BY ULF SAMUELSSON
The most successful teams I’ve been involved with have had a healthy balance of respect and humor. Obviously, you need to win a certain amount of games to have any fun. When you’re having fun, it allows you to relax and get away from those stressful times when you really need to focus and bear down.
You need to be respectful of your teammates who like to concentrate the whole day, especially on game day. While you let them be on their own, the guys who always mess around and have fun with each other do that somewhere else.
Leaders like Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky sometimes told jokes, but they didn’t tend to involve themselves in practical gags. When I played with Mario in Pittsburgh in the early ’90s, he was a lot of fun to be around, but we respected him enough to leave him alone most of the time.
We always played a few jokes when I was in Pittsburgh. Kevin Stevens and I were going back and forth with each other and one day I decided to go out right after practice and fiddle with the ignition cable on his brand new BMW.
When he went out to the car, he was so angry it wouldn’t start he began jumping up and down. He called the towing company and it was a big headache for him. He took the car to a mechanic and even got a rental before he figured out we had switched the cable on him.
That same year we were in Minnesota and Rick Tocchet was getting treatment for a sore groin, so the trainer had small electric pulses going through the muscle. Rick was sitting there reading the paper after practice and I came by with a cup of water. Now, he had been playing a few jokes on me, so I decided it was payback time.
I tossed a little water on him and he almost jumped up onto the table. Then, of course, he got so mad he grabbed a bottle of massage oil and chased me up and down the stairs at the old Met Center for 10 minutes until he finally caught up with me and sprayed my whole suit with oil.
Stuff like that happened all the time.
Coaches weren’t immune, either. The Igloo in Pittsburgh had the kind of plexiglass that, if you hit it in a certain spot, would break almost every time. Scotty Bowman was running a practice when a couple of us agreed to try and attract Scotty’s attention elsewhere so one of us could bang a hard shot and break the glass to see if we could end practice early.
We did that a couple of times and I remember Scotty going out of his mind. I’m not sure if he picked up on it or not, but that was our way out of practice many times. A good 20 minutes would go by before the crew got out there and cleaned everything up. We thought it was funny at the time, but I don’t appreciate this much now as a coach.
In Phoenix, the new players still pull the old tricks. When you get a call-up or a young guy, right before they go out for warmups they tell the kid: “It’s your special game, why don’t you be the first player and lead us out onto the ice for warmups?” So he’s all pumped up he’s going to go out there and lead the team – and then, as soon as he steps on the ice, all the other players go back in the tunnel and let him do a few laps by himself.
It’s little jokes like this that help guys through the grind of an 82-game schedule. There are a lot of hours on planes and buses and in hotels and you have to fill them somehow. Guys get tired and anything that makes it fun to come to the rink is a good thing.
Ulf Samuelsson was a defenseman who played on the edge in the NHL from 1984 until he retired in 2000. After a few years out of hockey, Samuelsson returned to the game when he joined the AHL’s Hartford Wolf Pack as an assistant coach. This is his third season as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes.