You can always tell when Patrick Roy wants his players to make a line change. No matter how deafeningly loud the building is, there is that ubiquitous whistle. Once they hear that shrill sound, Avalanche players scurry to the bench as though their paychecks are waiting there for them. He uses it in practice, too, prompting the kind of classical conditioning from his players Ivan Pavlov would envy.
Roy is the most engaged coach you’ll ever see during a practice. After he explains a drill, he turns to his charges and says, “Did everyone understand that?” And at the end of the workout, he insists on all of his players coming to center ice and forming a circle, putting their hands in the middle and chanting, “Team!” as they raise their hands in unison.
Seriously. Patrick Roy gets away with all of this. In the NHL. That kind of stuff might have gone over well in Quebec City, where he coached the Remparts for six seasons, but Roy is in the big leagues now. Someone should tell him NHL players can see through all that rah-rah crap and doing that is a good way to get fired.
But somehow Roy pulls it off. Stunningly well, we might add. THN’s choice for NHL coach of the year, Roy has gone where few Hall of Famers have gone before. History tells us superstar players, generally speaking, make lousy coaches. Rocket Richard lasted two games with Quebec in the World Hockey Association before quitting. Wayne Gretzky, Bernie Geoffrion and Doug Harvey were all sub .500 coaches in the NHL.
In fact, the only three Hall of Fame players who had similar careers as coaches are Lester Patrick, Jack Adams and Toe Blake and none of them has coached for almost 50 years. Take a look at the list of winners of the Jack Adams Award. The only Hall of Fame players to win the award since it was introduced 40 years ago are Jacques Lemaire, Bill Barber and Bob Pulford. Lemaire and Barber deserve to be there, but Pulford is regarded as one of the least worthy players in the Hall of Fame.
History also tells us coaches with Roy’s approach have a short shelf life with the same organization. At first, players love having a coach who’s their ally, but invariably they begin to take advantage of him and run roughshod over him, eventually prompting management to replace him with a hard-ass. And said coach usually goes to another organization, where he replaces the hard-ass who was just run out of town.
“The first thing I said to my players is I want a partnership with them,” Roy said. “I don’t want to be their coach. I want to have an open door where they can talk to me about anything. The system is not for me, it’s for them.”
What will dictate Roy’s future as a coach is more tied to two other factors. The first is whether the Avs can continue to respond to his culture change in subsequent years the way they did this season and keep improving in the NHL’s Western Conference.
The second is whether or not the Avalanche can prove the analytics crowd wrong. Those who embrace advanced statistics predicted the Avalanche’s playoff demise, pointing to the fact they were one of the worst puck-possession teams. Most will argue the only thing that kept the Avs afloat was a career season by goalie Semyon Varlamov.
And they make a pretty compelling case. The Avalanche gave up 32.7 shots per game, 25th in the league. In the playoffs, their shot differential of 8.4 per game was second worst to Tampa Bay. Colorado was 25th in the league in Corsi Close 5-on-5 percentage (which takes into account shots, missed shots and blocked shots) and 27th in Fenwick (shots and missed shots). The Avalanche are decent on faceoffs in both the offensive and defensive zones, but their 35-percent success rate in the neutral zone was worst. Their team shooting percentage of 10.1 was second only to the Anaheim Ducks, and, it had better remain that high or they’re going to be losing games.
Clearly Roy and his assistants have some work to do, and this is where Roy’s mettle as a coach will be most seriously tested, because all the co-operation and open door policies in the world aren’t going to make the Avalanche a better puck-possession team. But Roy is a smart guy who seems to pick up on things quickly. The first time he ever picked up a golf club, he shot a round of 90.
And what he doesn’t know, he’s clearly proven he’s willing to work hard to learn. Roy didn’t have to ride buses in the Quebec League, but he chose to do so, and continued to even after the NHL came calling. The competitive streak that made him one of the greatest goalies in the history of the game drives him as a coach.
“The only thing I’ve earned since I started coaching is the opportunity to coach tonight,” Roy said earlier this season. “It’s my passion, and I’m surrounded by passionate people.”
This column originally appeared in the 2014 Stanley Cup commemorative edition of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.