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Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle yells at the referees from the bench during the second period of their NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens in Toronto April 27, 2013. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)
Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle yells at the referees from the bench during the second period of their NHL game against the Montreal Canadiens in Toronto April 27, 2013. (FRED THORNHILL/REUTERS)

Shoalts: Carlyle likes defensive game, but knows how to adapt Add to ...

The girls are out to Bingo

and the boys are gettin’ stinko,

And we think no more of Inco

on a Sudbury Saturday night.

- Stompin’ Tom Connors

Randy Carlyle came to the Toronto Maple Leafs in 1976 as the 30th overall draft pick from little Azilda, Ont., just north of Sudbury where his father did indeed work in the nickel smelter for the company then known as Inco, a Northern Ontario boy who had its twin passions for hockey and hard work.

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But he had a little too much big city in his game for the taste of the late Roger Neilson, the coach who became Carlyle’s mentor and inspiration.

“Roger was always on his ass; he didn’t like him at all,” said Jim McKenny, who played defence on the Leafs with Carlyle and who was also not one of the defensive-minded Neilson’s favourites. “Roger would give him hell about going with the puck.”

Back then, Carlyle was a 20-year-old with a big mane of blonde hair and equally big ego.

He was one of a wave of rushing defencemen who came to the NHL in the years after Bobby Orr’s offensive skills forever changed the position. Neilson, the pioneer who introduced video study and defensive schemes, among other things, to the NHL, was Carlyle’s coach over much of his first two professional seasons, first with the Leafs’ farm team and later with the big team.

But then the fun-loving Carlyle was involved in a golf-cart mishap in March, 1978, with Hall-of-Fame defenceman Borje Salming, which left Carlyle on the injury list with a gash on his leg. The accident not only ended the custom of mini Florida vacations for the Leafs during a break in the schedule, it led to the end of Carlyle’s days with the Leafs.

“It wasn’t me who was driving the golf cart, it was [Salming] but I got blamed for it because it was my leg that got cut,” Carlyle said. “But it was better that it happened to me and not him.”

Neilson was behind the trade in June, 1978, that sent Carlyle to the Pittsburgh Penguins for defenceman Dave Burrows. Neilson may have been a visionary as a coach but the trade wound up typically for the Leafs, as Carlyle won the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenceman in 1981 and played in four all-star games over a career that spanned 17 seasons with the Penguins and Winnipeg Jets. Burrows wound up getting traded back to Pittsburgh.

Carlyle, though, is not one to hold a grudge. The great irony of his NHL career, in which he grew from a one-way defenceman to the demanding, defence-minded coach of today’s Maple Leafs, may be that the greatest defensive mind in hockey didn’t care much for him as a player but Carlyle says without Neilson he would not be where he is today.

“The Roger Neilson effect on me both as a player and a coach is pretty profound,” Carlyle said. “Roger taught me a lot as a player, just in the way he handled things and his expectations. Some of the things we did in 1977 and 1978 with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the drills Roger taught me, I still use today.”

Carlyle was also smart enough to adapt. He came south to Toronto much like the people Stompin’ Tom Connors sang about, the northerners who worked hard and played hard, and then learned to separate the two.

“He was pretty good in the room, keeping everybody accountable,” said Dale Hawerchuk, who played with Carlyle through the 1980s on the Jets. “He liked his fun but when it was time to buckle down he was the first one to make sure everyone was in that mode.”

That attitude went to the over-riding characteristic Carlyle had as a player and one that stands out today in his coaching – his desire to compete. “He was a hard guy to play against, even in practice,” said Scott Arniel, another old Jets teammate.

Carlyle, in fact, was notorious for taking revenge on teammates who had the nerve to try to go around him in practice. Every time it happened, Carlyle’s stick, heavily-wrapped in black friction tape with a thick coating of adhesive on both sides, would come into play.

“We called it that old Gordie Howe tape,” said Hawerchuk, who now coaches the Barrie Colts of the OHL. “Guaranteed, on your way by, he would scrape your arm so you were almost bleeding. Back then you could hook and hold and he might have been one of the best at it.

“That was his pride. Even in practice he didn’t like to get beat. If you got around him, you knew something was coming, either a chop or a hook. We used to just laugh at it.”

It was that unslakable thirst to compete that led Carlyle into coaching. After his playing career finished with the Jets during the 1992-93 season, Carlyle moved into the team’s front office. He says he worked at several positions, from player development to broadcast analyst to scouting before the realization of what he wanted and needed to do came during a scouting trip.

“I was driving down the road from Springfield to Manchester, N.H.,” Carlyle said. “It was a Sunday afternoon and I’d been on the road for four or five days. I said to myself, ’What am I doing? I’m not doing this any more.’ So I decided I’m going to get into coaching.

“Coaching is the closest thing to being a player, bar none. You go in and you’re at ice level, you travel with the team, you’re with the group.”

Carlyle took the beliefs forged in Northern Ontario to coaching. One was loyalty. Both he and his wife Corey are from the Sudbury area and Carlyle still spends time with the same group of friends he had as a teenager when they go back home or to their cottage on Manitoulin Island. His chief assistant coach is Dave Farrish, who was with Carlyle when he coached the Anaheim Ducks to the 2007 Stanley Cup and was his teammate on the 1975-76 Sudbury Wolves and the Maple Leafs.

Another belief is in the separation between coaches and players. But that is not absolute, even if anyone watching Carlyle shout at the Leafs in practice or run them through a bag skate may not be sure.

“I think there’s a line there,” Carlyle said. “You can be the players’ friend and you can care about them but you’re in the position where you have to provide leadership and leadership sometimes takes on a different face. Sometimes it’s a hug, sometimes it’s a kick, sometimes it’s a laugh, sometimes it’s a poke.

“I still want to be their friend to the extent where they respect what we’re doing and what our staff is doing. I think that’s important because if they don’t trust and respect what we’re doing, then you have difficulties.”

This is a change from Carlyle’s first days as an NHL head coach, back in 2005 when he started with the Ducks. There were more veterans on that team than on the youthful Leafs. But one thing that has not changed is Carlyle’s belief in one set of rules for both the stars and the role players.

“It’s all about team with Randy. He’s always been about team,” said Arniel, who is now an assistant coach with the New York Rangers. “I can see he has a lot more patience now than what he had in the past, probably because he’s got a much younger team than he had in the past.

“That’s hard to do because you want to win. There’s pressure to win now, especially in that market. That’s one thing about him, he knows if he needs to change his style a bit he can do that.”

Another thing is Carlyle’s ability to shut out the noise that comes in the Toronto market. Such as back in January, when the Leafs were losing and talk of his future dominated all forms of media. Now, although the Leafs’ two overtime losses on last week’s road trip tempered things a little, Carlyle is back on top in the eyes of the fans.

“I’ve been criticized a long time,” Carlyle said. “Some of it hurts, some of it doesn’t. But you don’t show that, you move on. In my skewed way of looking at it, I can’t control that.

“I can control how hard this coaching staff works and the effort we put into preparing this group and in how hard they’re going to work.”

All of that work, Carlyle says, is “about earning respect back for this organization.” When he was hired March 2, 2012, after a stunning slide out of playoff contention by the Leafs under Ron Wilson, Carlyle saw that as the top priority, something that is starting to come now that he has kept the Leafs in playoff position for all of this season.

“I’ve said that from Day 1. I believe that,” he said. “As a guy from the outside looking on, the way things were going, the ups and downs, I knew when I got the opportunity this is what we have to do: earn the respect back for this organization.

“We do it with an honest day’s work, an honest day’s pay, all those old-school principles that I believe are true today.”

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