Ever since he was a 17-year-old boy growing up in North Bay, Mike Yeo wanted to be a head coach in the NHL.
Now, 20 years later, he not only has his first NHL coaching job, he’s turned the moribund Minnesota Wild into the hottest team in the league with a roster of largely no-name players who’ve somehow responded to their boyish boss.
Ask just about any Wild player, including Kyle Brodziak, the team’s top scorer with 10 goals and 17 points as of Monday, just how Yeo has done it and you get smiles and shrugs.
“I don’t know,” Brodziak said Tuesday as the Wild prepared to play the Winnipeg Jets at the MTS Centre. “He’s young but he definitely has confidence and he knows exactly what he wants to accomplish and how he wants the team to play. When he’s on the bench, he’s calm and composed and there’s a reason for everything, and he seems to know what’s going on all the time.”
Calm and composed on the outside, maybe, but he’s intense inside – so intense he chews his fingernails to the bone and once had to take time off from assistant coaching because of high blood pressure.
Yeo cites things like commitment, determination and getting the players to work together. “We’ve pushed them hard there’s no question,” he said Tuesday. “But they’ve responded and they’ve pushed each other and it’s group that cares very much about each other and is really trying to build something here.”
When asked to describe the team identity he is hoping to build, Yeo didn’t hesitate: “Fast, physical, aggressive.”
It shows. The Wild have perfected a close-checking style with a balanced attack that has translated into a record, entering the Jets game Tuesday, of 20-7-3, good enough for 43 points to lead the NHL. The Wild arrived in Winnipeg on a seven-game winning streak. They have allowed just 64 goals, one of the lowest tallies in the NHL, thanks in part to some remarkable goaltending by Niklas Backstrom and backup Matt Hackett. And they’ve done it with only a couple of players anyone has heard of – Dany Heatley and David Setoguchi, who arrived last summer in a trade with the San Jose Sharks.
The physical, no-name approach isn’t surprising considering Yeo idolized players such Cam Neely, Wendel Clark and Rick Tocchet while growing up. He liked them because they had an edge and played hard every night.
His own playing career didn’t last long. It ended in 1999 at 26 because of a knee injury. He landed a job as an assistant coach with the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ American Hockey League affiliate, and soon moved up as an assistant with the Penguins in 2005 to then-head coach Michel Therrien, just as Sidney Crosby joined the team. He remained on the staff when Dan Bylsma took over from Therrien in 2008. But Yeo still hankered for the top job and left Pittsburgh in 2010 to coach the Houston Aeros, the Wild’s AHL affiliate.
He led the Aeros, also a collection of no names, on a remarkable run that ended just two victories shy of the Calder Cup. Winnipeg coach Claude Noel, who coached the Manitoba Moose of the AHL last year, recalled tight, low-scoring games with the Aeros.
“They played a real simple game last year, it was fast and simple,” Noel recalled this week. “I thought he did well with what he had last year. He’s got more bullets this year [with the Wild]so he can play different ways. I like the way he coached. He’s done a really good job.”
Last summer when the Wild were looking for a replacement for Todd Richards, general manager Chuck Fletcher eschewed big names such as Ken Hitchcock and Craig MacTavish and opted for Yeo, making him the youngest coach in the NHL.
“Every day is the best day of my life,” Yeo said Tuesday, offering a rare smile and laugh. “You’ve got to love this job. You’ve got to love coming to the rink and getting to do what you love.”