Hockey’s Biggest Shift: Fifty Years of Evolution in NHL Coaching
Posted by Dean Holden at March 20th, 2017
by Eric Duhatschek, 12 March 2017
There was a time when coaching meant instructing from the bench – changing lines, directing traffic, trading pleasantries with officials.
But those days are gone, for better or worse. Being a coach in today’s NHL is practically unrecognizable from what it was 50 years ago, thanks to enhancements in technology, strategy and the psychology behind motivating players, writes Eric Duhatschek.
There was a time, just before the dawn of expansion, when the NHL coaching fraternity consisted of just six men, all of whom wore the same essential uniform: jacket, tie, fedora and dour facial expression.
Back then, the game of hockey was played in straight lines – up and down the ice, no veering out of your lane. Shifts could last two minutes or more, with players catching their breath on the ice when the play went the other way.
Strictly speaking, coaching really meant bench coaching – changing lines, directing traffic, trading pleasantries with officials. Any teaching that went on during practices often came from the players themselves, with older players instructing younger ones in the whys and wherefores of life in the NHL.
It was a small, staid, insular world – and it didn’t start to change until the league went from six to 12, 16 and then 21 teams in a 14-year span, at which point the demand for qualified coaches and players had become so great that innovation, out of necessity, flowed into the sport.
Now, 50 years later, consider what coaching has become. Instead of one coach, there can be four to eight. Fred Shero – the mercurial Freddie the Fog – hired the first official full-time assistant coach, Mike Nykoluk, in 1972. Roger Neilson – a.k.a. Captain Video – is credited with introducing video as a teaching tool. And skating expert Dawn Braid became the NHL’s first full-time female coach when she was hired by the Arizona Coyotes last summer.
After the Russians almost defeated Canada in the 1972 Summit Series, the strict adherence to straight-line hockey slowly leaked out of the game. European players filled the talent gap created by expansion, and their style of play – more east-west than north-south – became the new normal.
Gradually, the harsh and abusive approaches that coaches sometimes took with players to demonstrate who was in charge disappeared as well. Teams began to hire psychologists to work with the players. NHL coaches started to attend summer clinics, partly to enhance their technical knowledge – sometimes just to improve their people skills.
“What hockey in Canada missed in its evolution was what baseball, basketball and football had – the education route,” said George Kingston, the first coach of the San Jose Sharks and one of the founders of the NHL Coaches Association. “All three of those other sports were played in the schools. Hockey, in the 1950s, was played outside of the schools. Unfortunately, it stayed outside of the schools, except for a few pockets in Ontario, Quebec and Alberta. The other sports had coaches and leaders who were also teachers and wrote books about their sports. That was not part of the tradition of hockey.”
Now 77, Kingston has one of the longest coaching résumés in history – in North America and internationally and at the college and pro levels.
Over the arc of his career, he saw a “major paradigm shift in hockey,” he says. “It went from a pastime to a profession – and it’s certainly been a winding path. It’s shifted from personal play for enjoyment to a work role within an entertainment and business industry.”
One can only imagine what Punch Imlach or Toe Blake would think of today’s game, in which coaches have television monitors on their benches so they can instantly watch a replay of a goal and, if it meets certain criteria, ask for a video review. Assembling a lineup to participate in a shootout would have been a foreign concept. The idea of “cycling the puck” low in the zone in order to maintain possession would have been puzzling. And the number of players blocking shots would have positively terrified them.
For better or worse, coaching in today’s NHL is practically unrecognizable from what it was 50 years ago, when Scotty Bowman was at the start of his Hockey Hall of Fame career.
“Historically, if you list all the things now that are different from the sixties, it’s amazing how much it’s all changed,” Bowman said. Nowadays, athletes may be finally tuned machines, but things were a lot different then.
“When we were rolling along pretty good in the 1970s, we started practices at 10 in the morning, finished about 11:30, and then the players would go for lunch around 12 o’clock. A couple of times, I’d get wind of the fact that the guys would stay in the bar until about three or four.
“So I said to Toe” – when Bowman took over from Blake in Montreal, he had a standing appointment to consult with him every Friday morning – “‘I’m going to switch it up. I’m going to start practising at noon. That would let them sleep in after a game – and it would also be cutting down on their time in the bar.’”
From that informal era to the modern fixation on players being in exactly the right place at exactly the right time – on and off the ice – coaching has evolved in three broad areas: strategy/teaching, motivation and technology.
The net effect of these changes has turned the game on its ear.
