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CROSSROADS

BY PAUL GAZZOLA

If it weren't for Glen Gulutzan's vehicle needing repairs, their assembly could have begun on time. When the elevator doors of Studio 99 split, only two of three Oilers assistant coaches emerge.

In an Oilers cap and tracksuit is Trent Yawney, also known as Yawns. He hails from Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan, and even without skates on, one could confuse Yawns for having skates on. He hovers around 6-foot-4 and can cover a large area of ice. He was a Hudson Bay celebrity, playing his junior hockey alongside Oilers Head Coach Todd McLellan for the Western Hockey League's Saskatoon Blades. Drafted by Chicago 45th-overall in the 1984 NHL Entry Draft, the large defenceman patrolled bluelines for the Blackhawks, Flames and Blues, racking up 783 PIMs in 593 career NHL games from 1987 to '99. 

Due to his size, Yawns' presence is almost always known. He was a hard-nosed defender and the thought of crossing lanes with him on the ice is unpleasant but off it is quite the contrary. With 12 playing seasons in the NHL and 18 years of coaching professionally, Yawns has achieved defensive sensei status. When he shares his wisdom with players, it's direct and honest. 

Manny Viveiros is a stride behind in an Oilers half-zip and track pants. His real name is Emanuel but at the rink, most people refer to him as either Manny or Viv. Manny is shorter than Yawney, everyone is, and maintains a stiff build. He was a "hot rod" defenceman, those being Gulutzan's words (who is still absent) and would face off against Yawney and McLellan when his Prince Albert Raiders played the Blades. He was drafted by his hometown Edmonton Oilers 106th-overall in '84, the same year Yawney was drafted, but spent most of his playing career overseas in Austria. 

On game days, Manny wears three-piece fitted suits in tones ranging from burgundy to pastel blue and as a defenceman in Austria, he was flashy, too, notching 50 or more points in four separate campaigns. Manny also scored one NHL goal and put up 12 points in 29 career games over three seasons with the Minnesota North Stars. "A dream come true," the St. Albert native answered when asked about getting selected by his hometown Oilers. But with rearguards like Paul Coffey, Charlie Huddy and Kevin Lowe at training camp, "There was no chance."

Gulutzan's nonappearance presents a roadblock. This occasion was supposed to be the assistant coaches' crossroads. An opportunity to gather in Studio 99 for a sit-down to talk about their tenure with the Oilers organization thus far, their coaching backgrounds, philosophies, styles, how to manage certain players in certain situations and how to manage certain situations with certain players. 

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How could they not converse about their collective ties to Saskatchewan, too, which also includes McLellan? It spans decades and is not only rooted in hockey. It's connected through a classroom and tight Sask community, a bike path from Hudson Bay to Erwood, rivalry nights between the Blades and Raiders, and those play-by-play broadcasts. Through family, friendship, foes and now, the Edmonton Oilers.

Like Yawney, Gulutzan - or Gully - is also from Hudson Bay. Naturally, his favourite local celebrity growing up was Trent Yawney. Young Gully would listen to Blades games on the radio in hopes that he'd hear Yawney's name voiced over the air. He even followed in similar footsteps as his fellow Hudson Bay native, playing one season of junior with the Blades himself. 

When he arrives in brisk stride and wearing the same Oilers athletic gear as his former hero, there's a slight cause for celebration. The show can get on the road. Before it does, Gully admits he had trouble finding the auto body shop. It was somewhere along 103rd St or Ave but didn't have much signage, making it hard to find. 

Whatever his excuse, he makes light of the situation. It's what Gully does. Always. His sense of humour could derive from his days with the West Coast Hockey League's Fresno Falcons, where he suited up in 348 games, scoring 425 points. The same organization he was a player-assistant with for the final two years of his playing career, tending to the team's administrative paperwork, mainly. "Reggie Dunlop," Gully later says with a smile, referring to the Charlestown Chiefs player-coach from the cult hockey classic Slap Shot

Having that 'player-assistant' tag was a slippery slope to walk on. "I always kind of walked it on the players' side," he admits. Maybe that's why he currently carries a 'players' coach' tag. The type that can chit-chat with any skater at any time about anything, whether it's Jaromir Jagr, Alex Chiasson, Jamie Benn or Connor McDavid. All personalities Gully's managed throughout his coaching career.

The three take their seats in button-tufted chairs, neglecting the water and coffee in front of them. The caffeine's been had, given that the coaches already pored over video, stats and analysis from last game, beginning around 6:00 or 7:00 AM. Yawney looked at what aspect of the club's overall defence needs tightening. Gulutzan and Viveiros reviewed the power play. Before they hit the ice for practice, all three united with McLellan to discuss their respective findings. 

