Dan Bylsma's Pittsburgh Penguins are fourth in the East, two points out of first, despite being without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for long periods. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Great coaches operate using different systems and styles and this year’s race for the Jack Adams Award is proof of that. No fewer than a dozen names could be rightly considered for nomination, as teams across the board have been impressive given their in-season difficulties - groups such as the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Detroit Red Wings all thrived despite multiple injuries to key players.
My experience with coaches has led me to believe most of the good ones, no matter their chosen style, have a few things in common - even guys such as fiery John Tortorella and the professor Dan Bylsma.
As a player, you have to feel a level of sincere respect from your coach to be committed to the team and you have to respect the man back. If you want players to pour out 100 percent energy on a daily basis, they can’t walk into the dressing room and feel like a pawn. Taking the time to get to know the players on your team (without becoming “friends”) is a key part of getting them to work hard.
To gain respect, it helps to have a good hockey background. It’s hard to take someone seriously in crunch time when he’s giving hard line “my way or the highway” type advice if you feel like he hasn’t been there before and thus wouldn’t “know.”
Great coaches don’t belittle their players, they just give honest help. They need to establish the mindset of “we the team” so it doesn’t feel so much like a king ruling over peasants as it does two co-workers coming together.
That should be the easy part. But it has to go hand-in-hand with...
Point 1 was a bit lovey-dovey to be an effective method of managing 23 men with egos, money and agendas if used on its own.
Some of the best in the business - think Mike Babcock as Example 1A - offer a mix of intelligent, thoughtful insight with searing “oh crap, he’s mad isn’t he?” Intimidating coaches can correct sloppy passes in practice with a single look (a look you begin to understand after a few weeks) or silence the room when he walks into it.
My Dad, Bob Bourne, played for Pat Quinn in Los Angeles and has mentioned Quinn was a great coach partially because of how strong and scary the guy was; players took him seriously. As much as you need to be “co-workers” so players can comfortably ask questions, the relationship needs to be established - team decisions are made democratically only until the dictator makes the final call.
When you hear a coach has “lost the room,” it’s usually as a result of this factor.
As a coach standing on the bench, you could flap your lips for 60 minutes and some do (which I think is more common in the minor leagues). Players aren’t entirely idiotic, they often know when they’ve messed up and know what they should’ve done differently. They can see what their teammates are doing wrong from the bench. They too can see where the open man is.
So when you’re sitting on the bench and your coach is offering a running commentary, it can devalue his words (supply and demand, brutha). You know he’s going to talk between periods in the dressing room as well and, eventually, you just tune him out. You can only say the same things so many times before they fall on deaf ears.
Good coaches pick their spots to make sure their words carry weight. They also...
Certain coaches get stuck in one gear or the other, but you have to balance the two styles to a certain degree if you want to maximize your effectiveness. There are times when a guy needs a good kick in the ass and there are times when you’re losing because your systems don’t match up well against your opponents.
Coaches succeed in a variety of ways and there’s no right or wrong way to do it. But from what I’ve seen, great coaches share the aforementioned four traits.
No doubt whoever wins the Jack Adams Award will be deserving of it. And no doubt whoever wins it will fit the above mold.
Justin Bourne last played for the Idaho Steelheads of the ECHL and is currently a columnist for USA Today. He excelled with the University of Alaska Anchorage before going on to spend time in the Islanders organization with Bridgeport and Utah. His father, Bob, spent 14 years in the NHL and won four Cups with the Islanders. Justin will blog regularly for THN.com and you can read more of Justin's blogs at jtbourne.com. Follow Justin on Twitter.