STRATEGY AND TEACHING
The European influence
Bowman, who is the NHL’s all-time leader in coaching wins, joined the ranks early, when a fractured skull forced him to abandon his playing career. In all, he coached 2,141 NHL regular-season games for five teams over 30 seasons and won nine Stanley Cups.
In the mid-1950s he was coaching Junior B when he attended his first Montreal Canadiens camp.
“I’ll never forget. Dick Irvin Sr. was the coach and he drew two lines on the ice to divide the width into thirds,” Bowman recalled. “The left wing had to be to the left of the line, the centre was in the middle, and the right wing had to be to the right of the line. And he was a stickler about it. The centre could move a little, but if you were a left winger, you were responsible for one third of the ice. The same with the right winger.”
Bowman can draw a direct line from that era to 1972, when a team from the Soviet Union that was supposed to offer meek opposition instead pushed the NHL’s greatest players to the limits in a seminal eight-game exhibition series. That opened some coaching eyes to a fresh approach.
“I studied this extensively,” Bowman said. “The Canadian defencemen in that series – Serge Savard, Guy Lapointe, Brad Park, Gary Bergman, Rod Seiling, Bill White and Pat Stapleton – these guys were all pretty good offensive defencemen. But if you look at the stats in that series, our defencemen literally did nothing – they could hardly get a point because of the way the Russians played.
“I’d played the Russians a couple of times with junior teams. They had these guys up in the neutral zone taking off, and they’d be gone, and we never had that in the NHL. Our defencemen, who were so good offensively in the NHL, couldn’t play the same way. They couldn’t pinch because there was a guy out there, going right to left, and they had to be aware of him.
“If you remember, the top NHL lines in the 1970s – Bryan Trottier, Mike Bossy and Clark Gillies or Bobby Clarke-Bill Barber-Reggie Leach – they stayed on their wings. The Russians played a different game, and their influence, that’s what started guys crossing over from one side of the ice to the other.”
Shorter shifts, more intense
Once skating became more of a factor in the game, it also forced teams to shorten shifts. But that didn’t happen overnight. Many coaches believe the trailblazer was long-time University of Alberta coach Clare Drake, who influenced a generation of NHL coaches, including the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mike Babcock and former St. Louis Blues coach Ken Hitchcock.
Kingston, who eventually coached against Drake when he was with the University of Calgary, also ran track and played football for Drake as a high-school athlete. Some of the training principles Kingston learned on the way to becoming an ultra-marathoner were primarily gleaned from studying champion distance runners such as Paavo Nurmi and Emil Zatopek. Ultimately, Kingston, Drake and a few others transferred what is now known as interval training to their hockey programs.
“This was the 1950s,” Kingston said. “Nurmi had been an influence on Zatopek, and Zatopek’s focus was all on speed play for training – go hard and then rest. That had an impact on all of us. In 1967, Clare and I talked about how to apply that to hockey – and that shifts had to change and shorten. You’d go hard and then you’d rest.
“But it was light-years before it ever came to the NHL. In ‘67, I’d become a short-shift guy because I’d seen that from my own interval training. You do shorter intervals and you recover faster. Now, is the optimum shift 25 to 30 seconds? Is the optimum 30 to 45 seconds? For sure the optimum is a lot less than two minutes, or a minute and a half, which is where it was in the late 1950s.”
Teaching NHLers the value of shorter shifts proved problematic, and Bowman said that when he moved on to Buffalo from Montreal, he developed a tactic to make the point to his players.
“We used to scrimmage a lot more then than they do now,” he said. “I had a football horn and a stopwatch. I used to go as close to a minute as possible. At 50 seconds, I’d blow the horn to let them know they’d been on for 50 seconds and the next chance you get to change, take it. If they didn’t change, I’d blow the whistle and stop the play and say, ‘We’re already at a minute [and] 10, and you’re not even close to getting off.’ For me, the shorter shifts came in the 1980s.”
Possession is 9/10ths of the law
Thanks to the NHL’s wild rush to embrace advanced analytics, no current hockey term enjoys wider use than “puck possession” – which, to older coaches, is simply restating a basic, timeless truth: It’s better to have the puck than not.
But the tactics of how to possess the puck longer did develop over time. One can be traced back to a day, early in his coaching career, when Dave King was attending a practice at Maple Leaf Gardens. After the practice, King stayed in his seat to watch the players of that era fool around with the puck. He was particularly struck by a game the Leafs’ No. 1 line of the time – Lanny McDonald, Darryl Sittler and Errol Thompson – were playing in the corner to cool down.
