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Sense of humor helps Senators coach Cameron

by Chris Stevenson

OTTAWA -- Dave Cameron is a funny guy.

No, really, he is.

The Ottawa Senators coach often projects an all-business approach behind the bench, eyes steely behind his metal-framed glasses, with a couple of fiery rants thrown in during the unprecedented late-season run to a berth in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

When the Senators clinched with a win against the Philadelphia Flyers on Saturday, Cameron unleashed an enthusiastic fist pump.

He was asked if he was pretty emotional at that moment.

"I'd say human? I am human," he said. "You don't see it, but we show it a lot. That's one of the things in this business is that you get portrayed a certain way because people see you periodically. Unless you spend every day with somebody, you really don't really know what they're like. My perception has always been that I'm real stern. I call it matter-of-fact. I tell you what I think.

"I think if you talk to most people they'd tell you one of my biggest strengths is my sense of humor."

There have been a lot of factors in the Senators' 23-4-4 run to come from 14 point out and earn a spot in the playoffs, with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference First Round against the Montreal Canadiens on Wednesday at Bell Centre (7 p.m. ET; NHLN-US, CBC, TVA Sports). The play of goaltender Andrew Hammond, who was 20-1-2 as a starter, is a big one. Rookie forward Mark Stone's 47 points in 46 games since Jan. 1 had something to do with it too.

Cameron, though, doesn't get enough credit since being promoted to his first NHL head coaching job on Dec. 8 when Paul MacLean was fired. He was an assistant on MacLean's staff for three seasons after 14 years coaching in the Ontario Hockey League and American Hockey League.

"[Cameron's] been huge for us," Senators defenseman Mark Borowiecki said. "A lot of people try to pinpoint things for our turnaround, and that's probably our biggest one. The way we play now, the intensity, the competitiveness, our attacking style … I think has made such a huge difference for us."

Ask Senators players about Cameron -- what he's meant to the team and why he's been able to make a difference -- and they will tell you about his ability to communicate.

Humor is a part of that. Cameron could be seen laughing behind the bench before the shootout started against the Toronto Maple Leafs on April 5. It was one in a series of "biggest games of the season" for the Senators. A tense time, right?

But Cameron was joking with defensemen Borowiecki and Eric Gryba, who had one goal between them, about where they would rank in the shootout.

Cameron said he gets his funny bone from his grandfather, Walter Connick, who he used to listen to growing up in Prince Edward Island.

A lifelong laborer on a farm, Connick had a dry wit. It rubbed off on Cameron.

"He'd just be sitting there listening and somebody might have bought a new pair of shoes," Cameron said. "He'd just listen to the talking and he'd look up when the conversation was done and say, 'You know, when I buy my shoes, I buy them two sizes bigger.' The question was, 'Why would you do that?'

"He said, 'I got more for my money.' Just that dry wit."

A former teacher, Cameron knows something about communication. He has established relationships with his players beyond the professional level.

"This is a little thing, but I think it's big for a lot of guys," Borowiecki said. "He always goes out of his way to say hi to people, out of his way to talk to his players. People underestimate having that rapport with your coach. He's strict, he's hard, he gets on you if you make a mistake, he's loud back there, but he's learning how to pick his spots."

Senators wing Clarke MacArthur said Cameron reminds him of Willie Desjardins, MacArthur's coach with the Medicine Hat Tigers of the Western Hockey League and now the coach of the Vancouver Canucks.

"He's curious about things that are happening in your life," MacArthur said. "That's not an easy thing to do when you have 25 guys in your room. It means a lot to the players. It makes you go that extra mile."

Cameron said that kind of connection is the key to bringing a group together.

"Our biggest challenge as coaches is the length of the season," he said. "You've got 25 guys, 30 guys, [who] are together for what, 200 days maybe or 180 days? If there's not a connection, not a bonding, not a genuine appreciation for what everybody does, then your job is no fun.

"I do know that this is their job, but it's like everybody else's job. You have to have balance in it, and a lot of the balance comes from your family and the people you love away from the rink. Because of the job they're in and the scrutiny they're under, sometimes that can get lost in a hurry because it is such a high-profile thing.

"The first thing I usually ask a player if things aren't going good is how's things away from the rink? Everything all right? Once they assure you that it is, then it's OK, we can fix the hockey. That's pretty straightforward."

When Senators general manager Bryan Murray was a coach for 1,293 NHL games, he said he never lost sight of the importance of connecting with his players. He also knows what he wants from his coach in terms of style of play, and Cameron has come close to having this team play the way Murray would have it play.

That's saying something.

"I like the way he coaches the team. The problem with being a former coach sometimes is you're too judgmental," Murray said. "I know I'm guilty of that at times. I look at what I'd like to see happen with certain coaches that I've had here. I like Dave's style. I like what he does. He talks to the players. There's great communication. He believes in the players. He commits to young players and lets them play, and if they make a mistake, it's a correction. Maybe they sit out a shift or two, but they get back on the ice. That's when the message is strong to the players that 'I believe in you.'"

Cameron has the Senators playing a more up-tempo game and gave them structure to get the puck moving quickly up the ice.

And when it's needed, Cameron can drop a well-timed rant, like in Philadelphia with the season on the line.

"In Philly he got after us a little bit and that might have saved us," MacArthur said. "We woke up and started playing hockey again and we were able to get the job done. I was actually at the other end [of the bench]. I didn't [get] the whole drift. I knew it was time to get to work though."

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