Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Coach MacLean Is The Right Guy At The Right Time

They say, “If you’re worried about being popular, don’t become a referee, a goalie or a coach.”

There’s little glory to be had in all three jobs but that just makes the people who succeed in them all the more interesting (ie. crazy).

So let’s talk about coaches for a minute, and in particular the sometimes jovial, but always authoritative Paul MacLean, whose work so far this season has been better than anyone except maybe Mrs. MacLean expected.

The personality and style of an NHL head coach is sometimes the only show in town, mostly because they have a free pass to let loose a string of expletives into a microphone and not have anyone call them a prima donna because of it.

Certainly the players aren’t encouraged to let it all hang out in public even though there are a handful of interesting guys playing in the league today, such as Sean Avery, Paul Bissonnette and George Parros among others. Mostly we know they’re interesting from social media like Twitter, or in the case of Parros because he has a famous moustache, went to Princeton, majored in Economics but chose to make his living by punching other people in the face with his bare fists.

That’s like a character out of Hemingway or Bukowski right there.

Otherwise, most players take the pre-season media training to heart and mete out safe sound bites for reporters which end up filling newspaper columns like so much landfill. You can pick through it and once in a while to find something noteworthy, but most of the time it’s like taking a handful of Sominex.

But coaches can always give you something. A lot of these guys are grizzled hockey vets who have been through the trenches, both as players and coaches, experienced both success and failure, seen a lot of punk kids they either turned around or booted in the ass, and somehow broke through every barrier the game has placed in their way.

In short, a lot of these guys are grumpy old men and there’s nothing more entertaining than grumpy old men when things aren’t going their way. If the coach isn’t old, then he’s certainly grumpy, because in order to pull together 23 millionaires and get them to sacrifice their personal wills to the larger good of the group, you have to be able to look someone in the face and tell them they’re not good enough. It’s harder than you think. Just try it sometime on your husband or wife and see how it flies.

But this isn’t about what a coach says after the game to someone like Larry Brooks (ie. f#!* off). It’s about how he handles his players.

Paul MacLean strikes me as a coach who has no problems establishing his authority. Yet he has the reputation of being a “communicator”, a balance that seems to be essential to successful coaching in today’s NHL.

In the old days, a “communicator” was someone who grabbed a shovel from his office, locked the door of the dressing room behind him after a big loss, and the only thing the assembled beat reporters could hear from behind the door were players screaming “No coach, noooo……” and then the sound of metal tables hitting the wall and garbage pails rattling across the ceiling. Message sent. Message received.

Maybe Bruce “F’ing” Boudreau is headed that way but not many coaches go for intense intimidation anymore. Mike Keenan used to single out players individually and shame them in front of the rest of the players all season long, trying to embarrass them. The whole team would hate him and end up playing angry – and often winning just to spite Iron Mike. Scotty Bowman didn’t bother to talk to his players at all, making decisions in a vacuum and instilling a deep loathing mingled with respect. Obviously it worked, but back then there was always the threat of losing your job at any moment’s notice and that’s why guys played hurt, hid injuries (including concussions) and choked back their grievances over a few beers with the boys (read James Duthie’s book on Brian Kilrea to learn about beers after games - it’ll make you awful thirsty). Now if a player hates his coach, he just requests a trade or simply waits for them to be fired – either way often works.

There are some big personalities in the NHL today like Boudreau, John Tortorella, Tom Renney, Mike Babcock and Ron Wilson, a few notable for their lack of personality, like good ol’ stubborn Jacques Martin, and then there are that group of coaches somewhere in the middle who are able to find that common ground with the players, and get good results from teams that maybe don’t look so good on paper.

Those coaches I’m talking about are guys like Barry Trotz in Nashville, Lindy Ruff in Buffalo, Guy Boucher in Tampa, Dave Tippett in Phoenix and, yes, Paul MacLean right here in Ottawa.

You get little hints of it when you hear a player like Chris Neil say he loves to play under MacLean. Same as with Kaspars Daugavins and Sergei Gonchar. MacLean is an ex-player and he seemingly knows which buttons to push and when to push them. He also knows when to bring down the hammer by skating guys hard in practice or benching players like Bobby Butler and Nikita Filatov to try and motivate them.

There doesn’t seem to be any gimmick here with MacLean. He isn’t in Ottawa because the team was in emergency mode, which is how Cory Clouston was hired. He isn’t here to rectify a perceived discipline problem like Clouston and Craig Hartsburg before him. He isn’t here to be a caretaker of an already established team like John Paddock was.

MacLean was brought in to help build this team from the ground up, not to patch holes or maintain the work of a previous bench boss. For the first time since the equally charismatic Bryan Murray took over after the lockout, the Senators have a coach who truly seems in charge and who has the opportunity to mould this team in his image right at the foundation level, something that Paddock, Hartsburg and Clouston didn’t have the opportunity to do (in their defense). Murray was handed a great team to coach but he also completely rebuilt the mindset that was instilled by Martin before him, so in essence he was starting over as well.

As for rebuilding this current Senators team, there doesn’t seem to be a more suitable guy to do it than Paul MacLean. Something about MacLean’s personality speaks of a father-figure type, and it’s not just because of the famous moustache above the soup coolers.

He’s a little rough around the edges – you get the feeling that he could let slip an F-bomb if he wasn’t careful – much like a lot of old hockey players who bear the faint scars of rougher days. He has that glint of strange mischief in his eyes once in a while but the booming voice of a taskmaster when he’s running a practice. He commands instant respect, not just from his coaching background in the Red Wings organization or as a star player in the league, but from the force of his personality.

In coaching, you need to have the X’s and O’s covered, but you also need that intangible factor, that charisma that separates the leaders from the followers. Setting up plays on a chalkboard is one skill, but giving orders and having your players go through a wall for you night after night is a whole other level of coaching that you can’t learn by reading Lloyd Percival’s Hockey Handbook.

There are going to be some tough nights ahead for MacLean and the Senators, and he won’t always be as popular as he is right now, but as long as he doesn’t physically choke out a reporter or one of his players, you get the feeling he’ll be around for a long time to come in the Nation’s Capital.


Anonymous said...

What I like about MacLean is that, as a fan, it's easier to follow the team because things are more predictable.

Just to use an example, I'm watching a game and this guy Daugavins is playing really well. Because he's playing well, I'm thinking that they should play him some more ... and that's exactly what happens.

To use another example, I'm watching Greening playing well on the first line with Spezza and Milan. The line seems to be pretty effective. I'm thinking that they should play together the next game ... that's exactly what happens.

The last few years, it wasn't always like that. The Gerber situation still gets me. The guy wasn't on his game. I get that they throw him back in there to help him build his confidence. I get that and I agree with that. But, if the guy can't get back on track, why not try someone else. Instead, we hear "He's good in the room".

Anyways, I like the way MacLean is running the bench.

Just a general observation on coaches. I find that we, fans and the media, wait for the result and then explain the result using the same explanation every time.

So when Clouston's winning, he's a good coach because he's tough on his players and a no nonsense X and O's guy. When he's losing, he's a bad coach because he's too tough on his players.

When Jacques Martin is winning, it's because he's very structured and defense first. When Jacques is losing it's because he's too structured and defensive.

PvR said...

or maybe as long as he does physically choke out a reporter or one of his players, he’ll be around for a long time to come in the Nation’s Capital.