For much of the past month, manning the Globe and Mail’s unofficial southern California bureau, I was bumping into Randy Carlyle all the time. We’d sit together before Anaheim Ducks’ games, chat, retell all the old stories, laugh - and I kept telling him I expected him to be the next coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’d smile. Wouldn’t say yes. Wouldn’t say no, because that’s what members of the coaching fraternity do. They protect each other. Nobody wants to look like a vulture, hanging around waiting for an opening to occur.
But openings always occur in coaching - a mere eight changes thus far in the NHL this season - and Carlyle made it clear that he wanted to get back in, sooner rather than later, and that he was about to go on an Eastern Conference tour just to stay current with the league.
So Carlyle will take over as the 28th coach in Maple Leafs’ history tonight in Montreal and hope that a fresh voice, in a new environment, will get the Torontos back on track and maybe salvage a season that has gone desperately off the rails in the past month.
Toronto is 1-9-1 in its last 11 games, which is just about as badly as Anaheim was playing when Carlyle got the heave-ho at the end of November and was replaced by Bruce Boudreau, the former Washington Capitals’ coach. Once, years ago, discussing his coaching life and times, Carlyle told me he never imagined himself becoming an NHL coach, but also noted that he hadn’t forgotten what was important to him as a player.
"I don't spend a heck of a lot of time in the dressing room," said Carlyle, in a conversation we had about a week before the Ducks won the 2007 Stanley Cup. "I think that's the players' area. As a player, I didn't want our coach always in the dressing room, so I don't go into the dressing room very often. I go in, deliver whatever I have to do, and come out.
"I have a lot of no-maintenance players, so I don't have to spend a lot of time there."
Goaltender J.S. Giguere, the former Leaf, who was still with the Ducks at the time, had this to say about Carlyle: "There are all kinds of different coaches. Some coaches like to control the room as well as everything else, but Randy sort of just stays away from the room and just leaves it to the players. And it's kind of nice, because that's the one thing we can control. For the most part, we're pretty much being told what to do, whether it's on the ice or at the hotel or stuff like that.
"But the room is ours. And it's kind of nice that we have enough leadership in this dressing room that we don't need to have the coach overseeing it."
Carlyle's job is to push players to make them better - and it is not his style to mince words either, which occasionally let to disagreements with players. There was friction at times with Ryan Getzlaf, the team captain, and with Teemu Selanne, who was a teammate back in the old Winnipeg Jets’ days. I always figured with Getzlaf and Carlyle, who were together for five years, they’d just come to a grudging peace, agreeing to disagree on some issues.
In Anaheim, last year, Carlyle and Joffrey Lupul were not on the same page either, one of the reasons Lupul ended up in Toronto, playing for the Leafs. Being reunited in the Centre Of the Hockey Universe could make for some interesting times. Hatchets will need to buried, and not in each other’s skulls. If the Leafs want to get out of this tailspin, they’ll need to start working together. Fortunately, Carlyle is an adept defensive coach and the 1981 Norris Trophy winner as a player.
"We're all in a learning curve here," Carlyle explained in that long-ago interview. "I think life is all about learning. Coaching in pro sports changes daily and it changes with the personnel of your team.
“You can't ever think you know it all."
No worries there Randy. In Toronto, you’ll be reminded of constantly that you don’t know it all. Leaf Nation is like that. Never satisfied and won’t be, until they add a Stanley Cup to the one they won in 1967.