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The Importance of Coaching

by Stu Grimson / Nashville Predators

Several former Predators (Greg Johnson, JP Dumont, Jason York and Jamie Heward) were back in Nashville recently for the Nashville Predators Brent Peterson Celebrity Golf Classic. As is the custom, when the fellas get together for refreshments, the stories start to fly. During this installation, the group got around to discussing coaches they’d played for over the years. And remember, this is a group of guys that played a lot of years for a lot of different coaches. The following is a review of a very informal survey about the qualities of a good coach and, by extension, the reasons why Barry Trotz is a two-time nominee for NHL coach of the year.

First off, the one thing all would agree on is that a coach needs to be a good communicator. As you’ll see, that quality is a common thread in all the other attributes I discuss below.

Structure. In hockey jargon, we say a good coach implemented structure where it may have been lacking before. But that’s a fairly vague term. I’d explain it this way. A coach has to establish a standard for the way his players are going to play and conduct themselves on and off the ice. And then, just as importantly, he has to ensure that the standard is met. Structure says as much about a team’s culture as it does about the way it plays the game.

A team can get side-tracked if players feel that a teammate fell short of the standard and there are no consequences for it. A good example of this occurred close to home recently. The Predators coaching staff was challenged in this way when two now former Predators “left the reservation” during the Phoenix series in the 2011-12 NHL Playoffs. However, in my opinion Coach Trotz made a tough call and side-lined the offending players in spite of the fact that they were both potential game breakers. In doing so, there is no question that the organization as a whole gained the respect of the remaining players. Why? Because players respond best to fair and consistent treatment. When players sense that things are unfair or inconsistent; the resentment they feel can act as a distraction from the more important things.

The System. You can’t build a house without a blueprint. A new company won’t succeed without a sound business plan. And you can’t ice a respectable hockey team without first adopting a system that will allow your team to be competitive. It may seem a little confusing out there during the heat of the action but the truth is there is very little room for freestyle in NHL hockey. Any coach worth his salt will ensure that his players know exactly what’s expected of them in every area of the ice.

Scotty Bowman is one of the best I played for in terms of continually analysing the way the game is played. For example, while a member of the Red Wings in the late 90’s, I learned a system known as the left wing lock. The left wing lock was a cousin to the neutral zone trap. If Scotty didn’t create this system, he at least refined it and adopted it with a good measure of success.

The Coach as a Motivator. The NHL season is a long and grinding affair. It is taxing physically and mentally. No player is capable of bringing his “A-game” on all 82 nights. But a coach that can motivate successfully is far more likely to ensure that his team is flat on as few nights as possible.

I played for Ron Wilson in 1993-94; Anaheim’s inaugural season. Like any expansion team, we were by no means overstocked in high-end talent. Expectations are rather low when you build your roster out of an expansion draft consisting of third and fourth line players from around the League. However, the 93-94 Mighty Ducks finished with 33 wins that year which tied a league record that stands today. Most wins for a modern day expansion franchise. By contrast, Columbus and Nashville had 28 wins each in their opening seasons.

I credit Ron Wilson’s approach for some of the success that team enjoyed in that year. Ron employed a lot of techniques that are used widely by teams today. He used video in a very positive way to emphasize the highlights of our play rather than focus on every mistake. I remember walking out of countless pregame meetings thinking the opposition was in for far more than they could handle …. and occasionally they were.

Lastly, don’t over coach. There is no question coaching is important. A coach that can employ the above principles effectively will, no doubt, see the results in his team’s play. However, a good coach recognizes that coaching only gets you part of the way there. At some point, a coach needs to stand aside and let his players do what they do.

The participants in my informal survey generally agreed that this is a strong suit for coach Trotz. Barry is a good communicator; and year after year he successfully gets the group to “buy in.” But he also knows when to let the players take over. I suppose that’s part of the Predator way. Draft well, develop patiently, trade wisely when you need to, and once the group gets it, open the gate and let ‘em go.

See you around the rink.

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