The Nashville Predators assistant coach elects to participate in practice sans whistle, instead utilizing an impressive ability to produce sound without the assistance of a manufactured object.
“I could probably just blame that on not having a good memory,” McCarthy said of his unique talent. “A lot of times, I’d be on the ice and forget my whistle back in the office. It’s one of those things I could always do. My dad taught me, I learned at a young age and it just came second nature. I can do it loud enough that it makes sense that I don’t have to carry one.”
While the whistling has been perfected over time, he’s also become pretty good at that whole coaching thing, too.
Along with Preds Head Coach Peter Laviolette, McCarthy is in his first season behind the bench in Nashville, but that doesn’t mean he can’t find his way around an NHL dressing room.
First as a player, seeing stints in Philadelphia, Vancouver and Pittsburgh from 1977-87, then transitioning to the coach’s office, first in 1987 as a player/coach with the American Hockey League’s Hershey Bears, then utilizing a clipboard full-time, McCarthy has been in professional hockey for over 35 years. The Winnipeg, Manitoba, native has the captain of the Broad Street Bullies to thank for the transition.
“The end of my last year in Hershey, Bobby Clarke was the general manager in Philadelphia at the time and he had asked me if I had any interest in coaching,” McCarthy said. “Basically my last year, I was a player/assistant coach, so I got a little bit of a taste for coaching when I was still playing in my last season. We ended up winning the Calder Cup that year and the transition was easy for me to stay in coaching.”
And stay in coaching he has. McCarthy began as a full-time assistant in Hershey during the 1988-89 season, before taking over the head job the very next campaign. After a brief break, McCarthy jumped on with the Hartford Whalers as an assistant from 1992-95 before taking two more head jobs in the AHL, one in Springfield and the other in New Haven.
Then the Carolina Hurricanes came calling. McCarthy joined the Canes in 1999 as an assistant, winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, along with Laviolette and Preds forward Matt Cullen. McCarthy then went to be Laviolette’s assistant in Philadelphia from 2009-14, before joining forces once again in Nashville.
“I coached against him in the minors, so I knew Lavy and I knew the style of play he liked to play,” McCarthy said of his introduction to Laviolette. “We hit it off right from the start, and we have the same philosophies as how we want to play the game. We meshed; it’s been 10 years now and it’s been going well.”
“He’s a terrific coach,” Laviolette said of McCarthy. “He’s been around the game for a long time. He’s smart, he’s coached in every situation, in every position… He’s got a great way of teaching the players and I think that’s really important.”
Those players would tend to agree with Laviolette. Winning a Cup together in 2006, Cullen is now in his second stint as a player with McCarthy on the coaching staff. A veteran of 17 NHL seasons, Cullen has seen his share of coaches. He believes McCarthy is one of the best.
“He’s got a lot of experience to draw on, and I think he really relates to the players well, maybe better than anybody I’ve ever played for as far as an assistant coach,” Cullen said. “He understands the game, he sees it from a player’s perspective, and he’s really valuable to have behind the bench.”
That value is also reaped just as much, if not more so, by the first-year Preds. McCarthy works with the Nashville forwards, and youngsters like Taylor Beck and Filip Forsberg find something to gain every day from those teachings.
“[McCarthy’s] helped me a lot, especially in the defensive end on the penalty kill,” Beck said. “He’s been great with me showing some clips, and he’s always there to help. That’s the most important thing for a coach… He’s been there, he knows what it takes to be successful, and he’s always willing to help. I’m trying to take away as much as I can from him, whether it be a practice or in a game.”
“He’s honest,” Forsberg said of his assistant coach. “If you do well, he’ll tell you. If you don’t do well, he’ll tell you that too. That’s how it should be as a coach and he’s really been good for the team so far.”
That communication with players is something that McCarthy is sure to emphasize day in and day out. For players, it’s not always easiest to go to the head coach for further clarification or conversation. The assistant can then prove to be a tremendous and necessary buffer.
“As an assistant, you’ve got to be the guy that talks to these players on a regular basis,” McCarthy said. “As the head coach, you have to put the hammer down, but as an assistant coach, you’re the guy they can come and talk to after the fact. I think that’s where you’ve got to do a good job of building relationships and building trust with your players as an assistant and let them know that they can be comfortable coming to you in any situation. On and off the ice, you’re there to help them.”
Cullen has a great appreciation for that open line of communication. Knowing that McCarthy is always there, Cullen says, puts players at ease, understanding that if the moment arises, they’ve got someone to talk to.
“[McCarthy] is a guy that makes himself very available,” Cullen said. “He’s talking to guys and reaching out to guys, and I think that’s what makes a really good assistant coach, a guy that’s looking to help you. Whether things are going well or not, he’s looking to help. He’s an easy guy to respect, just because of his background and who he is. He treats people the right way.”
Laviolette also admires the human side of his fellow coach. Having been with McCarthy for almost a decade, the Preds bench boss has seen firsthand what goes on beyond the whiteboard.
“He’s a great person,” Laviolette said. “You remove hockey and just talk about a human being, and he’s somebody that is honest and cares. He always wants the best for his players.”
McCarthy and Laviolette share similar feelings in that regard. When it’s time to work on the ice, McCarthy knows how to get things done in an efficient and worthwhile manner. With 17 wins to their credit thus far, the Predators seem to be taking to the sentiment.
“I think the biggest thing, and this is one of Lavy’s philosophies, is you play how you practice,” McCarthy said. “We’ve always made sure that we want these players to understand there’s a certain reason to why you do things in practice. You want to do things at a high tempo and a game-like pace. They have to trust us that we’re not going to wear them out; we’re going to manage it properly, and that’s just something that you build over the course of a season. The guys have bought into that philosophy and I think it’s really helped us.”
On-ice success is paramount in this business, but there’s one more item that Laviolette has found appreciation for in McCarthy over the years.
“For me, one of his greatest strengths is he’s a real loyal person,” Laviolette said. “His loyalty has always been there with me. He’s a good friend and a good coach.”
McCarthy has become good at a lot of different things during his time in hockey. And turning in his stick for a whistle, although he’s proven the latter item isn’t necessary, has undoubtedly been the best way for him to remain in the game; a game that for McCarthy, is so much more than biscuits and breakouts.
“I’ve been very fortunate and very grateful in my life that I’ve been able to do something that I love to do and get paid for it,” McCarthy said. “As a player first and then a coach, I’m involved in what I think is the best sport in the world.”