Paul Maurice, Winnipeg Jets
Paul Maurice was the youngest coach in NHL history, at the age of 43, to coach 1,000 games, and last year he became the second-youngest in history (after Scotty Bowman) to win 500 games. His long coaching résumé includes time spent in Russia's Kontinental Hockey League, the OHL and the AHL.
Barry Trotz, Washington Capitals
Trotz spent the first 1,196 games of his NHL coaching career with the Nashville Predators, ranking him third all-time in games coached and wins (557) with a single franchise. He is a two-time finalist for the Jack Adams award as NHL coach of the year.
Lindy Ruff, Dallas Stars
Ruff has the eighth-best win total in NHL coaching history, with 652; 611 of them came with Buffalo, where he won the 2006 Jack Adams award. Ruff was also an associate coach on Canada's gold-medal-winning men's hockey teams at the past two Winter Olympics.
Peter DeBoer, San Jose Sharks
DeBoer is one of seven coaches with new teams this season. He previously guided the Florida Panthers and then the New Jersey Devils, a club he led to the 2012 Stanley Cup final. DeBoer is also a two-time OHL coach of the year and led the Kitchener Rangers to the 2003 Memorial Cup.
Dave Tippett, Arizona Coyotes
Tippet replaced Wayne Gretzky as the team's coach in September, 2009, and in his first season, the club won a record 50 games and earned its first playoff spot in eight years. He won the Jack Adams award in 2012 after leading the Coyotes to the Western Conference final, and has 488 career wins.
Let's begin by talking about leadership. Does coaching in the NHL require different leadership skills than, say, running a Fortune 500 company or even directing a Broadway show?
DeBoer: When you compare it to a business CEO, we have a daily report card – and it's a win or a loss. I would relate it to the quarterly call that a CEO makes with stockholders four times a year. We do that on a nightly basis. The biggest thing for us is, you can't fall into the emotion of the day-to-day ups-and-downs. You have to rise above that and make sure you're looking at the depth of the picture while everyone else is just looking at the face of it.
The other difference, I would say, is you're motivating your employees to make physical sacrifices. You're asking them to put their bodies on the line and potentially break bones. I'm not minimizing what a CEO does to motivate employees to put in extra hours, but it's a different level of commitment.
Maurice: We've come out and told you the direction we're taking our group, and then it will be decided if we were right or wrong based on Thursday's result, so our leadership theories are tested two or three times a week. But even though we're in a results-oriented business, there are a lot more long-term decisions made than people think – you're thinking about where your team is going to be three weeks from now and about the kind of foundational framework that goes into how you want your team to play. That whole team-identity thing is something we focus on more than people think.
Tippett: It's just part of the culture of what we do. You get thick-skinned to a lot of the outside noise. If you're really doing your job, you're finding solutions for your team. Your players expect you to have a plan when there are problems. If you're worried about what the reporter is asking you, I don't think your energy is going in the right place.
Hall of Fame coach Bob Johnson once asserted that there were really only two motivational techniques in the NHL – you could motivate players through fear or through pride. Has that changed?
Ruff: There was a time when fear was effective – creating animosity and competition worked. In the past, I've sat out players to see their reactions, sometimes key players. I don't know if we have any "fear" coaches left. You almost have a partnership with the players now. Some of it is based on the amount of money they make. The players in today's game have been brought up a different way. They want to know why. The answer isn't yelling and screaming. If you can't manage your players and handle your players and listen to your players, you won't be coaching. You just won't be.
DeBoer: For coaches coming out of junior, we've all had to change our approach to keep moving ahead and survive. When you're in charge of 16-, 17- and 18-year-olds, and the parents drop them off [for the season], you have to take a my-way-or-the-highway approach because you're responsible for them 24 hours a day – on the ice, off the ice, at the school, at their billet houses. It's akin to being a teacher who approaches a Grade 2 class differently than a university class.
Pro hockey is different. These guys are all elite at what they do. They're all here for a reason. The majority are motivated to get better and are open to coaching. You're selling the athlete the idea, "I'm trying to make you better and that's going to help us win." But it's a lot tougher to coach that way. Coaching, using fear, is easy, but that's changed across the board. The expectation for everybody – kids in school, people in the workplace, NHL athletes – nobody's motivating out of fear any more.
Players have never been so skilled, so fast and so fit, all a function of the teaching they received moving through the ranks. However, they are also far more adept checkers, which has the NHL approaching the low-scoring days of the dead puck era. If the skill level has never been higher, why is scoring down by about three goals per game, on average, from the early 1980s?
Trotz: In the past, you'd say "two guys on the forecheck, third guy high," and that was pretty well it. Now, in every situation, most teams have two or three nuances in their system. Back in the day, Wayne Gretzky would come laterally across the line and he'd have hours to make a play, or so it seemed. Now you do that and you're looking at five guys coming at you, squeezing you. No matter how skilled you are, it's difficult to make high-end plays because people close off the ice so fast.
DeBoer: Because players are so much bigger, stronger, faster and more skilled than they've ever been in the history of the game, there's a lot more parity between the top and the bottom of your lineups. Everybody can skate. Everybody can get around the ice. Everybody can check. There are not the mismatches you had 20 years ago between the top and the bottom of your lineups.
Tippett: What happened is, players are now so well-schooled and they recognize they can make a very good living if you do things right. I speak from experience because I was that guy. I was never drafted. Dave King taught me how to have an impact on the outcome of the game without being a skilled guy. My career in the NHL was about showing up every day and making sure I did as many things right as I could, so they couldn't get rid of me.
