They have tough jobs, but coaches love their work

Robin
Robin Short
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The NHL's coaching carousel kicked into high gear this week, par for the course in pro game, where you're hired to be fired, as they say.

Rule No. 1 for a coach: rent, don't buy ... unless your name happens to be Lindy Ruff or Barry Trotz.

Tough gig, that coaching bit. Tougher, too, when you are closer to the top.

And closer to the door.

So here's the job description:

'Help Wanted

One coach, to work long hours, seven days per week.

Salary to commensurate with job experience, though it pales in comparison to the employees.

Job security: nil.

Pressure: enormous.

Respect:fleeting.

Headache pills provided.'

I don't get it. What's the attraction, other than the money (not as good as the players, but a whole lot better than what it used to be)?

"I love it," said Keith McCambridge, the workaholic St. John's IceCaps coach, rapidly climbing the ranks from journeyman minor league defenceman, to assistant coach and head coach in the ECHL, then assistant and now top dog behind an American Hockey League bench.

"You go down that road because you enjoy the challenge. You enjoy putting your thoughts, beliefs and philosophies into your team. And you're driven to get to the next level.

"You just enjoy coming to the rink, enjoy putting your stamp on everything. Every day is different. Every day is a challenge."

Strange animals, these pro hockey coaches, in jobs where they just may have more power as they rise through the minor leagues than they do when finally getting to the top.

Take the first- and second-year pros in hockey's minor leagues. They generally tend to hang on a coach's every word, for fear of pissing off him - and the organization -to no extreme. Given word travels fast through the hockey world, so it's not wise for a young player to upset the boss.

At the NHL level, however, coaches are expected to draw up a system and have everyone buy in, including the star player more making five, six or seven million bucks a year. And the five- and six-year guys, earning their $2 million or $3 million.

Rock the boat with team's marquee guy, or the veterans in the room, and you're done.

Read Boudreau, Bruce.

"I think there is a bit of a power shift, where the GM has $6 million invested in a particular player and it's your job as a coach to get that player to perform like he's making $6 million a year," McCambridge said. "You have to find common ground, you have to find a way to make your best players, your highest-paid guys, perform for you.

"When you have (Alexander) Ovechkin, for example, who's not performing, it's the coach who's going to lose out."

While wins and losses are the bottom line, there are other factors that determine the coach's fate, not the least of which is the who-you-know factor.

If the general manager hires the coach, the rope of which the noose is attached is longer than a coach inherited by a new GM. Davis Payne was in place behind the St. Louis Blues' bench when Doug Armstrong was brought in as the new executive VP and GM. When Payne's Blues limped from the starting gate, going 6-7, he was promptly fired, replaced by Ken Hitchcock, who - wouldn't you know it - won a Stanley Cup with Armstrong in Dallas.

In Columbus, the knives were out for Scott Arniel after that club got off to a dreadful start. But Arniel was hired by Scott Howson, and the GM stuck by his coach as the Blue Jackets turned things around (4-2-1 in the last seven games). It didn't hurt that Arniel received props from captain and star player Rick Nash who earlier this month said, "we still believe in what Arnie's doing and what management's doing. We don't want to see any changes."

McCambridge, by the way, worked under Payne in Alaska of the ECHL and Arniel in Manitoba of the AHL.

As the game has evolved, so, too, has the coaching. The days of the rah-rah cheerleaders, the tough-as-nails taskmasters, the off-the-glass-and-in, off-the-glass-and-out (see Brophy, John) dolts are through.

"When I started, there was hardly any video," McCambridge said. "The coach came in between periods, yelling, pointing fingers and saying 'Work!' That was the extent of it."

Games today are broken down on video. Everything is analyzed and reports filed. There are defensive zone reports, neutral zone reports. Five-on-five play. Special teams play. Chances for and against. Primary chances. Secondary chances. You name it.

Then there's the pre-scouting of upcoming opponents, breaking down the other team's game bit by bit.

"The players will know what we need to do to have success against the other team," said McCambridge, a fiend for the video.

Once upon a time, an NHL career often translated into a career behind the bench. There have been successful former players, like Al Arbour, Glen Sather, Jacques Lemaire and Joel Quenneville, who come to mind (and Toe Blake, of course). Others haven't been so lucky. Bernie Geoffrion had a losing record. Ditto Wayne Gretzky in Phoenix. There have been countless others.

No, today's generation of bench bosses have PhDs in hockey, schooled in breakouts and defensive coverage. Coaches like Glen Gulutzan in Dallas, Guy Boucher in Tampa Bay and Mike Yeo in Minnesota. Coaches who have earned their stripes.

"These are really good technical coaches who know their stuff," McCambridge said.

Ultimately, the coach's shelf life comes down to respect. You lose respect, and you've lost the team. You're done.

"You have to earn their respect, and you have to earn it through your knowledge of the game, of the systems you put in place. You have to earn it through caring about your players. Before they know how much you know, they're going to know how much you care. That's something a lot of coaches - me included - go by.

"I think when you've played a lot of NHL games and you step in as a coach, you have more credibility than a guy like Hitchcock or Andy Murray. But those guys who haven't played are all really good coaches.

"They earn respect by what they're telling the players. 'You play this way and this is going to bring us success.'

"You lose the respect when the message is getting old. If you're always in their face, and they've just won four in a row, well ... If it's Game 12, and you're yelling and screaming, by Game 65 they're going to be pretty much done."

McCambridge knows better than anyone the dark side that comes with the job. Knew it when he signed up. Knew it when he was playing under Randy Carlyle, just canned this week, and Peter Laviolette and Todd McLellan, who will be gassed if the San Jose Sharks flop in the playoffs again.

It's the one great, big negative that comes with the job. For the coaches, however, it's the positives that outweigh the negatives.

"When your team performs and they win, that in itself outweighs the possibility of what could take place in the big scheme of things," McCambridge says.

Robin Short is The Telegram Sports Editor. He can be reached by email at rshort@thetelegram.com

 

Organizations: NHL, American Hockey League, St. Louis Blues Blue Jackets San Jose Sharks

Geographic location: St. John's, Dallas, Columbus Alaska Manitoba Phoenix Tampa Bay Minnesota

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