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Ramsay ready to make an impression behind bench

by John Manasso
DULUTH, Ga. -- All those years he spent trying to prevent guys like Guy Lafleur and Mike Bossy from trying to put the puck in the net made an impression on new Atlanta Thrashers' coach Craig Ramsay.

Ramsay might have been known as a defensive forward -- he was a Selke Trophy winner, after all -- but 14 years of chasing in his own zone against Hall of Fame wingers made him realize that it's a lot easier to play in the other team's end of the rink.

"If I allow them to play in my end, sooner or later they're going to score," Ramsay said of his two Hall of Fame contemporaries who rank among the game's greatest wingers. "So what I tried to do is make them play in their end. I felt that they were not very happy about that, not nearly as good back there."

In taking over a franchise that has all of one postseason appearance in its 10-season history, this is the strategy that Ramsay will employ: Get his defensemen to join the rush in an effort to play more in the offensive zone, and backcheck like crazy when the other team gets the puck back. He firmly believes that everyone must contribute offensively -- even fourth-liners, tough guys and defensive-minded defensemen. He wants his players to challenge the labels with which they have been stamped.

Ramsay is one of the League's longest-tenured and most respected assistants, and has twice served as an interim coach. However, neither stint (one in 1986 with Buffalo, the other in 2000 with Philadelphia) lasted longer than 28 games. At age 59, Ramsay is finally in a situation where he's the undisputed boss on the bench, not just holding a place for someone else. He was hired by new GM and longtime associate Rick Dudley, who has lavished praise on Ramsay as one of the League's great thinkers and teachers.

Those who have played for Ramsay agree.

"I've said it for years now, he's probably the most influential person in my life when it comes to hockey," said San Jose's Dan Boyle, who rose from obscurity to emerge as one of the game's premier offensive defensemen in Tampa Bay when Ramsay served as an associate coach with the Lightning. "He's the best coach I've ever had for many reasons. He knows his hockey. He instills confidence in all his players. He's just one of those guys I'd go through a wall for."

Forward Fredrik Modin, who, like Boyle, won a Stanley Cup with Ramsay in Tampa Bay in 2004, said Ramsay's presence in Atlanta made it an attractive place for him to play.

"Given the chance to come back and play him for again was something I felt strongly about," said Modin, who signed with the Thrashers last week. "He helped me out a lot with my penalty-killing earlier in my career down in Tampa and just positioning out there on the ice -- small little details. That really means a lot in the big picture -- a lot of times things that are overlooked. But Rammer is the kind of kind of guy who really pays attention to those details."

Another member of that '04 Lightning team, defenseman Pavel Kubina, played in Atlanta last season with young defensemen like Zach Bogosian and Tobias Enstrom.
"I would start by saying it's a very good decision with the Thrashers organization to hire Craig because they have such a young team," said Kubina, who returned to Tampa Bay this summer as a free agent. "Bogosian, Enstrom, the forwards – [Bryan] Little, [Niclas] Bergfors -- he's going to help them a lot. [Evander] Kane, like I said ... I went [to Tampa] very young and he was helping me."

Ramsay's low-key nature could be his greatest challenge as a coach. Certainly, no one doubts his knowledge of the game. Modin described playing on a Lightning team with fiery coach John Tortorella and Ramsay by saying that "at times it was sort of like good cop, bad cop."
But in an era of successful new-age coaches like Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma, Boyle disputes the notion that a coach must be a screamer.

"If you can't motivate yourself to play, the coach shouldn't have to do that," he said. "[Ramsay] is going to get the best out of his players. He won't have to yell often because he's not that kind of person. He's the kind of guy you want to play for."

Yet while Ramsay would rather teach than shout, he knows how to get his point across.

"I can yell," he said. "I don't want to. I think at times when you do it, you can say things you don't really mean and you can be incorrect. I like to be in control. But if you ask around, there's times players saw me get upset. If you do it on a daily basis, it loses some of its kick."

Ramsay's biggest sales job will be getting the Thrashers to learn his system. He said his goal is to teach players to "think about the game, not just play -- go here, go here, do the ABCs -- but teach you to understand the game, and that's what I try to do. Teach players to understand the game, therefore they can then react better when the game breaks down, which it always does."
"He's the best coach I've ever had for many reasons. He knows his hockey. He instills confidence in all his players. He's just one of those guys I'd go through a wall for." -- San Jose defenseman Dan Boyle on Craig Ramsay
Among his challenges with the Thrashers will be getting a team with so many new players -- Chris Mason, Brent Sopel, Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Modin, and rookie hopefuls Patrice Cormier, Angelo Esposito and Alex Burmistrov -- to come together quickly. He'll do his best to speed the process.

"Again, what I believe is establishing a style of play that we want here and that we feel we can maintain," he said. "Old players help new players and that shortens the curve. But there is a learning curve, I can't end it. I hope I can shorten it. I believe I can shorten it. But I can't make it go away."

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