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Mike Smith's Blog: What makes a good coach

Pat Quinn took the Maple Leafs to the conference final twice, in 1998-99 and 2001-02. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images/NHLI)

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Pat Quinn took the Maple Leafs to the conference final twice, in 1998-99 and 2001-02. (Photo by Dave Sandford/Getty Images/NHLI)

A question often asked of GMs is, “what is the most difficult thing you have to do?” Most will answer, “hire a good coach.”

Why is that? Coaching is a difficult job with lots of pressure to put wins on the board. The coach has to deal, on a day-to-day basis, with a much larger cross-section of the hockey business than any other person, including the GM.

Several years ago, while searching for a coach, I asked several experienced managers what they thought made for a good bench boss. In the hockey world, I talked to Harry Sinden, Serge Savard, Bob Clarke and Ron Caron. I also spoke to Jerry West, then the GM of the Los Angeles Lakers, and the late George Young, former GM of the New York Giants.

What emerged was a general consensus of characteristics you need in a coach. Some of these were:    
                                      
The ability to get along with people and make everyone around the team comfortable.
Serge Savard: “The coach has to treat everyone with respect – they will respect him in return.”

The ability to communicate.
Harry Sinden: “He has to be articulate, he has to be able to speak to the team calmly, get the team to understand what is needed, to motivate in this manner.”

Recognize the importance and the role players have to the team.
Bob Clarke: “It is the players that play the game, the coach needs to remember this.”

Know who to play in every situation.
Ron Caron: “The coach has to have the right players on the ice at the right time, watch how Scotty Bowman and Al Arbour did it.”

Be a “we” person.
Jerry West: “I look to see if the coach uses the pronoun ‘I’ or ‘we’ and try to stay away from the ‘I’ coach.”

Know the difference between winning and losing.
George Young: “I look for a coach who has experienced, at some time, a horrible losing year – he will understand how bad losing is and will work exceptionally hard to avoid it again.”

Other traits they agreed on:
Control of his ego; projecting a positive, upbeat attitude; humble, respectful, honest, secure and confident; an understanding of the game.

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The coach has a larger staff to work with than he did 10-12 years ago. He must manage his staff, keep them unified and working toward the same goal and improve the individual players and the team as a whole. 

All too often coaches become overly involved with who is on the team and this quickly becomes dangerous territory. It is the GM and his staff who select the players. Yes, the coach should have input, but when the coach says “get rid of Bob, get Joe from L.A.,” trouble soon follows. The team quickly senses the negativity and it’s often the first big step a coach takes to losing the confidence of his players and his team.

Pat Quinn, who I hired in Toronto, was the best coach I worked with in this sense. He never made a suggestion to get a specific player. He was quite content to let me handle that side of the business and work with what he had. I believed the players immediately sensed his support and responded positively. We had a great year, making it to the conference final.

But to win the coach needs to have good players. Legendary NCAA basketball coach John Wooden often said, “although not every coach can win consistently with talent, no coach can win without it.” The GM has to accept the responsibility of consistently upgrading the club’s talent level. But what if the GM doesn’t know who can really play the game? Well, then the coach is in a tough spot.

I recently spoke to a long-time GM about coaching. He laughed and said, “people are always asking ‘who is the smartest coach?’ The answer is the one with the best goalie.”

And that is the next most difficult task a GM faces: finding a top goalie.

Mike Smith is a former GM with the Blackhawks and Jets and associate GM with the Maple Leafs. He also served as GM for Team USA at the '81, '94 and '95 IIHF World Championship. His Insider Blog will appear regularly only on THN.com.

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