As everyone scrambles to assign blame for the issues that hamstring hockey from being as good as it can be, there’s one group that doesn’t take a fair share of the heat: the men in the cheap suits behind the benches.
Yeah, coaches don’t play the game (although most of them did at a very high level at some point in their lives), but they can influence the on-ice product almost as much as the players themselves. And as we’re seeing at all levels of hockey this year, the approach a coach chooses to take has ramifications beyond mere wins and losses.
Everyone in the NHL has been dazzled by the efforts of Jacques Lemaire after he returned to the New Jersey Devils at the end of December. Although the franchise won’t make the playoffs, they have gone 25-13-2 since Lemaire replaced John MacLean - and in a lot of respects, you can make a solid argument Lemaire is the clear winner of the Jack Adams Award this year regardless of his team’s post-season status.
But if winning is what people claim sells NHL tickets, they forgot to tell that to Devils fans. Even with New Jersey’s stunning post-MacLean turnaround, their average attendance this season is down more than 1,000 fans per game (from 15,535 in 2009-10, which ranked them 20th overall in the league, to 14,513 this year and 26th overall).
Winning is not a cure-all for everything, especially when it is achieved through Lemaire’s signature, soul-sapping, entertainment-muzzling, blight-on-the-sport strategy known as the trap. He’s more or less the same coach he was in his first go-around in New Jersey and the same coach who had a fair amount of success in Minnesota: so driven in the pursuit of winning games, he’s forgotten people are paying serious money to be entertained along the way.
As Devils fans can see, winning is nice, but not as nice as it could be when you’ve got the NHL’s worst average goals-per-game - 2.08, far behind 29th-place Ottawa (2.27) - and the league’s third-worst 5-on-5 goals-for/against ratio (0.78) as the Devils do.
The trap turns otherwise joyful and creative hockey players into bland worker bees who might as well be created by computer special effects. And now we’re seeing some of them start to rebel against the strategy.
Have you seen the video from a recent Quebec League game wherein players from the Rimouski Oceanic staged an in-game protest of the way their opponents (the Montreal Juniors) chose to sit back and rely on the trap? God bless those kids for taking a moment to make a point. When hockey turns into ping-pong without the ping, the players don’t enjoy it and the fans don’t either.
Aside from depriving fans of an entertainment experience, coaches also apply pressures that can result in serious repercussions.
Those pressures usually come in the form of two phrases coaches use constantly: “puck protection” and “finishing your check.” The former is used to instruct players to turn their bodies into roadblocks to stop opponents from stripping them of the puck (usually when the play moves along the boards); the latter is code for players to launch their bodies into a member of the opposition with no regard for anyone’s well-being, whether or not the players are anywhere near the puck.
Combined with the added speed of the game, those two concepts have dramatically raised the risk of player injury. But a former NHLer who retired early in part due to concussions, and who now is a coach himself, is demonstrating there are other ways to teach young men how to play at elite levels.
As chronicled by veteran Globe And Mail writer Allan Maki, one-time Blues, Panthers and Maple Leafs defenseman Mike Van Ryn (now an assistant coach with the Ontario League’s Niagara IceDogs) is seeing the game in a different light and is passing along what he’s learned to a new generation of potential professional players.
The 31-year-old Van Ryn (who had to retire due to a combination of injuries that included a concussion at the hands of then-Canadiens winger Tom Kostopoulos) told a 16-year-old IceDogs player it was a forgivable offense for him not to cover the puck at the boards at all costs when a 6-foot-2, 230-pound opponent was (a) chasing him into the corner; and (b) fully prepared to drill him into the boards with everything in his power.
“I said to him, ‘You’re in a vulnerable position, try to protect yourself,’ ” Van Ryn told The Globe And Mail, recalling his own similar situation that helped push him into retirement. “If I didn’t make a play on that puck, maybe I don’t get hurt. Maybe Tom Kostopoulos doesn’t get suspended.”
Good for Van Ryn. Good for those Rimouski kids. Their actions and reactions demonstrate hockey doesn’t have to be about mindlessly following tradition; that the sport can evolve to meet the changing needs of its participants; and that coaches can be one of the chief drivers of change.
“If I don’t hit a guy with everything I got, I don’t need to be told anything by the coach when I get back (to the bench),” one veteran NHLer recently told THN.com. “I get the message by seeing my minutes (on ice) reduced the rest of the game or the next game. Or if I’m a player on a two-way (contract), I know there’s another guy in the (American League) who is absolutely going to hit the guy when I wouldn’t. So you need coaches to understand the game has to change a bit and they have to change along with it.”
As much as players must take responsibility for their actions, they are essentially employees and the coach is the employer who sets the rules and expectations for behavior.
Whether it’s Lemaire clogging up the game with his effective-but-anti-entertaining ways or another bench boss who isn’t satisfied unless his players take each and every opportunity to get physical with their opponents, they can’t continue on their current course.
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Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. Power Rankings appear Mondays, his blog appears Thursdays and his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays.
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