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Mutual Respect

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
Fans and the media have heard forever about what players should do to please coaches. One recent day, like a slapshot from the blue, it occurred to me: what do players think coaches should do for them? After all, success in sports means players and coaches must be on the same page.

In hockey, the obvious top priority answer to what players expect from coaches is: plenty of ice time. Players want to play.

What else? After speaking with several Flyers players, the expectations include fairness, respect and preparation.

"Coaches should treat players with respect," said defenseman Derian Hatcher. "But above all, players expect coaches to be able to coach. Every game is different and sometimes, throughout the course of the game, it changes. I expect the coaches to recognize things and to adjust to give us the best chance to win. Some coaches are better at preparation and other coaches (are good at) making adjustments during the game. It's probably like that in every sport."

"Fairness is one thing," said winger Donald Brashear. "But we also expect that they give us the best system (to win) and the best on the technical side to prepare us. The rest is up to the players doing it."

The responsibilities of coaches fall into three main areas: preparation, motivation and adjustments during games. Simon Gagne, the Flyers' leading goal scorer, says adjustments are particularly important in the playoffs.

"You might face a team seven times," Gagne said. "You may expect a coach to change the whole preparation after a loss. He may find a little detail that will make a difference maybe to win the next game."

Many NHL teams now have two assistant coaches behind the bench during games. One assistant usually handles the forwards, the other the defensemen.

"The assistants (behind the bench) are usually better at talking to the players (during games) and telling them what the (head) coach expects," said Brashear. "Some players don't like getting yelled at. You have to get to know your players so you can get the best from them. It's like if you have kids and you're yelling at them all the time. At some point, they get mad at you. (But) that's the job, to push us to the limit.

"At times, we players are spoiled. We act like babies sometimes. (But) we're professionals: (coaches) expect the very best of us. We think, because we're professionals, that we can't improve. As a player, you can always improve, no matter how good you are. Respect is a big key."

There's a major difference between NHL coaching and coaching in the minor and junior leagues. In the NHL, the mission is to win. In the American Hockey League, other minor leagues and juniors, coaches try to develop players while also winning.

"At different ages you have different states of mind," Brashear said. "Sometimes you don't want to take criticism. But the ones who succeed are the ones that really want to learn and pay attention.

"My junior team (Verdun) went to the Memorial Cup. There were 50-goal scorers on the team and not one of them is playing in the NHL. I remember I wanted to learn. I wasn't the best, but I had my ears open to try to get better."

Hatcher believes the "new NHL" will require coaches to do more teaching.

"With the new system, NHL coaches will have to develop players as well," he said. "Some coaches are better than others at doing that."

Coaches at many levels of hockey rely on video presentations. Video can be helpful, but Hatcher isn't a big fan of the technology.

"You watch more video now, but the bottom line is, you have to go out and play," he said. "Hockey's not like football, where you have 300 plays in the playbook. It's a game where you go out there and play. You try to do certain things, but everything changes in a split second and you're constantly having to adjust."

Ken Hitchcock, in his third season as the Flyers' head coach, has coached in junior hockey, the minor leagues and Dallas, where his team won the Stanley Cup in 1999. Hitchcock is as tuned in on the intricacies of coaching as anyone in the NHL. He also enjoys talking to coaches from other sports. If there is something new involving coaching and motivating players, Hitchcock wants to know about it.

While his coaching philosophy is the same, he is flexible in other areas of coaching.

"I've changed the tone and found different ways to sell it," Hitchcock said. "Most coaches expect players to make a commitment in the difficult areas: checking, attention to detail and competing hard every night. There's a whole strategy how you get it out of them.

"You have to look at every player as an individual and see what he does when he plays best and how he's motivated. One thing you find in coaching is it's better to ask a lot of questions than give a lot of answers."

Paul Holmgren, the Flyers' assistant general manager, is a former Flyers and Hartford Whalers head coach. His final season as a Flyers player (1984-85) was Mike Keenan's first season as the team's head coach.

"The really successful coaches, like Keenan, demand accountability," Holmgren said. "`Hitch' and (Phantoms head coach) John Stevens are like that. Hitch is demanding, but he's fair about it. John keeps his players accountable.

"With young kids, you have to be able to communicate on a daily basis. Players today are smart: they need to know why."

Successful coaches also are smart. They just have different styles.

A great run for Lemieux

Mario Lemieux's retirement, for health reasons, marks the end of one of the greatest playing careers in NHL history. His 690 goals rank eighth in the NHL; his 1,033 assists are 10th and his 1,723 points are seventh. He helped the Penguins win two Stanley Cups and already is enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Lemieux also has excelled as a person. With the Penguins in trouble, he became a co-owner of the team to keep it in Pittsburgh. Shy and speaking mostly French when he arrived in Pittsburgh in 1984, he learned English and became a true Pittsburgh resident.

Ken Hitchcock ranks Lemieux as one of the three greatest players in NHL history.

"Him, `Gretz' and Gordie, those are the guys," Hitchcock said, referring to Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe. "Players like that come along every 10 years."

To illustrate how highly regarded Lemieux is in Pittsburgh, Bob Smizik of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette proclaimed him the best athlete ever in Pittsburgh. Yes, greater than any Steelers or Pirates player.

"You'd have to go back almost 100 years, to the Pirates' Honus Wagner, to find an athlete who accomplished as much or who dominated his sport for so long while wearing a Pittsburgh uniform," wrote Smizik.

Concluding his column, Smizik wrote, "Remember him for his greatness on the ice, for his class off it. Remember him as Pittsburgh's best - ever."

A personal Lemieux memory: during a Flyers-Penguins game at the Spectrum, Keith Acton shadowed Lemieux everywhere he went on the ice. By midway through the game, Lemieux was clearly annoyed with Acton's up close and personal attention.

After the game, I tried to ask Lemieux about Acton's persistence, but the usually cooperative Lemieux brushed me off. I understood. Even superstars have days when they don't feel like talking.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers''beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of ``Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of ``The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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