“They were just going in a circle and they’d either pass it inside or reverse it back to a guy behind them,” said King, who coached Canada’s national men’s team for three Olympic Games and was also the first Canadian to coach a team in Russia’s top domestic league. “They weren’t using it as a tactic. They were having a little fun.
“But I thought to myself: ‘That’s interesting stuff. That might be something we can use to maintain puck control in the offensive zone.’ That’s where it started.”
King taught the cycle to his University of Saskatchewan Huskies team, but he said it was most effective with the 1984 Olympic team, specifically with three players he used as a line: Carey Wilson, Dave Donnelly and Patrick Flatley.
“All of them were average skaters at best – but had huge puck-control skills. So when these guys caught on to that tactic of cycling, it was so impressive. If they got the puck into the offensive zone and got control, we could play with the Russians and make them have to work at coverage.”
The shot blocking ‘mindset’
In the 1970s and 1980s, only a handful of brave souls with overstuffed and reinforced shin pads blocked shots. Now, with changes in equipment, practically every player blocks shots. But early in the evolution of the tactic, one of its most strident advocates was Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, who won the Stanley Cup in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. For a short time, before blocking shots became so ubiquitous, the willingness to do so provided Tortorella’s clubs with a competitive advantage.
“I tell players: Blocking shots is part of playing defence properly when you don’t have the puck,” Tortorella said. “But you know what the end goal for me with shot blocking is? It’s camaraderie.
“When I watched a guy block a shot, I watched his teammates on the bench – they just loved it. It showed courage. It showed character. It carries you into a whole different identity – of maybe thinking you’re a little invincible. No one’s ever asked me why before. Usually, they’re only criticizing me – which is fine, it’s their prerogative. But shot blocking for me created a whole different mindset for my hockey club. That, to me, is the most important part of shot blocking.”
Positive (and negative) reinforcement
Ever since Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne asked his team to “win one for the Gipper,” coaches have been looking for inspirational ways to motivate their teams.
In his final years of playing with the Philadelphia Flyers, Terry Crisp would often find a message from coach Shero in his dressing room stall: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” The final line of the John Milton sonnet On His Blindness is generally understood to mean that we all have a role to play – even those of us who are no longer at the top of their game.
“I’d see that,” Crisp said, “and I’d know: ‘Shoot, I’m out again tonight.’”
Crisp would go on to coach 631 NHL games with Calgary and Tampa and win the Stanley Cup with the Flames in 1989. He remains one of only a handful to win the Stanley Cup as both a player and a coach.
His coaching career began as an assistant on Shero’s staff in Philadelphia, along with Pat Quinn. On his first day on the job, he roared into Shero’s office with a question.
“I said: ‘Freddie, now that I’m officially an assistant coach in the league, I want the book.’ ‘What book?’ asks Freddie. I say: ‘The book – the book of quotes. I now am entitled to them because I’m an assistant coach.’ He says: ‘There’s no book.’ I say: ‘What do you mean there’s no book? There has to be a book.’
“He looks at me and says, ‘Crispy, do you drink tea?’ ‘Tea? Sure, sometimes I drink tea.’ He says: ‘What kind? Red Rose tea?’ He says: ‘If you drink Red Rose tea, you’ll know there’s a little string attached to the tea bag, and at the end of the string there’s a little piece of cardboard with a saying, like a fortune cookie.’
“Everyone thought Freddie was this motivational genius and he had it all written down in a book. That’s where he got his motivational sayings – from the end of a Red Rose tea bag.”
Crisp also played for Bowman on the 1967-68 Blues, their expansion year and Bowman’s first season as a full-time NHL coach.
Crisp recalled Bowman promoting former NHL great Doug Harvey from the minors to play in the deciding seventh game of a series against Philadelphia. Harvey, considered the greatest defenceman in NHL history prior to Bobby Orr’s arrival, was at the end of his career by then, but Bowman wanted him in the dressing room because of his big-game experience – so he could share it with the young Blues.
“Scotty comes in, we’re getting ready to go, and says, ‘Guys, you all noticed, Doug Harvey, great man, won this many Stanley Cups, played in this many all-star games, has been through the wars. He’s here tonight. Doug have you got anything to say to the boys?’ Doug looks up. He looks left. He looks right. There’s this looooong pause. Finally, he says: ‘A wet bird never flies at night.’ Then he sits down. We all look at each other. What? ‘A wet bird never flies at night.’ To this day, that speech gets repeated every time someone on those old Blues teams get together. You’d say to Bobby Plager: ‘What about a wet bird?’ He’d answer: ‘Never flies at night.’ You tell me, what does that mean?
