ST. PAUL, Minn. - The Minnesota Wild have decided they need a younger team, and they've hired 37-year-old Mike Yeo to lead the overhaul.
Yeo was introduced Friday as the Wild's new head coach after one season in charge of Minnesota's top farm club in Houston. Yeo led the Aeros to the American Hockey League finals, impressing Wild general manager Chuck Fletcher with his organization, leadership and confidence.
"The longer I watched Houston play — their attention to detail and the way they played night in and night out and knowing what I was looking for in a coach — it just became more apparent the longer the process went that Mike was the guy," Fletcher said.
Yeo never played in the NHL. But he said he has wanted to be — and was confident he would be — an NHL coach since he was a teenager playing junior hockey in Canada, jotting down drills the coaches would use and taking note of motivational tactics and the importance of developing respect through strong communication.
"More than anything you start to form ideas and beliefs and philosophies," Yeo said, adding: "I always felt that I was going to be a coach. I knew that was a passion that I had inside of me."
Wearing wire-rimmed glasses with his head shaved to stubble, Yeo (pronounced Yo) spoke with an edge and a mettle about his ability to tackle the job.
"The experience I was able to get by jumping in head first and forcing myself into these situations, I knew that I was ready," Yeo said.
Fletcher spent more than two months searching for a replacement after firing Todd Richards. Richards also was a first-time NHL coach — he had been an assistant in the league for only one year prior — who was picked over several more seasoned candidates.
The same scenario was in place this summer, with Craig MacTavish and Ken Hitchcock available. Fletcher said he didn't feel pressure from owner Craig Leipold or anyone else to choose a more-experienced candidate.
"This time going through the process, it became I think a more methodical approach because I continued to play devil's advocate and continued to ask questions challenging my own convictions and trying to find reasons why Mike should not be the coach," Fletcher said. "And at the end of the day, the only good reason that I could come up with why Mike shouldn't be the coach was because he was 37 years old."
Yeo is the same age as Andrew Brunette and younger than John Madden, two free-agents-to-be who were important contributors last season. Yeo said he's not concerned about his age, and that he prefers to consider himself a teammate of his players before being their coach. But he repeatedly said he relishes confrontation and adversity, and made it clear he's not a pushover who's too friendly with the team.
"I believe in my thoughts and my ideas about how the game should be played," he said, "and I don't have any doubts about it."
Both Fletcher and Yeo described their desire for the Wild's style to be a "tough to play against," among other attributes. When Jacques Lemaire was here, the Wild were often short on offensive talent, but they had that peskiness to their game on most nights. Though the Wild were hamstrung by injuries during Richards' tenure, they didn't show much grit over the last two seasons.
Yeo will be the Wild's third coach, replacing Richards, who went 77-71-16 in two seasons without a playoff appearance. The Wild finished last season 39-35-8, 11 points out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference. They've made the playoffs just three times in their 10-year history, the last in 2008, and passed the first round only once.
Last season was the first the Wild did not sell out every game. But Fletcher, again, said he felt no financial pressure from Leipold to save money with a less-experienced coach.
"I've never been with a franchise that spent more money than Minnesota. Money is not an object for Craig. Craig wants to win," Fletcher said.
Yeo played four seasons of junior hockey in Canada and five seasons with the Aeros before a career-ending knee injury. The native of North Bay, Ontario, was an assistant for six seasons with Pittsburgh's AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before making the jump to the Penguins in 2005.
Fletcher acknowledged the success the Aeros had influenced his decision.
"Over the next two to three seasons, we're going to add several young players to our team," Fletcher said. "We're going to become a younger team. Certainly Mike's familiarity should make for a smoother transition. I think that's a nice benefit, but the main reason Mike is being named head coach is because he's the best coach. He's the right fit for our team."
Prospects such as Patrick O'Sullivan, Colton Gillies and Casey Wellman had strong performances in the AHL playoffs, giving the organization some reason for optimism after a series of unproductive drafts.
"As far as restocking the cupboards, the wheels are in motion," Yeo said. "Obviously, we've got some talent down there."