Randy Carlyle had a gleam in his eye as the team reporter asked a question about a drill after practice, a query the Toronto Maple Leafs head coach was only too happy to poke fun of.
His reputation may be that of a curmudgeon, but on this day anyway, he was all smiles.
“Is it your first day at the office?” Carlyle said, chuckling. “You guys got to figure something out yourselves here.”
Inside the Leafs dressing room not far away, two veterans who had played under Carlyle in Anaheim were being asked how their coach had changed since then.
How much has the man known as “Kitty” during his playing days mellowed, exactly?
“A little bit. Yeah. Not too much,” said winger Joffrey Lupul, who had a run-in or two with Carlyle with the Ducks, but has since patched things up.
“I think he’s very stuck in his ways – not that that’s a bad thing,” Troy Bodie added. “He’s got his style of coaching, and I don’t think he’s changed much at all.”
Carlyle lasted eons in Southern California by NHL head coach standards, spending nearly seven years – including 516 regular-season and another 62 playoff games – behind the Ducks bench before things went sour early in the 2011-12 season.
It was with Anaheim where he hit heights never reached during a 17-year playing career, too, as he won the Stanley Cup in his second season and made the playoffs five out of six years.
So when his new team takes on his old one for the first time Tuesday at the Air Canada Centre, Carlyle will be watching with mixed emotions as so many of the players he grew to lean on now line up on the other side.
“It seems like a long time ago, because it’s two years ago,” Carlyle said, “but the first time you coach against your former team it’s always special. … I coached a lot of the players there. A lot of the young players were just starting out, and you know, it was their draft day when I shook their hand and welcomed them to the organization. Those types of things.”
Carlyle rattled off a series of names – “Perry, Getzlaf, Selanne, Beauchemin, Cam Fowler, Saku Koivu” – like they were old friends, listing the unchanged veteran core of a Ducks team that has been remarkably successful under his replacement, Bruce Boudreau.
The third-best team in the NHL last season, Anaheim comes into Tuesday with a 7-1-0 record supported by one of the hottest offences and generally solid goaltending.
They should prove a stiff test for the Leafs, who have a similar record at 6-3-0, but have laboured over their last three games, giving up far too many chances and scoring only four even-strength goals.
Sensing his team was tense coming off a 3-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks last weekend, Carlyle gave them a day off before kicking off Monday’s practice by having his players stickhandle with orange balls on the ice instead of pucks as part of a lighthearted departure from the norm.
“Everybody’s kind of feeling down,” he said. “They’re expecting to come here and – I guess they call it a bag skate? … At times, we feel that that’s counterproductive. And we have to change the mood of our group to a positive one.”
Given their next opponent, however, finding motivation to get back in the win column doesn’t sound like it will be too difficult.
The players all said they want to help win one for Kitty.
“Obviously, he wants us to put our best foot forward against a team that fired him,” Lupul said. “I think all players can relate to that. Teams have traded them or different situations they’ve found themselves in.”
“It’s a game I’ve marked on my calendar,” Bodie said, relating to Carlyle’s situation quite well, given the Ducks left him in the minors the last two seasons. “I’ve seen it for a while. I know it’s coming. It’s one I’ll get up for, especially for Randy, who was there for so long, won a Cup there. He wants this game really bad and we want to win it for him.
“He hasn’t talked about it. He’s not that type of guy. But you know it.”
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