“But we played the game and Doug Harvey was great. He masterminded the whole game, as if he was sitting in a rocking chair. We won 3-1. Who would have done something like that but Scotty Bowman?”
Who’s the boss?
At the beginning of his coaching career, Bowman was a taskmaster and influenced many of his successors, including Mike Keenan. Nowadays, former players such as Larry Pleau like to tease Bowman about some of the things he said and did in his early coaching days .
“You do a lot of crazy things,” Bowman acknowledged. “One game we played in Chicago, we had a real good team and had just won a Cup the year before. But for some reason we got beat 5-1 or 6-1, and I blew up in the dressing room at the big guys after a game. I laced into Savard and some of these guys: ‘You think you can win playing this way.’ We had Pleau and Pierre Bouchard on that team, but for some reason I didn’t play them. They didn’t hit the ice. But I see them sitting in the corner, so I say: ‘And you two guys in the corner, you don’t even know how to cheer.’
“That was an awful thing to say, and I don’t think you’d ever do that now. I think you might blow up at the whole team, but you’d never single out individual players. If you’re going to harp on a guy now, you’d do it in private.”
In Crisp’s playing days, he said, no one questioned why a coach gave an order, they just followed it.
“If a coach said to us, ‘Skate through the wall!,’ you skated through the wall,” Crisp said. “Then I started coaching. But if I said, ‘Skate through the wall,’ the guy would want to know: ‘How high is the wall? How thick is the wall? Which part of the wall do you want me to skate through? And, by the way, what do you want me to do when I get to the other side of the wall?’ I’m not sure how well we motivated them back then, but we thought we had to show the players who was in charge.”
Another way of demonstrating who was in charge was to direct sarcasm at players, something Crisp came to realize was actually a counterproductive technique.
“One on one, the players would take a crock of shit from you, but they wouldn’t take the sarcasm on the bench,” Crisp said. “I couldn’t say, ‘Duhatschek, you’re minus-three already, go out there and give them another goal.’ Or I might walk down to where Tom Watt [a Calgary assistant] was standing and say loudly: ‘Tom, if I put Duhatschek out there one more time, I want you to come right over and kick me square in the ass.’ Now the guy doesn’t want to look at you, and the other players are squirming on the bench, too – they don’t like it either. That’s not motivation, that’s just stupidity.
“So when you think back about the things you might have done differently, there are a lot of things you wouldn’t change, but that’s one you probably would.”
By the time Bowman left the Pittsburgh Penguins to join the Detroit Red Wings, he too had changed his methods.
“In Detroit, we started breaking the season into 10-game segments, and sometimes, after a 10-game segment, you’d bring a guy in and you’d go over the 10 games and what he did. I’d rate the players with the other coaches. I might call you in and say, ‘Eric, you keep playing like this, you’re not going to make it.’ Nowadays, you might talk strategically to the guy, but you wouldn’t chastise a player individually in front of the group any more.”
The Badger effect
One of the most innovative coaches in the early 1980s was “Badger” Bob Johnson, the first U.S. college coach to land an NHL job. Johnson brought a distinctly different philosophy to the NHL: Instead of teaching the game from the point of fear, he taught it from the point of pride.
It’s a lesson Tortorella says he belatedly learned in his own career.
“It’s a constant battle of mine,” Tortorella said, “because I’m trying to appeal to a player’s pride – of being the best he can be as an individual and the best he can be within the context of the team. I still believe that. I still tell my guys: ‘You’re going to be pushed. Make sure you understand. Don’t listen to how it’s presented, just listen to what I’m saying to you’ – because that’s an important part of getting an athlete to be who he can be.
“But I’ve made some huge mistakes, where I’ve crossed the line – where I’ve hurt that player and stopped his growth because of something I said to him.”
Nowadays, Tortorella says, he primarily stresses motivation, team building and the mental strength of his players, in part because players arriving in the NHL today are so well-versed in tactics and strategy that the need to teach basic concepts is not as great as it once was.
“I’m a guidance counsellor in the sports business,” Tortorella said. “My daughter’s a seventh-grade schoolteacher, and we talk about this a lot. I say to her: ‘We’re trying to do the same thing, except you use textbooks and you’re in a classroom setting.’
“It’s one of the most unique and exciting parts of coaching – trying to get between the ears of each individual and straighten out that wiring so they can be the best they can be. But it’s impossible to get to everybody – you try to do the best you can, to get all these personalities to mesh together and to believe in the common goal.”
