Patrick Johnston: Culture change in hockey coaching has been a long time coming – The Province

Posted: December 16, 2019 at 5:44 am

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When Travis Green was a rookie with the New York Islanders there was one dreadful night when he thought his NHL dream was going to end.

Each time he stepped on the ice, he felt like something went wrong.

His team lost and he was certain blame would be directed his way, the teams checking-line centre, and hed be shipped off to the AHL, never to be heard from again.

This is going to be my defining moment as a professional hockey player, he said in June, while sharing the tale in a Vancouver ballroom filled with coaches from the pro and amateur ranks, all gathered for an NHL Coaches Association clinic.

As he stared down at his skates, still in his sweaty Islanders uniform, he realized there were a pair of shoes in front of him.

He looked up. It was legendary Isles head coach Al Arbour. Here it comes, Green thought. The coach hadnt spoken with him much up to that point.

Call the interaction a defining moment for Green the player, and person. Arbour sat down, stared right at him, and told him to forget about the game.

It was almost like a father to a son, Green recalled.

Travis, these are great players, Hall of Fame players and they have these kind of nights. And they had one tonight. And for you its going to happen again and you need to understand that. I need you to understand it and your team needs you to, too, Green recalled Arbour saying.

Youve got Mario Lemieux coming in Saturday night and we need you to get some rest, have a good skate tomorrow, learn from this and be ready to play against him, Arbour added, according to Green.

Here was a man who cared enough to make sure that one of his younger players was OK, Green said. That gesture that Al made will stick with me forever.

The culture of hockey hasnt always been one driven by empathy toward players.

But it has been for Green. Empathy, caring, understanding, listening and communicating are the five words he highlighted in what he believes drives a successful coach.

Youre not only coaching to help the players become better, but also to inspire them, the Canucks bench boss said. If you make better hockey players and you help them to become better people, Ive got a feeling youre going to win a lot more hockey games while youre at it.

There are things he mimics from coaches hes liked in the past just as there are things he avoids from coaches he didnt like.

Travis Green: Dont let your passion for winning overwhelm your coaching Jason Payne / PNG

You take tidbits from everyone, he said about his evolution as a coach. In his early days behind the bench he would get mad at his team after a loss.

But after a while it dawned on him how he was getting overwhelmed by his hatred of losing and had lost sight of how his team had played in the game.

One morning after a loss he watched some game film and realized his team had played pretty well.

I was the jackass who came in guns a-blazing, he admitted, realizing then he had to change his approach.

So, he started writing down a hoped-for score before games, something hed be happy with, so that post-game he could measure his own reaction against something hed spent time reflecting on.

It didnt change how he coached, but it became a way for him post-game to have something to look at that would force him to focus on his coaching, while helping to keep his passion for winning in check.

Thats still a fine line, communicating and being honest with players while still also being hard enough to get points across when you need them I like to talk to my players, I like to talk in general. I also like the team to have fun, which I think is very important.

Green: I like talking with my players. Nick Procaylo / PNG

Ernest Hemingway once said, more or less, that change happens gradually, then suddenly. Thats some of what were seeing now in coaching, according to Lorraine Lafrenire, the chief executive officer of the Coaching Association of Canada.

The flash points that were seeing are coaches who still behave the way they did 10 years ago, 15 years ago, she said, adding the coachs behaviour is a top-of-mind issue now.

You can bet your bottom dollar all the other coaches, GMs are talking about this. And they should be talking about this in the boardroom.

Lafrenire added this week: Theres a reckoning happening in hockey. I think there is also a reckoning happening in sport, in terms of the need for coaching styles to change. I think the conversation is a good thing.

There are the recent stories of the actions of Mike Babcock, Bill Peters and Marc Crawford. In the past theres the abuse on players by former junior hockey coach Graham James. And outside hockey there have been stories of abuse, many of them horrific, in a broad swath of sports.

These are catalysts for change, a painfully positive thing, Lafrenire said. It needs to continue. We cant go back to sleep.

When Sheldon Kennedy first started talking about his junior hockey experiences with James in 1996, it sent shock waves through the hockey world.

There were significant strides made in coach education, she said. The CAC continues to work in partnership with Kennedys Respect Group, which empowers people to recognize and prevent bullying, abuse, harassment and discrimination.

