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IN DEPTH: Relationship Game

by Meg Tilley / Edmonton Oilers
**After a week of Orientation Camp, we're re-running our Sunday In-Depth to re-introduce the coaching staff and their teaching philosophy.**

Ice hockey. It’s the official winter sport in Canada and what we know and love as our nation’s passion. It’s a team sport that builds camaraderie both on and off the rink — for both players and fans alike.
 
It’s the players we see hit the ice with speed, skill, aggression — sometimes grit with a touch of grace — and desire. But behind each player on that bench, the ones that stand out of the limelight, is a team of coaches, a band of brothers if you will, who work tirelessly each day on how to improve the game.
 
As the Oilers embark on the 2015-16 season, with fresh new faces taking the ice, the same can be said for four new ones behind the bench — Head Coach Todd McLellan along with Assistant Coaches Jay Woodcroft, Jim Johnson and Ian Herbers.
 
Having all officially arrived in Edmonton in early September, the coaching staff — in its entirety — had the chance to finally get together and prepare for the upcoming season.
 
“It’s different,” said McLellan. “There’s no doubt about it it’s different — the environment is different, the players are different. The hockey principles that we want to put in place though are the same… Everything else is a new experience for the players and the coaches.”
 
Each new member of the coaching staff brings with them a unique set of skills and experiences, but the overall goals are the same, preaching intensity and attention to detail to their players, and instilling a strong team concept.
 
“Our language, our approach to the game, isn’t a lot different than most teams but players are used to certain ways and certain habits. Some are really good and some we have to break,” said McLellan.
 
“We need to take the time to slow things down to make sure that happens. With that being said, we want a high level of pace in our practices and games. We want some intensity that’s high. I don’t like standing around and waiting. But there is a fine line right now between going too fast and skipping over the details. I think we’ll try and avoid that.”
 
Woodcroft agrees that in order to be successful moving forward, you have to go back to basics and build from there.
 
“I think initially, in this training-camp portion of our year, we want to lay the foundation or building blocks of success, and for us, success can be defined in a bunch of different ways,” he said.
 
“We want to take steps to playing the game the right way, to progress, to continually get better. So for our staff we want to make sure that we continue to hold the players and the entire staff accountable towards getting better every day because that’s what we’re about. If we do that, we feel that the outcomes will take care of themselves.”

GAME CHANGER

On May 19, the Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG) announced the addition of McLellan as the new Head Coach of the Edmonton Oilers.
 
McLellan, 47, spent the past seven seasons as Head Coach of the San Jose Sharks and posted a regular season record of 311-163-66 in 540 games.
 
At the time of the Oilers announcement, McLellan, now the 14th Head Coach in franchise history, had just returned from his gold medal win as Head Coach of Team Canada at the 2015 IIHF World Championship.
 
An impressive list of achievements with the Sharks reflects his successes, having led the team to six playoff appearances, four 40-plus-win seasons, three 100-point seasons, captured the Presidents’ Trophy (2009), three Pacific Division titles and made back-to-back appearances in the Western Conference Final (2010, 2011).

Before that, McLellan was an assistant coach for Mike Babcock when the Detroit Red Wings captured the 2008 Stanley Cup.
 
Now, McLellan’s focused on making an impact with a new team and a new coaching staff, and isn’t afraid to make adjustments where he deems them necessary.
 
“We’ve got to develop a foundation of work ethic and commitment level and make sure our identity comes through not only in games but in practices and in the community, and if we can get that into place over time then we’ll have success,” he said.
 
One month later, Peter Chiarelli, Edmonton Oilers President of Hockey Operations and General Manager, announced the club had appointed two new assistant coaches — Woodcroft, 39, and Johnson, 53, — who already had a coaching history with McLellan.
 
“Todd and I have worked together in different situations,” said Woodcroft. “We started in Detroit, we moved on to the San Jose Sharks, we’ve worked together on an international level with Team Canada, so in many different roles and capacities we’ve been around each other and worked with each other.”