This is routine and when the bench bosses meet, almost daily, all input is valuable. Yawney might lead the discussion on team defence but his deep voice isn't the only one heard. Same with Gulutzan's overview of the forwards and Viveiros' plan of attack on the special teams. When the Oilers coaches put their heads together on a subject, what's left is the brainchild of four hockey minds. It doesn't come without some debate, deliberation and a few humorous digs, so a sit-down in Studio 99 shouldn't be any different.

"I will say one thing about Manny here, as we're trying to be a little informal," Gulutzan, with one arm over the seat, said. Three questions were asked and answered without Gulutzan cracking a joke. 

Earlier, Yawney admitted to having some difficulty with the move to Edmonton because of the Oilers season-opening road trip to Germany, Sweden and the eastern United States. Gulutzan found it to be a great bonding experience and Viveiros, the only one of the three without NHL coaching on his resume, said he'd been soaking up as much as he could from his colleagues during that time. They all agreed that communication is the foundation of their operation and that the operation itself is unique, in a good way. Gulutzan's gone rogue for far too long. 

"The one mistake that he's always making as a coach is he out-dresses the rest of the staff on a nightly basis," he said. 

"It's actually not that hard, though," Viveiros, laughing, responded. 

"You got three Saskatchewan guys, it's easy to out-dress us. But just when you think he's done, he's got another one," Gulutzan added.

"He brings out his 'A' stuff," said Yawney. 

Interjections like this occur more frequently as the roundtable continues. Communication is vital to the way they run their own group but honesty is the most important thing they provide to the players. All three coaches agree unanimously. "I want to coach the way I would want to be coached versus, maybe, the way we were coached at the time," said Yawney. "The generations have changed so much." 

Gone are the days of bag skates and one day, gone could be the days of morning skates. Training camps are no longer boot camps, NHL veterans keep getting younger and information is always available. Lots has changed since the assistants played competitively.

"They're smarter than we were at that age. I don't know if it's just the 'Why Generation' but you can't just tell them, 'Because,'" said Gulutzan.

"Because they're going to want to know, 'Why,'" Yawney continued. "Just like our kids, at least mine, they want to know why they're doing this."

"So smart and so well-informed," added Viveiros. "You've got to be prepared."

Gulutzan recalled a moment with McDavid during the season. The Oilers Captain questioned the metrics presented to him in a way the coaches hadn't thought of.

"Remember, you and I," Gulutzan, gesturing to Viveiros on his left, started. "We were giving Connor some statistics just on certain things and there were two different categories. He looked at them all and he asked us, 'What's the difference between those two categories?' One was 'improv' and one was 'miscellaneous' and he goes, 'What's the difference?'

It was a lesson for the coaches themselves.

"You better know before you say any of those things because a lot of times what I find when you go back, the players…" Gulutzan gets interrupted.

"Are right," finished Yawney.

The laughs and anecdotes continue when the coaches converse about Saskatchewan. The ties really began in Eugene Gulutzan's Grade 5 math class.

"Gully's dad taught my wife and I," Yawney revealed. "My wife is from Hudson Bay. In elementary school, his dad was one of my Grade 5 math teachers. She was younger than I was but he taught her the same class that he taught me."

"He went down a few grades to get the wife, hey," Gulutzan, shifting his eyes left and right, joked.

"He was the best player to come out of our community," he continued. "It was a big thing." Focused on watching the career arc of Yawney, Gulutzan couldn't help but notice Viveiros through his peripherals. Manny recorded 109-, 88- and 92-point years as a member of the rival Raiders. "I remember Manny, too, watching these guys in the Western Hockey League."

As Gulutzan grew older and gained familiarity with the local Sask hockey circles, he and Yawney would spend parts of their offseason together. "They paved this 10-mile highway from Hudson Bay to Erwood. We'd bike out that 10 miles and bike back. I'd draft behind him, basically, the whole time, just trying to get in shape."

Viveiros is from St. Albert but played his junior in Prince Albert. He met his wife in Saskatchewan and brought the WHL's Ed Chynoweth Cup back to the province for the first time since 1993 last season, winning the championship as Head Coach of the Swift Current Broncos.

"Like all the three of the other coaches were born in Saskatchewan, all the wives were born in Saskatchewan and I spent a lot of time in Saskatchewan, too," Viveiros said. "I consider myself, also, a part of Saskatchewan."

"Yeah, we're not sure we're taking him in yet in Saskatchewan," Gulutzan, peering over his shoulder, quipped. 