Whats really important is the support of the witness, Lafrenire said. Were trying to shift to a place where the bystander has more of the power in the moment, when something is occurring.

Creating whistleblower programs that demand independence on the investigating end and trust in the process on the reporting end, is the next important step.

The whole concept of duty of care belongs to everyone in the clubhouse, not just the coach and the player.

Don Cherrys year in Colorado wasnt a happy one for just about anybody. Steve Babineau / Getty Images

Coaching has, for the most part, come a long way from the days of Don Cherry abusing the few good players he actually had on his woeful Colorado Rockies 1979-80 squad. Cherry once yanked Mike McEwen, a skilled defenceman acquired early in the season from the New York Rangers, off the ice, literally: he reached out off the bench and pulled McEwen off the ice by his collar, then roughed him up.

The former minor league defenceman, who improved his stock coaching the highly talented Boston Bruins of the mid-70s, won just 19 games with Colorado that season.

Don Saleski, a checking forward who won two Stanley Cups with the Philadelphia Flyers, once said that Cherrys approach that season was in stark contrast compared to what he experienced with Fred Sheros Flyers.

Shero, he said, was tough, but rarely raised his voice. And he knew how to handle young and old players.

He knew how to coax his players. He got us to understand exactly what he expected of us, Saleski recalled a few years ago for Philadelphia hockey writer Bill Meltzer.

Saleski said Cherry didnt know how to handle young players.

Don had no clue what to do with them. No clue. So hed just scream and try to intimidate the guys by acting tough, he said. There was no self-reflection on his approach, it would seem.

One young player on the squad was Mike Gillis. The Cherry experience was an early lesson in how not to run a hockey team or how to treat people, Gillis said.

After a long, successful run as a player agent, he was hired in 2008 as general manager of the Canucks.

Mike Gillis in 2011: The former Canucks GM said he has long believed in having players involved in team decision-making. Ric Ernst / PROVINCE

He wanted his players to find themselves in a trusting, positive environment, one that reflected the diversity of modern society.

There has to be more opportunity for players to have a place to go that they can trust and rely upon, that theyre going to do the right thing, he said. Everyone is coming from different socio-economic backgrounds, different countries, different experiences.

The Canucks became a tight-knit group, which created a strong, trusting support network.

They were willing to open up with each other, with us. They werent concerned with being betrayed by us, Gillis said. I saw first-hand that when you remove the stigma of betrayal, they grow exponentially.

In gaining respect, you walk a fine line. You still have to be able to lead, to make the hard decision, while being transparent in doing so.

Modern players are wired by their school experience, which puts them at the centre of their learning process.

As students, they werent just told what to do, they were allowed to understand the whys and hows behind their lessons. And this process was, more often than not, also found in their sports life.

Lafrenire points to this shift in education as another catalyst for change.

Young people have had a hand in shaping their life, she said. Think about the practices teachers employed in the classroom 30 years ago, theyre no longer relevant now. What was acceptable then is not now. Command and control is not acceptable now we see that in the workforce. Were not building robots.

We wanted the players to feel they were included in the decision making, Gillis said. Every year wed sit down with our leadership group and ask is there anything we can do better? Can we communicate better? Can we treat you on the road better? Can we treat your families better?

Bo Horvat: accountability and positivity are the traits of a good coach. Gerry Kahrmann / PNG

Canucks captain Bo Horvat has had a number of coaches hes appreciated in his hockey career, who have been hard, but fair. And their reasoning has always been transparent.

I think what makes a good coach is holding guys accountable but at the same time being positive toward your players, he said. And every player is different. The coach has to know what buttons to push, whats going to motivate different players.

Players come to the NHL already knowing so much of the game. In the old days, perhaps, they had much to learn but now, between the coaching they get even before theyre teenagers and then the amount of time in the off-season they get to prepare, theres not much they dont know about the game, Horvat pointed out.

The other thing that cant be neglected: as todays players become tomorrows coaches in a reshaped culture, the screamer and-or abuser, will be harder to find.

I didnt want to forget, ever, what it was like to be a player, Green said.

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Patrick Johnston: Culture change in hockey coaching has been a long time coming - The Province

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December 16th, 2019 at 5:44 am

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