BEGINNINGS

Coaching has always been in Jay Woodcroft's blood.

With eight seasons of coaching experience in the NHL under his belt, Woodcroft has been a part of 397 regular season wins, five Western Conference titles, six division titles, three Presidents’ Trophies and a Stanley Cup championship.
 
“As a young man I’d been a player all the way up, and when I was about 14 years old I started to work at hockey schools, trying to pass on what I’d learned about the game to the next generation of players — it was a very grassroots kind of beginning for me,” he said.
 
Prior to embarking on coaching full-time in the NHL, Woodcroft played for six years in the minors with the Corpus Christi Rayz (CHL), Flint Generals (UHL), Anchorage Aces (WCHL), Missouri River Otters (UHL) and Jackson Bandits (ECHL). He also spent the 2004-05 season in Germany playing for the Stuttgart Wizards.

“Even as I worked up to become a professional hockey player in the minor leagues in Europe, I still would coach players during the summertime — prospects, good players — so for me, I think my coaching career began when I was 14 years old, in that respect,” said Woodcroft.
 
Woodcroft’s first opportunity coaching professionally came about when he was 28 years old.
 
“I was asked by Mike Babcock to join his staff with the Detroit Red Wings. There was an opening, I retired from playing and immediately went into a great organization and was able to learn under one of the best coaches in the world,” he said.
 
After Woodcroft and McLellan’s stint with the Red Wings from 2005 to 2008 (including the 2008 Stanley Cup championship), coaching alongside Babcock, the pair were hired in the summer of 2008 as Head Coach (McLellan) and Assistant Coach (Woodcroft) of the Sharks.
 
On June 25, after spending seven seasons with McLellan and the Sharks, Woodcroft was announced as an Oilers Assistant Coach.
 
“When our entire staff came together, and all the pieces were put into place, one of the benefits was that there was a built-in chemistry,” said Woodcroft.
 
“Together, we each have an idea of how we believe the game needs to be played…. When we came together, in almost this summit-like fashion, we were able to clearly and concisely present what we feel is needed for this team to succeed.”
THE COACHING ASPECT

A 14-year NHL defenceman, Jim Johnson has followed a similar path as his coaching counterparts, having been continuously involved in the coaching aspect throughout his playing career.

“Back when I was playing at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, and I was training with the U.S. Olympic team, I got to know the coach there — Lou Vairo — who kind of inspired me into the coaching realm, so even when I was playing collegiately and professionally, I’d coach in the summer,” said Johnson.

“I’d go run the U.S. development camps and help out with developing our top defencemen in the country for many years…. When I finished my playing career I always thought that’s the direction I’d want to go back into the game, to stay in the game by being involved in the coaching aspect.”

After Johnson retired from playing in 1998, he became a youth hockey coach in Arizona. In that time he coached the Valley of the Sun Hockey Association Mustangs to a USA Hockey Amateur National Championship in 2005.
 
“I tried upper management. I spent a little bit of time in the Phoenix Coyotes organization and was also coaching there…. Then I got into coaching young kids where I spent some time with my son and really developed a passion for helping players become as good as they can be,” said Johnson.
 
You’re never too old or too young to start improving, and Johnson’s a big believer in that, which reflects in his co-founding of flexxCOACH, an e-learning solution for youth sports coaching.

“What we’ve done is developed a online delivery mechanism to deliver content that educates youth sport coaches on how to teach fundamental skills and develop those fundamental skills in young players… and help those kids become better players,” said Johnson.

Johnson has now spent over six seasons as a coach in the NHL, working with the Tampa Bay Lightning organization, serving as Head Coach for the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Norfolk Admirals during the 2009-10 season and as a Development Coach for the Lightning in 2008-09. Johnson also spent three seasons (2000-2002) as an Assistant Coach with the U.S. National Junior Team.

