webinar for about 40 ECHL coaches.
“I started there,” Cassidy told The Athletic on Thursday. “I was happy to do it. There aren’t that many guys anymore from the ECHL (who make it as a coach in the NHL). The first game I ever coached was against Bruce Boudreau. I was in Jacksonville and he was with Mississippi. Pete Laviolette was coaching in the league at the time, Jimmy Playfair, so some guys used to get out of that league.”
Part of what Cassidy talked about with those ECHL coaches last month was trying to find a clearer path to the NHL, because things have changed since his time coaching there.
“Back then there was more of a path, more of an opportunity out of that league, it seems a lot tougher now,” said Cassidy. “So that was one of the things we discussed. With so many more assistant coaches now (in NHL and AHL), it’s harder.”
Years ago, Cassidy had an opportunity to move up from the ECHL to be an assistant in AHL, but the advice he got from a couple of NHL guys was: “If you want to be a head coach, stay a head coach.”
“So that was a bit of my message now with all the assistant coaches getting promoted (in NHL and AHL), that advice may have to change now,” said Cassidy. “Maybe get in with the assistants. So that advice has probably changed in the last 20 years.”
Krueger’s planned message to those 400-plus European coaches next week?
“My theme primarily will be the challenges for a European player adapting to the National Hockey League game and what they need to learn already at younger ages and the kind of practice or training you could do even though the ice surface is larger to help them get ready for what’s quite a different game,” the former Swiss national team head coach said.
“I often called it a different sport. It changes dramatically. … There’s so much less time and space, so what they can do for drills and tactical adjustments to even make the game in Europe more exciting and bring the game a lot more between the dots than it falls right now; for the good of the game and for the good of the players.”
In the meantime, life goes on in a completely different manner for these two NHL head coaches, who are not used to downtime.
“When we get back to a normal world, we will all enjoy it that much more again,” said Krueger. “I mean the appreciation of what we had and how for granted we took it. I think for every human being right now, the awareness is going to be so magnified. The vehicle of sport will be one of the best-feeling vehicles out there once we’re allowed to do it again.
“I’m just excited for when that day comes, knowing that it might still be a while,” he added. “I know that sports is going to play a big, big role in getting people to acclimatize back to trying to be normal again after this shock, you know?”
The Sabres won’t have much of a role, if any, if the NHL is able to resume the season later this year, given where they are in the standings. But for the Bruins, this really hits home. They’re first in the NHL and have another realistic shot at going all the way after losing in Game 7 of the Cup final a year ago.
Cassidy, bunkered down with family in suburban Winchester, Mass., was quick to stress that nothing is more important than making sure society at large stays healthy and gets over this crisis, that sports are secondary.
But, yes, he’s not going lie, if there’s no resumption of season, it’s going to hurt for a Bruins team that has what it takes to win it all.
“For us, yeah, it would be unfortunate considering everything, we’re a team that’s close, we were close last year, we have some unfinished business, and we’ve tried to take care of that since Day 1 this year,” he said. “Until the playoffs come, we can’t celebrate anything. That’s the tough part for us. We feel we were that close last year and we’re going to get it this year.”
Everyone is wondering how players are going to be if they wait three-plus months to play again. At least when it comes to that concern, Cassidy is confident in his veteran core.
“One thing is, we’ve got a really professional group,” said Cassidy. “I’m not worried about our guys’ conditioning and that part of it. I think they’re going to be ready and focused. It’s just, are we going to get to do that? That’s the big unknown. Are we going to get that chance?”
Nobody knows right now.
Krueger, who is back home in Switzerland and self-isolating with family, looks forward to getting through the worst of this and using sports as a way to lift people.
“For me, I see a huge responsibility, we’re trying to stay quiet right now and not be too vocal, but I think our voices are going to be heard and be very important once we get through this initial phase of paralysis in the world,” said Krueger. “When we start activating again, everybody who’s got leadership responsibilities in sport need to help cure the people from what they’re going through, this adversity. Which is so shocking for us all.
“The world will need coaches who can help people,” he added. “The people from sports have experience with adversity in ways that are not comparable to this but at least give us the tools to help people through adversity, and I think we need to activate those.”
(Photo: Jonathan Wiggs / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)