Everybody learns differently – and processes information differently. In an era when most NHL dressing rooms are a melting pot and include players of many different nationalities and experience levels, where there can be language barriers, how do you communicate your theories so that everyone can understand and process the information quickly for today's hyper-fast game?
Maurice: At first, you need to establish a glossary of terms so everyone's speaking the same language. The specifics of how you teach your system, those words you have to ingrain. Then you've got to find a different way of selling your ideas. The best example I can give you is one of my own kids was a one-footer when it came to skating. I'd been coaching for 10 or 12 years in the NHL, and I couldn't for the life of me get him to use two feet to take a stride. And his amateur coach, who was a former player of mine, skated by him one morning and said to him, "Stomp like a dinosaur." And he stomped like a dinosaur and he never took a one-footer again. He got it. That guy had a better way of teaching my kid than I did.
Tippett: When I was an assistant coach in Los Angeles, I had the privilege of spending some time with [legendary UCLA basketball coach] John Wooden, who never worried about the other team. It was all about how he well prepared his own team and had them playing to the best of their abilities. Right now, we are in an era when a lot of things get overanalyzed. The simplest, most basic parts of the game, done right – you'll be amazed how far that carries you.
Is there anything to be done tactically to enhance offence, instead of just focusing on defensive strategies?
Trotz: We're in a little bit of a transition period now. The past couple of years, everybody went with a top-six and tried to win with two scoring lines. Now, everybody's thinking top-nine – you're trying to build your top nine into three skilled lines. The old days of playing a checking line against a scoring line, that doesn't exist any more.
Maurice: I do think the trend in the NHL is to push the offence more. Teams have maxed out what they can do defensively, so you're starting to see so many more defencemen joining the rush, the four-man attack. You're seeing a far heavier pinch by the D at the offensive line. The reason it hasn't translated into goals is the goaltending. Now we've got 6-foot-7 goaltenders who are athletic and can move. That's the area you'd have to attack if you want to get it to a 4-3 game from a 3-2 game.
Okay, let's address goaltending. It wasn't so long ago when the smallest player on a team was usually the goalie and NHL teams refused to look at position players under six feet. Now, the goaltender is often the tallest player on the club, and the NHL has come to appreciate small, skilled position players. What happened?
Maurice: When I was in Carolina, we traded for Kirk McLean at the end of his career. At one end of the ice, we had Trevor Kidd, in the full modern equipment, and Kirk McLean was at the other end in 1980s style. It was unbelievable to look at. I said to the trainer, "We've got to get that guy some equipment." I wish you could have seen the juxtaposition of those two guys. Kidder looked like a mattress in the net and Kirk looked like a stick man. You've going to have to restrict some of the equipment size, because the athletes are going to continue to get better."
Ruff (laughing): Thank God for Jacques Cloutier and the smaller goalies we used to face. I scored 20 goals one year. I'd never score 20 goals nowadays. Darren Pang played, didn't he?
Tippett: Remember the picture of Patrick Roy in his rookie year in 1986? Then look at the pictures of him when he retired. It was obnoxious, the change. I understand the whole safety issue, I'm all in favour of safety, but if you give them something like a suit of armour, that Kevlar, when everything is tight to their body, then you can make them go back to the era of "a kick save and a beauty."
There are still lots of chances in games, but it doesn't look like it because they look so mundane. A guy going down the wing who shoots from the top the circle and hits the goalie in the gut, I don't even call those scoring chances any more. And yet some of the most famous goals in the game's history were scored that way – Guy Lafleur against Boston in the playoffs.
Trotz: Also, the way the pads are has changed. They used to be leather and horse hair and weighed a ton. Now, you see that big giant pad and you pick it up and it only weighs about half a pound. But it's more than just the equipment. The goalies are so much better. The Mitch Korns of the world taught them how to play goal – not only to take away the angle, but to play the second and third shots. They're so athletic now. I watch some of those retro games from the 1970s and I think I could have scored.
What about changing the size of the ice? Major-league baseball ballparks are not all standard and the differences – think Fenway Park and the Green Monster – are celebrated. Thirty years ago, Buffalo, Boston and Chicago all had rinks that were not the standard 200-feet-by-85-feet dimension and nobody had any major problems with that. What if the next generation of buildings go, one at a time, to a slightly wider ice surface – say to 200 by 90 feet – not quite international size but a compromise, like they have over at Hartwell Arena in Helsinki?
Tippett: I've seen the building in Finland and I actually like it. More room gives you a little more time to make plays. If you get too big, it takes a lot of the physical part out of the game and I think North American fans like the physical part of the game. But five extra feet? I think that works well.
Nowadays, what challenges you most about the job?
Trotz: On the ice, the players are so in tune. They've been coached so well coming through the ranks. They want to know the why of everything, which is good. It's part of the evolution. For me, it's dealing with all the things away from the game – the media and Twitter world. One guy says something and it gets blown a little out of proportion. It's a full-time job managing the little fires.
I know of a situation with another NHL team, there was a player playing hurt and he wasn't playing particularly well. But they were trying to get into the playoffs and he was just getting killed by the media. So he went to the coach and said, "I can't go any more." It wasn't that he couldn't go any more. He was still fairly effective, but he wasn't playing to his ceiling because he couldn't. He says to the coach: "I'm doing everything for the team and all these people are beating me up, bloggers, Twitter, all that, so I'm out." It can have an adverse effect, where a player is doing everything you think a hockey player should do and want to do, and he basically is taking an absolute beating on social media for being a good pro. Probably managing the distractions away from the game is one of the biggest challenges.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.