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Carlyle brings gruelling practices, gruff style, savvy for reading team

New Toronto Maple Leafs' head coach speaks to players during a practice session at the Bell Centre in Montreal, March 3, 2012.

Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press/Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press

Sharpen your skates, boys.

Randy Carlyle believes the road to salvation is circular and endless, traced on a sheet of ice. The Toronto Maple Leafs will be there early, late and often.

The Leafs' new coach was in charge of the Anaheim Ducks for six seasons, plus three months. He ran one of the most laborious training camps in the NHL. The Ducks practised at almost every opportunity, at least until Carlyle began a slow mellowing process in his final seasons here.

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Their work was accompanied by a crescendo of demands, as if the Ducks were playing for a coxswain with a sailor's vocabulary.

Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke, who hired Carlyle in Anaheim just as he has in Toronto, often said he wanted to treat players generously "for 21 and a half hours" a day. The other 2 1/2 would be Carlyle's.

The Ducks privately wondered if their customary slow starts were because of Carlyle's scorched-ice policy, although the 2007 Stanley Cup champions began in a "dead sprint," as Burke liked to say, and never stopped.

They also struggled with Carlyle's crusty ways. Former player Todd Marchant recalled that when he once told Carlyle, "Good morning," the coach would reply, 'What's good about it?"

Eventually their ears glazed over, which happens to most teams. The Ducks were lifeless last October and November, and general manager Bob Murray, who had given Carlyle a contract extension in August (sound familiar?), reluctantly fired him and hired Bruce Boudreau on Dec. 1.

The Ducks blinked appreciatively as their practice schedule eased. Suddenly they weren't flying to a city and practising that same day. It took a month, but they began playing up to their standards and had the best record in the NHL from Jan. 1 through March 1.

Carlyle was criticized for his bristling impatience with young players, although that changed when the Ducks began using 18-year-old Cam Fowler on defence.

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He rarely wasted compliments on Bobby Ryan, the 30-goal winger and second-overall draft pick in 2005.

"I was pretty barbaric around rookies when I was a player," he said in 2007. "I still can be that way. They don't need to be heard."

And yet ... the Ducks made the Western Conference final in 2006, won the Cup the next year, made the playoffs in 2008, upset the San Jose Sharks in the first round in 2010 and had the Detroit Red Wings tied with three minutes left in the third period of Game 7 before losing in the second round.

Yes, Carlyle benefited from veteran leadership and brilliance. A captain such as Scott Niedermayer will quell any potential rebellions. Carlyle also had Chris Pronger, Teemu Selanne, Jean-Sébastien Giguère in net and a raft of young talent such as Ryan, Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf.

But no one questions his coaching. He insists on getting his best matchups, even on the road, changing on the fly aggressively. In the 2007 final he recognized that if he could defuse Daniel Alfredsson's line, the Ducks would have little trouble with the Ottawa Senators. So he paired Niedermayer and Pronger. The Ducks won in five games.

And, beyond the bluster, Carlyle had an impressive way of reading the mood.

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Sometimes he would surprise the Ducks by cancelling practice and sending them on bicycle forays, team bowling expeditions and golf. "I don't want them thinking about playing hockey when they're playing golf," he said.

The best example was Game 7, first round, 2006 playoffs.

The underdog Ducks were tied 3-3 with the Calgary Flames. The city was braced for a Battle of Alberta matchup with the Edmonton Oilers in the next round.

Carlyle decided not to skate on the off day and took the team to a sports bar for some pool and brotherhood.

Providentially, the TVs began showing old Wayne Gretzky highlights, particularly in a playoff spree against the Winnipeg Jets. And there was The Great One, turning a former Norris Trophy winner from Winnipeg inside and out. That defenceman, of course, was Carlyle.

The Ducks howled. "He showed us what not to do," Niedermayer said. Carlyle got a kick out of it, too. The next night, the relaxed Ducks blew out the uptight Flames.

The Burke-Carlyle combo also works because Burke likes to smooth the waters, engage the players, and can serve as the good cop.

This was probably not the best news Joffrey Lupul ever heard. Carlyle was a critic of Lupul's during two Anaheim tours of duty. But it's not really personal with Carlyle. The son of a Sudbury nickel miner, he simply believes there's only one path to accomplishment.

The Maple Leafs lace them tightly and are on that path now. Out of the frying pan, into the ice.

Mark Whicker is a sports columnist with The Orange County Register in Santa Ana, Calif. He covered the Anaheim Ducks' march to the Stanley Cup in 2007.

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