Before the days of player’s associations, agents, major endorsement deals, multi-million dollar contracts, multi-YEAR contracts, and television deals, a sport was a recreational endeavour with a growing entertainment value. Professional players made a bit of money, but had to work another job in the off-season to provide for their families.
Back in the days when Maurice Richard and Gordie Howe captured the hearts of hockey fans, kids dreamed of playing in the NHL, but it wasn’t the end-all, be-all. A youngster from the ‘50s and ‘60’s might have said to his dad, “One day I am going to play for the Montreal Canadiens and win the Stanley Cup.”
His dad would playfully tussle his hair and then say, “This is great, Timmy. I know you will make me proud. And when you are done, you will join me in the mills and mines to provide for your family.”
A hockey career in the NHL didn’t come with a guaranteed financial security blanket the way that it does today. Also, players didn’t yield the power that they do today. If you weren’t happy with your contract in 1956, you didn’t have any leverage. You couldn’t threaten to leave and sign in the KHL or wait to hit the open market. Owners, management and coaches held all the power and players had to shut their mouths and do as they were told.
When Ted Lindsay and Doug Harvey first formed a player’s union in 1957 and Alan Eagleson took it to another level during the late 60s, the game of hockey, commercially-speaking, began to experience drastic changes. All of a sudden, there was a major shift in power. Over the next few decades, hockey experienced major expansion, the emergence of agents, lucrative contracts and endorsement deals, free agency, holdouts, and work stoppages. The power shifted greatly from owners and general managers, to the players and their agents, and standing smack-dab in the middle of it all were the coaches.
Coaches used to be the voice of god in the sport of hockey. Strong-willed and iron-fisted, coaches of the early days were the captains of the industry. Toe Blake, Jack Adams, Punch Imlach, Eddie Shore—these guys were iconic. If Toe Blake or Eddie Shore told you to do something, you did it. It didn’t matter what it was, you didn’t dare question their authority or else you would get buried so deep in the game they’d never find you.
In the modern-day game of hockey, you can’t coach the way these legends of the past did. With the shift in power, coaches needed to change the way they conducted business or they’d be out of it. Old-schoolers say that today’s players have no respect and that today’s coaches are “player’s coaches” and are too soft.
The truth is, players haven’t changed. They still view assholes the same way they always have. The difference is, now they don’t have to take it. Nobody liked playing for Eddie Shore, but everyone tolerated him out of fear. Fear isn’t respect and the industrialization of the game has helped to clarify that.
I experienced a taste of old-time hockey coaching during a season playing overseas in Belgrade, Serbia. At mid-season, our coach, Vadim Musatov, was fired and replaced by former Czech national coach, Frantisek Vorlicek, who was a world-class asshole. The first practice Vorlicek conducted, he reamed me out, spewing Czech insults at me in front of the team with a face as red as a tomato, all because I rushed the puck past our own blue line. You see, on top of having a massive “outside voice” and being unable to shed his communist, dictatorship mindset, Vorlicek couldn’t evolve with the ever-changing game of hockey. In his mind, defencemen were 6 foot 6, slow-footed and never, ever, under any circumstances carried the puck, anywhere.
Over the course of the season, Vorlicek and I had some epic out-and-out “F— You” matches. My Eastern European teammates couldn’t believe it. It just wasn’t what players did in that part of the world. You never, ever challenged authority. I had never in my life experienced a coach like that and remember thinking that this must be what it was like to play for Eddie Shore.
The biggest difference between coaching in the 1960s and coaching today is human interaction. In 1963, a coach developed a game plan, screamed at his players to do it, or else, and they did it. If a player didn’t want to listen, he sat until he obeyed his master. It didn’t matter if it was the star player or the backup goalie, on one voice mattered.
Now, if a player doesn’t like the way a coach is treating him, he calls his agent who calls the GM or owner with threats of demanding a trade or fleeing to another league. If Pat Brisson called Jim Rutherford tomorrow and said, “Mike Johnston called Sidney Crosby a gutless prick and cut him up in front of his teammates. Now Sid won’t play for him. Either fire Jim or trade Sid.” Who would go? I think we know the answer to that.
To be a successful coach in today’s ever-evolving game is to be able to command respect by engaging players, instilling empowerment, and establishing accountability. It’s no different than in business. Successful CEOs and managers have adapted the way they lead their teams of employees. The emphasis is now on engagement and soliciting “by-in”. Today’s leaders are “working with” their employees rather than commanding them.
As a modern-day coach, you need to be able to communicate. It’s the number one prerequisite. By “communicate”, I mean you need to be able to paint a picture—a plan and a mission—and clearly define how everyone on the team is going to contribute. Developing a culture and getting everyone to buy-in and stake ownership in it is essential to success. Coaching in today’s game is all about building relationships, and through those relationships, earning trust.
The term “Player’s Coach” gets tossed around a lot in a negative light. These types of coaches are deemed to be push-overs and spineless. In reality, a true player’s coach is simply someone who cares about his players on a personal level. They are problem solvers and take an interest in the morale and psychology of their team. It comes down to simple, basic human interaction. Nobody likes an asshole. They didn’t in 1960 and they still don’t today.