In today’s NHL, video has two primary functions: as a teaching tool and as a scouting tool – and often the two overlap.
Bowman, now a special adviser to the Chicago Blackhawks, says that when he started in St. Louis, video was non-existent, largely because television was also so random.
“Dan Kelly [the Blues’ legendary play-by-play man] would ask me my lines, and I wouldn’t give them to him because I didn’t want the other team to know who I was playing. I’d say to him, ‘I’ll give you my lines if you give me their lines.’ That’s how much it’s changed. We had no knowledge of the other team.”
Video made its way into the NHL largely thanks to Neilson, who landed his first NHL gig with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1977 and used a clunky old VHS machine to break down tape.
Nowadays, coaches can get video sent to their iPads between periods – and even between shifts if needed – to dissect a play.
I have really cut back on how much information I give to my team because I want to bring the instinctive part back to it. I’ve gone full circle – from being at it every day with the tape and telling them ‘this is where you need to be in this situation or that situation.’ By the time they get on the ice, their instincts are gone.
King recently coached a Canadian team at the Deutschland Cup and was Luke Richardson’s assistant at the Spengler Cup, international events where Canada competed with makeshift teams. And yet, getting the same quality of video support King was accustomed to as an NHL assistant was no problem.
“The technology is so advanced and so portable – as long as you’ve got a high-quality video guy, you can use it anywhere in the world,” King said. “It’s an easy set-up and easy to do.”
“It’s a high-tech world now. As soon as the plane starts, the coaches are using the time on the plane to break down the game that night.
“The teams cut these CDs, and they’ll even send a CD to a college player they’ve drafted and say, ‘This is the way Jonathan Toews takes faceoffs. This is how Patrick Kane plays on the power play.’ All the teams do that.”
But, according to King, there is an immense downside to the prevalence of video because it has led to so much imitation.
“A new idea, if it’s a good idea, is only a new idea for a short period of time before it’s picked up by everybody,” King said. “The result is very few teams now play a thoroughly distinct style. There’s a tendency to play the same game. It’s like opening Campbell’s soup: You know what you’re going to get out of every single can. Many nights, you could change sweaters and, other than the superstars, if you get two generic teams, people wouldn’t know the difference sometimes.”
And video has hurt the game in another way, King says: It has made coaches “paranoid” about mistakes.
“So to prevent mistakes at the blueline, for example, we’d say to players, ‘Get the puck in deep,’ because if we play chip-and-chase and get it behind everybody else, you cover your ass.
“To me, one of the greatest challenges in coaching is ‘Don’t listen to everybody else.’ People will tell you: ‘You can’t attack a team when it has five players back.’ That is incorrect. There are ways to do it. There are seams inside, little creases where, if you hit the seams with speed and pop the puck to the guy, you can shock everybody by exploding through a seam.
“In hockey, we always tend to coach to the lowest common denominator. It becomes like a game of musical chairs. You hope they make a mistake in their end, and they hope you make a mistake in your end. The use of video takes us to a defensive perspective more than it takes us to an offensive perspective.
“Instead of saying, ‘How can we make them pay a price to play that way?’ we look for the safest way to get through it.”
Tortorella coined the phrase “Safe is death” when he was coaching the Lightning to a championship and says he is more convinced than ever that there is too much instruction in the game.
“We over-coach,” he said. “We have too many meetings. We want to put our claws into them all the time when they’re with us. This game is such an instinctive game, but nowadays kids aren’t on the ponds nearly enough. They go to a practice at 5 o’clock in the afternoon and sometimes they’ll go 40 minutes without touching the puck – and that kid, playing hockey at age 6 and 7, is going to want to quit at age 8 because it’s so frigging boring.”
Tortorella is in the midst of a breakthrough season with Columbus. Earlier this year, the Blue Jackets put together a 16-game winning streak, the second-longest in NHL history. Now in his first full season with the team, he says he’s trying to find the right instructional balance to suit the modern era.
“I have really cut back on how much information I give to my team because I want to bring the instinctive part back to it,” he said. “I’ve gone full circle – from being at it every day with the tape and telling them ‘this is where you need to be in this situation or that situation.’ By the time they get on the ice, their instincts are gone.
“With this club here, I told them: ‘I’m going to turn away from some of the mistakes if you’re trying to make a play. Just meet me halfway. Let’s have some structure when we don’t have the puck – not when we have it, but when we need to get it back. Then you can go do your thing.’ That’s the deal we’ve made here.”
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