"It's a very tough process. It's almost like getting your green card."

When the new coaching staff took form, McLellan had a decision to make. 

"One, I could share with them all the information that I had on individuals and the team. Or, I could share a little bit and let them figure the rest out," he said. 

Option A would bring his new staff up to speed in an instant. Option B would keep the coaches in the dark, somewhat, forcing them to form their own assumptions on players and avoid any preconceptions provided by McLellan. 

"We chose to go that way." 

One practice at Downtown Community Rink, the morning after a 3-0 home loss to the Nashville Predators, Yawney and defenceman Darnell Nurse glide into the referee crease. Their meeting doesn't last long. Nurse points his stick to an area of the ice behind the net, motions it up to the neutral zone then brings it back down to ice level as he looks up at his defence coach. Yawney laughs, pointing to the same area. He taps his stick then re-enacts a play, positioning himself as a winger along the boards ready to take a breakout pass. His hand points behind his back and he taps the boards with the backhand of his blade. Then they go their separate ways.

"It was probably, for me, maybe our best game of the year including all of the pre-season games," Yawney said of the loss. "We made a couple mistakes and they made us pay. Todd addressed the group and basically told them, 'Hey, there were a lot of good things in the game and we just have to continue with that because we're relatively young.' It can be easy for them to go sideways, start guessing and thinking that it's worse than it actually is."

When the Chicago Blackhawks came to town in early November, Kailer Yamamoto came out of the lineup. The rookie forward watched from the Rogers Place press box, viewing the game from a new vantage point alongside Viveiros and Goaltender Coach Dustin Schwartz. The two coaches had done it previously with Cooper Marody and Jesse Puljujarvi. It was a different experience, but one that went a long way for Yamamoto, 20, who wasn't afraid to ask questions or discuss ideas with the coaches. 

"We had a little debate," Yamamoto said, referring to a particular play. "They definitely taught me what I should have done and how they would have approached it rather than me." 

The other takeaway from watching with the coaches? 

"Manny is a little bit more laid back but Schwartzy definitely gets a little fired up during the game," Yamamoto laughed. "I love it."

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If there's one player on the Oilers roster that has connected with Gulutzan most, it could be Alex Chiasson. The Bayer coached the Quebecois with the Dallas Stars in the 2012-13 season. The two linked up again in Calgary in 2016-17, when the Flames went 45-33-4 in the regular season only to be swept by the Anaheim Ducks in the first round of the 2017 NHL Playoffs.

"We go back a long time," said Chiasson. "We got a good relationship. He's a guy that's easy for me to talk to." 

Gulutzan's knack for being a players' coach reveals itself at times, but not always. Last season, when Gully was still with the Flames and Chiasson was with the Caps, the Calgary head coach went viral from a heated Flames practice. He felt his club wasn't putting the effort in at the skate, causing him to get visibly upset.

"Emotion sometimes takes part in our acts," said Chiasson. "I guess if he did that not in a Canadian market, maybe it wouldn't have been as big of a deal as it was." Chiasson found it hard to not see some humour in the situation. "I actually thought it was kind of funny."

McLellan felt he made the right decision. The assistants have fit in well in a short amount of time, instilling new perspectives to the head coach.

In the midst of a four-game losing slide in mid-November, McLellan, standing at the Oilers Hall of Fame Room podium in a long sleeve and shorts, explored a thought that was posed to him. "One of the assistant coaches said, 'Can we win a game 1-0 right now?'" 

A few days later, McLellan elaborates: "As they're around now for two and a half months around the players, they're formulating their own opinions. Some confirm what we've seen in the past, others make us look at things a little differently."

He assures that he never thought about the Sask attachment but knew it could have some sort of effect.

"When we put this staff together in the summer, the location, the friendship, the ties to each other were not important," he said. "But as it turns out when it's all said and done and you take a marker and mark hometowns, leagues and relationships, they exist."

McLellan may not have been at Studio 99 with his colleagues but he was with them years ago in Saskatchewan. From SK to AB, he knows the roads, the paths and how they have all intersected. 

"We get an understanding of each other's demeanours, we each bring something different to the table but we know our roots. Most importantly, we know, as a staff, what Edmonton is about.

"Effort is important and each of us grew up in that environment in Saskatchewan. We get Edmonton."

An hour passes with the assistants and McLellan's words come to life. The afternoon sit-down has extended past its allotted time but there's still some banter between the coaches. For all they know, Gulutzan's vehicle could be repaired. There's a small amount of acceptance with that among the group. 

"Gully was late again, that's why it went longer," laughed Viveiros.

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