When he was the head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, Craig MacTavish never liked to talk about himself. Questions about the job he was doing, decisions he was making, his status with the club going forward, they were all non-starters for him. He was a treat to deal with as a media member, always engaging witty and insightful banter. That is, unless one of us suggested that he get a bit introspective in the public forum.
I remember the day that changed. I remember it, because I stood two feet away from him, listening, knowing that the Oilers were going to be looking for a new head coach after the season. I remember it, because my declaration of that on the 630 CHED pre-game show the next night was heard by team owner Daryl Katz, who fired off the instantly famous "MacT isn't going anywhere" text message to my broadcast partner Bob Stauffer.
Let's back up a couple nights to March 31, 2009. This game was a tough one for the Oilers, who were sliding fast in the playoff race with just 5 wins in 14 games in the month of March. Trailing 4-1 to the Anaheim Ducks heading into the 3rd period, the Oilers got late goals from Denis Grebeshkov and Zack Stortini to narrow the deficit to one. Trying to ride the wave of momentum, Craig MacTavish acted on a tip given to him by one of the members of his coaching staff and called for a stick measurement on Ducks sniper Teemu Selanne. The move backfired as the stick was ruled to be legal. The miscue put the Oilers down a man for the remainder of regulation and they surrendered an empty-net goal to lose 5-3. As the Oilers lost their tenth game in March, the fan heat on the Oilers head coach reached an all-time high, as I sat taking hours and hours of phone calls criticizing his decision that night on the 630 CHED post-game show.
The next day, April 1st, 2009, the Oilers were trying to put it behind them with a day of practice. Despite the recent slide, they still sat just 3 points behind Nashville for the final playoff spot with 5 games remaining. The setup for a Nickelback concert that night displaced the team from their usual practice ice at Rexall Place and had them practicing at Millennium Place in Sherwood Park. Seeming to be acutely aware of the criticism mounting from the fan base, MacTavish responded gently and thoughtfully in what came across to me as the first public sign of the beginning of the end.
Here, courtesy of the archives of the Edmonton Journal, is a sample of MacTavish's offerings to the media that day:
"I've been here for a number of years and I've had terrific support from virtually everybody and if I've got less then it's the hazard of the profession.
"That's never affected me, whether it's criticism or praise - and there's been more criticism lately with the situation we're in. But the thing you have to do as a coach is shelf that and pragmatically go about trying to turn the team around. That's been my philosophy since I got here and at no time have I ever been afraid of losing my job.
"With politicians it's the economy. With hockey coaches it's wins and losses.
"You have a fixed time to deliver the goods. I'm not forecasting anything, but you're always evaluated on how many games you win. We've got ourselves into a position where we should be better.
"The criticism, when it does come, is part of the business and in a lot of ways it's warranted and it's always been, in my mind, fair."
It's tough to spell out a gut feeling on paper, but I had one that day. The words, the tone, the body language, they all suggested that this was a coach that knew to an absolute certainty that he had taken this group as far as they could go. The next night, April 2nd, 2009, on the pre-game show getting ready for a game against the San Jose Sharks, I riffed on what I had witnessed, heard and felt. Perturbed that the focus was on the future of the head coach and not the playoff chase, Daryl Katz fired off the text message to Bob, who asked Daryl two or three times at least if he was sure he wanted his words made public. When he responded affirmatively each time, "MacT isn't going anywhere" hit the airwaves and the rest of the mainstream media spent a couple days chasing reaction to the story.
The Oilers lost that night and a couple more times before the season ended, finishing 11th in the West and 6 points back of the Anaheim Ducks for the final playoff spot. Craig MacTavish coached his last game in the NHL on April 11, 2009 in Calgary and parted ways with the team 4 days later.
Now a few years removed from departing a situation that he characterizes as "the most negative time in my professional career," MacTavish doesn't hold back when recalling why it was time to leave. When we sat down to talk in private yesterday, I suggested to Craig that we sum it up with one word: stale.