In 2012, Johnson was hired as Assistant Coach with the Sharks, where he first met Woodcroft and McLellan, after fulfilling a year-long position as an assistant with the Washington Capitals.
 
“We have been together now three years, Jay and Todd have been together a little bit longer, so we’ve got a really good understanding of what Todd wants on the ice and what he expects, and we can help the players through that,” said Johnson.

In July, Chiarelli announced the final addition of the coaching staff, then University of Alberta (U of A) Golden Bears bench boss Ian Herbers, 48, as the third new assistant.
 
“I’m excited to be here. There’s a lot of skill in the organization and it’s fun when you have the opportunity to coach guys with that much skill,” said Herbers.
 
In 2013, Herbers was named the Canada West Coach of the Year in his inaugural season with the U of A. During his tenure, Herbers captured three Canada West Conference championships and two Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) national championships.
 
His time with the Golden Bears goes as far back as his playing career, when he attended the U of A to obtain his education degree.
 
“In my third and fourth year, [while still] playing for the Golden Bears, I coached a Bantam AA team my third year and coached a Sherwood Park midget AAA team my fourth year,” said Herbers.
 
“I was just planning on getting my education degree and get into coaching and education, but [ended up] signing with the [AHL’s Cape Breton] Oilers and played pro hockey for a while, so it delayed my coaching career, but in the back of my mind I always knew I wanted to [go back to coaching].”
 
Herbers made his professional debut as a defenceman with Cape Breton, the top minor league affiliate of the Oilers from 1988 to 1996, and won the Calder Cup in the 1992-93 season. He made it to the NHL in the 1993-94 season and appeared in 22 games with the Edmonton Oilers.
 
Herbers has now had the opportunity to coach in a number of different leagues, with experience in the ECHL, AHL, NHL and CIS. He even had a chance to work alongside McLellan in 2000 in the International Hockey League with the Cleveland Lumberjacks.
 
“Todd was coaching the (Minnesota Wild’s) International Hockey League team in Cleveland, and I was a player/Assistant Coach with him… that was the first time I had a chance to really get to know him,” said Herbers.
 
“So I’ve known Todd a little bit, and Jim and Jay just through development camp, and then over the summer here in Edmonton and now. It’s been very good, they’re good teachers, good communicators and they have the same philosophy.”

BAND OF BROTHERS

According to the new coaches, hockey isn’t just about playing a sport; it’s about building relationships. In order to achieve success, it’s important to cultivate a player-coach relationship both on and off the ice.
 
“As coaches, we’ve got to get to know the players, first and foremost, and find out which ways they learn and which ways they learn better, and we’re just in that feeling-out process,” said Johnson.
 
“You’ve got to get to know the guys and they’ve got to get to know you and they’ve got to be comfortable with you and they’ve got to trust you. Building those relationships, talking to them, getting to know them every day and getting to know them besides just hockey, then you can start building from there,” said Herbers.
 
Halfway through training camp, Johnson said he already started to notice some significant results.
 
“They’re feeling more comfortable around the staff, I think they understand that we’re here to help them, we’re here to assist, to show them — whether it’s helpful video clips or it’s positive reinforcement — things that they’re doing well,” he said.
 
“And for us coaches, the most enjoyment we get out of it is when they’re doing things right on the ice and you can bring them in and show them how they’re doing it right. I think that breeds confidence and success as a player.”
 
With new faces added to the team, both on the ice and behind the bench, fan expectations for a more promising season of results have been raised.
 
The coaches are aware of the surrounding excitement but also believe they must remain focused on the fundamentals — in order to achieve success, they have to get back to basics.
 
“There’s only so many ways you can play the game. Sometimes our language will be different. Sometimes we’ll confuse them because of it,” said McLellan.
 
“It will take some time for us to get them to clearly understand what our language is. I think they’ll pick it up quick. We have to do a fairly good job of teaching it. We can’t skip over any details…. But I think they’ll get it. I really believe they will.”

By Meg Tilley/Edmontonoilers.com

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