Do Great Ones Make Great Coaches?

10 02, 2008

The scholarly consensus on the subject is that having possessed the ability to consistently find the open man, knife through defencemen, and rifle the puck past the goalie do not tend to translate into being able to teach and motivate others to pull off these same tricks.

Historically, the most successful coaches in the game were average jocks with modest “out of the spotlight’s glare” playing careers, guys like Scotty Bowman who never even skated a shift in the NHL. Of head coaching’s current crop, Mike Babcock (Detroit), Ken Hitchock (Columbus) and Peter Laviolette (Carolina), who played all of 12 games in the big league, also fit the mold. Each has a Stanley Cup win shining on their résumé.

The rationale is that such coaches are best suited to identify and address their team’s deficiencies because they had to be more adept students of the game to get where they are today. Contrastingly, former stars who transition into coaching—often with less hurdles to jump—struggle to transform their players into clones of their younger selves, all the while becoming confounded by the limitations of lesser talents with whom they have difficulty relating.

But a paradigm shift is underway. As more and more ex-hockey stars rekindle their careers by taking up residence behind the bench, it appears the old stereotype is set to be shattered faster than the glass ceiling hockey mom supreme Sarah Palin is currently taking a slapshot at.

While former stars have long been attracted to the career-extending elixir which coaching provides, Wayne Gretzky’s foray into the profession clearly ushered in a new tide of interest amongst recently retired ice kings when he took up the reigns of the Phoenix Coyotes in 2005. Since then a mélange of very familiar faces in Denis Savard, Patrick Roy, Kirk Muller, and Doug Gilmour have all entered the fray, intent on dispelling the stereotype that great players make crappy coaches.

A role model they could stand to glean a few tips from is Jacques Lemaire, the hall of fame sniper who won eight cups with Montreal and then added another after spurring the Devils by implementing their infamous offense-snuffing neutral zone trap. Lemaire is a two-time recipient of the Jack Adams award for coach of the year and has achieved the rare feat of a star player who has managed to eclipse his playing reputation with his coaching reputation. The Sutter siblings can also serve as an inspiration. The surname's team management pedigree is on par with the Harvard Business School. Brother Brent, 46, the most lauded skater of the bunch scored 829-points in his career. He coached the Red Deer Rebels to Memorial Cup glory in 2001 and led Canada's world juniors to gold in 2005 and 2006. Last year as a rookie NHL head coach, he commanded a depleted Devils team (having lost Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski to free agency) to an expectation exceeding 46-win regular season. Upon suiting up to assume the role, Sutter immediately laid out his hardnosed, no-nonsense doctrine.

"There doesn't have to be a tremendous amount of love between the players and their head coach. There has to be a tremendous amount of respect," said Sutter applying an old business axiom.

"I demand respect and I demand hard work. I'll throw everything I have into it and I expect the same back from the players."

As for the motivation of ex-greats, you can go back to Gretzky. After assuming his new post, Gretzky crowed “I haven’t felt this way since I was 17.” Missing the action is the primary reason ex-stars are drawn back to the ice and outside of playing again which some do choose (Theo Fleury plans to lace’em up once again for the Bentley Generals of the Alberta Senior AAA league), coaching is the next best thing.

One of the challenges they all face making the transition is switching from a player’s frame of mind to that of a coach. Known to wear his emotions on his sleeve as a player Guy Carbonneau admitted that was something he would have to keep in check when he became the Habs head honcho.

“I was really emotional as a player. Behind the bench, there are certain times when you need to be emotional. What I have to do is learn when and how to do it” he told the Montreal Gazette after assuming the head honcho post a couple years back.

Adding, “hockey is a game of emotion. I don't want to hide that. When it's a big game, I want the players to know it's a big game.”

The awareness of the “big name equals lousy coach” perception should serve to motivate the newest additions to the coaching set, adding fuel to their fire so that they succeed where many before them have failed.

With the sheer number of ex stars commanding benches in the minor and pro ranks, watch for the stereotype to erode in the next few seasons.

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