"I think that's fair," he started, after a brief pause. "As a coach, you generally know when the time is over. When you lose faith in the players to get the job done and the players lose faith in your ability to lead them to an area where they can get the job done, there's a palpable atmosphere that is unmistakable. When you're walking into that atmosphere you can feel that you just don't have faith in each other to get the job done. I had that sense when I left. The group just wasn't good enough to get the job done and I wasn't good enough to lead them there."
I said at the time, and still firmly believe, that the situation was a lot more to do with the inadequacy of the roster than it was the inadequacy of the head coach. In a time where it was an extremely unpopular banner to carry, I was one of Craig's biggest, maybe only, supporters. I understood his frustration in what had transpired in the seasons following the near miss in 2006, and his resignation that it was probably best for both sides that he not stick around as part of the solution. Having said that, I was absolutely positive that he wouldn't last long on the sidelines.
I was wrong. He didn't get another opportunity right away from another team, and he didn't get one when the health concerns were alleviated following a fight with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. That no team stepped up to put him behind their NHL bench is something that Craig MacTavish never saw coming.
"It was shocking," he concedes. "I fully expected to get a number of opportunities when I left. I felt that the work that we had done as a coaching staff was at least good enough to warrant another opportunity. But, this game is so humbling. It really does humble the best and the brightest, not to put myself in that category, but it does. The people that are having success and are feeling like it's a product of what they're doing are ultimately humbled.
"You can never outrun expectations in this game. Eventually expectations are going to catch up to you and pass you by. It humbled me that I was not able to get another opportunity. But what are you going to do? There's no sense crying about it."
And, as far as I can tell, he really means that. Though he was extremely invigorated a year ago to get behind the bench of the Chicago Wolves in the American Hockey League, a lengthy conversation with MacTavish leads me to honestly believe that he won't be sitting in a management chair wishing he was a coach.
"I've never been a guy that cared too much to look into the rear view mirror," he told me. "There's a world opportunity ahead of myself in this new role and there's lots of work to be done. I'm looking forward rather than looking back. I mean, in ten years of coaching I had nine and a half pretty intense-filled years of hockey and a couple really good months along the way. On a day to day basis it's a very trying job and a very difficult job. There's a lot of people that you have to please and a lot of people that you need to get a lot out of. "
For whatever the reasons or variables have been, Craig MacTavish wasn't able to please the right people on his journey trying to get back to the NHL. Even as recently as the last couple months, MacTavish had it on good authority that he was going to get a phone call from Washington to interview for their bench boss job. Once again, the call never came. Once again, the job was going to somebody else.
Yes, he did have conversations with the Oilers about their vacant coaching position. He decided, much like he did 3 years ago, that it wouldn't be the right fit for either side. Though he admits that the notion of a return has a certain romantic feel to it, he just couldn't shake the idea that a 4 game losing streak in January would reignite the past. He and the organization both want to keep moving forward, so the conversations about his rejoining the organization quickly turned to a different role.
"You try and do what you can to put yourself in that position where you can coach again when you want to, but it just didn't happen for me," says MacTavish. "I'll miss the feeling that you get after your team plays an incredible game, but that's about it. Now I move on, very happily."
Moving on means moving back for MacTavish. He's part of the team again, like he was when he spent 9 years here as a player and 9 years as a coach. This time, he's got himself squarely in the Hockey Operations hierarchy, poised to yield a significant influence on the decisions being made from now on. He's extremely happy to be back in a familiar place, with an organization to which he owes a great debt of gratitude for putting him in a position to succeed throughout his professional career. He's even happier to see that things have improved since he left.
"Just the overall energy in the organization," MacTavish told me when I asked what felt different 3 years later. "I like to work in an atmosphere where there's a lot of energy, a high work ethic and a real positive vibe. I definitely didn't feel that walking out of here three years ago. It was the most negative time of my professional life. Coming back with all the enthusiasm and the energy that youth brings, it's a much different dynamic coming back in here than when I left."