After the Edmonton Oilers finally managed to get their collective gear shift out of reverse on Wednesday night, coach Jay Woodcroft instinctively understood the smart place to put the credit.
“I think we have the best fans in the National Hockey League, the most passionate, the most knowledgeable,” Woodcroft said.
The most knowledgeable? Are the Oilers keeping internal league-wide metrics for booing decibel levels after incorrect offside calls?
I think it’s fair to assume that people who’ve just paid a week’s salary to take the family to a sporting event understand the rules of what they’re watching.
What Woodcroft must be talking about here isn’t knowledge, as such. It’s forbearance. It is the lifelong Canadian hockey viewer’s understanding that what goes down – as the Oilers have been doing for 15 years – must eventually come back up. So that regardless of how often you’ve been disappointed before, you’re still capable of believing.
I suppose the longer you’re willing to wait, the more knowledgeable Woodcroft thinks you are.
Toronto Maple Leafs’ coach Sheldon Keefe delivered a similarly gushing assessment after the Leafs connected with every punch in Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“Our team played really well, but our crowd was unbelievable tonight. I thought the crowd was the first star of the game,” Keefe said.
You wouldn’t catch a coach in Nashville or Dallas whipping out his harp after a big playoff win to compose a bardic ode to the common man. Down there, it would seem too much like patting your customers on the head.
The “knowledgeable” line might even offend a few of them: Who you calling “knowledgable,” pal? What are you? Some sort of Einstein?
But up here, and especially in the Edmonton and Toronto of right now, a head coach must address himself to three distinct audiences. He coaches up to the team executive, he coaches parallel to his players and he coaches down to the fans. If he wants to survive, he has to stay on friendly terms with all three groups.
This is a delicate art in a difficult environment not suited to most hockey temperaments. Over the past 10 years, not all of them great, Tampa has had one head coach. The Leafs and Oilers combined have had 11.
Coaches with a ton of experience – especially extended runs in laissez-faire U.S. markets – are particularly bad at it.
Why was Toronto coach Mike Babcock fired? It’s not because the Leafs lost. It’s not because he was mean to Mitch Marner. Not primarily.
Mainly, it was because by constantly talking to them like a bunch of suckers, Babcock lost the admiration of the fan base. Once that happened, he was vulnerable on every other front. Then everyone who’d been laying in wait came for him all at once.
Had Babcock been beloved by the average punter, management, players and media would have put up with him for at least a while longer.
Woodcroft and Keefe are both first-time NHL coaches starting out with iconic franchises. The wrong way to come at that is to bust through the door, elbows flying around, trying to convince everyone that you’ve just received the stone tablets off Mount Hockey.
The right way is what they’re both doing now. Stay humble and, whenever possible, praise your several million bosses to the sky. It’s because of their brilliance and knowledge that Connor McDavid puts pucks in nets. First star for everyone!
Obviously, no amount of good vibes is going to carry you through years of losing.
But it is amazing how few people in positions of authority understand the first rule of coaching hockey in this country: Be nice.
Don’t take yourself too seriously. Deflect praise onto others. Be forthright in your assessments, but never cruel. When the moment calls for it, be outraged at the enemy, but don’t overdo it.
There is no more understanding sort than the Canadian hockey fan, but there is also no one more petulant. He or she is as quick to attack as they are to forgive. You need to approach them slowly and from the side, where they can see you coming.
The fan isn’t the boss that matters most, but he or she still matters a lot. If you can keep them on your side, you can weather many setbacks.
Right now, Woodcroft and Keefe are in clover. Had either the Leafs or the Oilers lost two to start, we’d be settling into the familiar round of recriminations.
But one win out of two at home – both of those wins by way of blowout – is good enough to putter unharmed into the next news cycle.
The goal now, while spirits are still high, is to win as many hearts as possible.
A great coach doesn’t just win, because you can’t win all the time. The era of the misanthropic sports genius is over. A great modern coach is a public performer. It’s no coincidence that as the New England Patriots get worse, Bill Belichick has begun to grow a personality. Because in an age of endless content, the ability to project positivity is part of enjoying a long professional life.
What’s the first thing you think about Lightning coach Jon Cooper? It’s not that he’s a great hockey mind (though he demonstrably is). It’s that he seems like a nice person. Never underestimate the power of nice.
Guys keep lining up to get kicked in Edmonton and Toronto because they understand on some instinctive level that it’s not that hard to become legendary in those places. Just be nice and win a few and people will talk about you like you’re Toe Blake reincarnated.
So far, Woodcroft and Keefe have the basic parameters of niceness down. Now they just have to sort out the winning part.