While playing hockey at high levels doesn’t mean you will make a great coach, it certainly is an invaluable asset. Some say that’s not true, and that coaching has nothing to do with having played hockey and everything to do with being able to mentor, teach and implement a system. These same people point to the failures of hockey’s greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, during his tenure behind the bench with the Phoenix Coyotes and say: “See! He couldn’t do it and he’s the greatest player ever.” They also point to accomplished coaches like Ken Hitchcock and say: “Hitchcock never played beyond minor hockey and look at what he’s done.”
Looking at these two scenarios, it is true that great players don’t always translate into great coaches. For someone like Gretzky, who was so naturally talented, it may be difficult to explain to others how to become great. It may also be difficult for someone of Gretzky’s ilk to relate to a player who is an up-and-down role player, having never really experienced any adversity in their career as a player. And looking at Hitchcock, sometimes brilliant students of the game are able to expand that knowledge and transfer it into coaching and leading others.
One of the main duties of a coach in hockey is to create and maintain a strong culture. A major component to creating a strong culture is trust and respect. In the simplest form, this translates into: “Do you trust this person to lead you and your team, accelerate your development and to look out for your best interests?” Beyond that, you have to ask yourself: “Do you want to take instructions and put your career in the hands of someone who has been in your shoes before or someone who hasn’t; someone who has been to where you want to go, or someone who hasn’t?”
Throughout my career, at various levels, I played for coaches who played hockey at high levels and coaches who didn’t. As a player, I always had more respect for coaches who had played at high levels before. To me it meant a lot to know that I was learning and taking leadership cues from someone who had been through the battles and knew what it was like to experience the multitude of emotions and pressures that I was facing as a player. These coaches also knew what it was like to make the difficult transition to higher levels and what to do to best prepare and avoid pitfalls.
Here are 3 reasons why playing experience makes a difference in a coach:
No matter how much a player thinks they know, and players usually think they know it all, the best thing for a hockey player is to continually learn and develop. In order for stubborn hockey players to be in the right frame of mind to open up to guidance, they need to be ready to drop their guards and trust their leaders. Experience goes a long way in fostering trust. It’s no different than going into battle with a general who has been in the trenches.
A perfect example of a playing resume fostering trust came for me when I signed in June of 2008 for a second season in the ECHL. A week after I signed, the head coach and GM left the team, accepting another job at a higher level. I was petrified at the time. Who was going to be the new coach? Would he like me as a player? A month later, John Marks was named as the new head coach. Immediately after the reading the announcement I googled him. The results of the search put my mind at ease. Marks was a former NHL all-star who played 10 years with the Chicago Blackhawks. Even before I stepped onto the ice for training camp, I had a strong level of respect and trust for Coach Marks. This guy played with Stan Makita for chrissakes! Why wouldn’t I trust him?
An example of the opposite came the next season when I ended up playing for a coach who lied about his playing resume. It didn’t take long to realize he didn’t know much about coaching pros and when we were able to verify it via hockeydb.com—showing that he never played at any level above Jr. C—he lost all respect and trust from the players. About two months later, the coach was fired.
While simply playing in the NHL didn’t automatically make John Marks a good coach (which he was), it helped to establish trust and respect in a time that usually is accompanied by uncertainty and fear. If you’re able to go into a situation with your guard down, you are in a much better frame of mind to grow and develop.
2. Instinct, Flow and Feel
As much as analytics and statistical analysis have benefitted the game, there is still a very important and prevalent “human” aspect to how hockey games are won and lost. This comes from instinct and having a strong understanding of flow and feel. Just like how great players have increased “hockey sense”, great coaches have a strong sense of flow and feel when it comes to a team and the game. These coaches know when it is time to push and when it is time to let off. The base knowledge for this comes from experience as a player.
The coaches who have the best instinct and feel are the coaches who constantly have their finger on the pulse of the team. They know when a certain player is due for a big play and are able to deploy them appropriately. They know when their team is tired because they’ve had a rough stretch of travel and can tell when a player is fighting through an injury even though they aren’t saying anything about it. They can tell when there is a dynamics issue in the dressing room and what can be done to rectify it without ruffling too many feathers.
Having played and been in the belly of the beast allows coaches to glean from experiences. Having “been there”, allows coaches to know what works and what doesn’t work in specific situations. Quite often, it comes down to culture and not necessarily X’s and O’s, and unless you’ve been immersed in the culture of a hockey team, it’s hard to make the necessary adjustments as a coach.
3. Being Able to Relate
There exists a barrier at every level between coaches and their players. It’s one of the main reasons teams have captains. Quite often, as a player, I would think to myself, “I wish coach could understand what we’re going through. He doesn’t get it, because he’s not in here with us, experiencing what we’re experiencing.”
The overall cohesion within a team builds off of a unique closeness. Often the coach is on the outside of this dynamic, providing leadership, but making sure to keep an arm’s length. It’s a necessary divide, which can be made much more comfortable when you have a coach who can relate to the many, fluctuating emotional states of his team.
I truly feel the best coaches are the former players who experienced it all. They experienced the star treatment and also experienced what it was like to be at the bottom of the heap. One coach who immediately comes to mind, fitting this mould is Anaheim’s Bruce Boudreau. He was a star in junior and the minors, but struggled to hold down a spot in the NHL.
Boudreau is the quintessential hockey journeyman—a man who can relate to every one of the players he coaches, at any level. He understands the tough transition from AHL star to NHL fourth-liner and can relate to the pouting star player who thinks his line-mates suck. He understands what it feels like to be in an endless slump and probably has a million quirky ways to break the curse.
Every healthy relationship is built upon trust and respect. The relationship between a player and coach is no different. When you’re able to relate and connect with your players, you’ve got a much better chance at having each one of them buy into what you’re selling.