Another hockey article?
Ok, I promise. This article is pretty hockey-heavy, but it’s headed somewhere. In fact, it started out as a single article about coaching, perspective, introspection, and more. But it just kept growing. Instead of publishing a manifesto, I’m breaking it into two parts: a sports-based primer on how coaching works, including a few of my favourite recent coaching fails, and a think-piece on what it means to be a coach, how hard it is to analyze yourself, and why an ounce of humility will help your business grow.
First, the hockey stuff. I just can’t help myself; sport is such a great metaphor for marketing, or business in general. It’s competition in its purest form. There’s a reason why game theory is so useful to economists and decision makers. Games are a way to explore and optimize decision making within a predefined framework, constrained by a set of rules. Sounds a lot like running a business, no?
I think games are great teaching tools — and the best game you can name just so happens to be the good ol’ hockey game.
Anyway, onward and upward. Today we’re going to talk about outside perspectives, the ideas and opinions of others, and why we all need someone in our corner to excel. Let’s start with a frame story.
On Job Insecurity, or Coaches: What Are They Good For?
In the past month, four coaches on four very different NHL teams have been fired. For a closer-to-home example, the Rockets fired their head coach Jason Smith for former Colorado Avalanche captain and prototypical defensive defenseman Adam Foote. Mr. Smith left the Rockets after two successful regular seasons, posting 88 wins and only 56 losses (regulation, OT, and shootout combined) for a winning percentage of 63.6%. A slow start in 2018 (the Rockets went 4-10-0 in their first 14 games) and the announcement that Kelowna would host the 2020 Memorial Cup precipitated a coaching change that may not have otherwise seemed deserved. After all, most of the Rockets core from the last two seasons have moved on to play in pro leagues across North America. Can a coach be blamed for a losing record when nearly all his best players have left, many of them replaced by much younger and less experienced players?
NHL fans are asking the same questions. Did universally acclaimed Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville deserve to be sacked for his team’s poor performance, despite presiding over a run that included 3 Stanley Cup titles, a President’s trophy (awarded to the best regular season team) and nearly 800 regular season wins? In hockey, like inbusiness, it’s about the bottom line. When it comes to coaching, that means you either win, or you get cut. The nature of playing in a salary cap league (a pro sports league in which a team’s combined salaries cannot exceed an upper limit or ‘cap’ – this was implemented in the NHL over a decade ago to prevent dynasties and promote a level playing field for lower-income teams) is that a winning roster will eventually succumb to age and salary issues, forcing rebuilds every 5-10 years. Players, fans, coaches, and analysts talk about ‘windows’, periods of time in which a team can feasibly win a championship. As a window begins to close, teams react in a variety of ways. Some acquire free agents while mortgaging the future, trying to extend their window as long as possible. Others blow it up, trade their big assets, and start fresh, hoping to compete again in a couple years with a new core. Most end up doing a little of each.
For coaches, a closing window (or a team struggling to take the next step) often means a change in employment status. Rebuilding (or ‘retooling on the fly’, as many general managers purport to do, and a select few succeed at) follows a fairly consistent pattern. Essentially, there are three levels at which you can affect the future of a franchise: The roster composition, the coaching staff, and the upper management. In many cases, if adjustments to the roster aren’t having an immediate impact, sacking the coach is the next step. Sometimes this is management trying to save their own jobs. Sometimes it’s well-deserved. But, to return to the original question,
does a coaching change work? What is the value of one coach versus another?
We’ll ponder all that and more in our next section:
Three ‘Failed’ Coaches, and What Their Stories Tell Us
I’ve given some background on coaching in the NHL. Now I want to explore what it actually means to be a coach. I have three recent examples of coaches being fired that demonstrate a few of the many facets of coaching. Let’s get started.
Darryl Sutter Wins Two Cups, Loses the Room
Darryl Sutter is a son of a bitch. I mean, maybe personally he’s very nice. I’m sure he has many friends and a family that loves him. Publicly, as head coach for several teams, most notably the LA Kings, he was a tough as nails, no-nonsense guy. He was demanding, terse, and eminently scowly. That attitude wasn’t for show. During his long tenure as an NHL coach, he expected his players to buy into that hardened mindset and be willing to do the tough, unglamorous work that wins games. It’s an attitude that dragged his LA Kings to two championships, including a fairy-tale run where they entered the playoffs as the lowest-seeded team, upsetting the heavily favored Vancouver Canucks in only five games.
The Kings played hard, slow, grinding, physical hockey under Sutter, and it paid off. Here’s the flip-side: Sutter wore out his welcome. After winning two cups in three seasons, Sutter stayed on for two more years with the Kings. Stories like this one, where Sutter was blocked from entering the locker room by a garbage can barricade after a loss, point to the limits of tough love. Eventually, a gritty, team-first system wears on players. Eventually, negative reinforcement stops working. Sutter was a brilliant coach rewarded for his efforts, but he lost the room. In doing so, he lost his job.
Glen Gulutzan’s Passion Arrives Too Late
Glen Guluan is, apparently, a nice guy. Sometimes, analysts talk about ‘player’s coaches’, guys who form strong relationships with their players and work amicably to produce results. The anti-Sutter, basically. Gulutzan is cut from this cloth. Gulutzan’s coaching career, like most NHL coaches, started with success at lower levels, coaching ECHL teams to regular season and playoff success, before bouncing around between a few franchises, including the Calgary Flames, where he coached from 2016 to 2018.
By all accounts a decent if not incredible coach, Gulutzan just couldn’t seem to get what he needed out of the Flames. A team characterized by an inability to fight back against adversity, despite a fairly young and highly talented roster, the Flames outshot their opponents without outscoring them. They built up a lead in the second period, only to habitually blow it in the third. Things came to a head in early 2018 when Gulutzan launched a stick into the stands during practice, blasting his team for their lackadaisical effort.
In the end, the Flames kept playing half-hearted hockey and Gulutzan was sacked at the end of the 2018 season. This is the peril of the player’s coach. You may not get locked out of dressing rooms after a loss, but if you can’t inspire your players, you’re out.
John Tortorella Does Everything Wrong, Wins the Jack Adams Two Seasons Later
John Tortorella is an entertaining guy. He seems like a fictional character at times, a coach from a cheesy movie brought to life. That’s not to say he’s bad by any means: in 2004 he won a cup with the Cinderella-story Tampa Bay Lightning, and he’s won over 500 games in an illustrious career.
John Tortorella’s time in Vancouver was a disaster. Full stop. Brought in as an attempt by ownership to kickstart a powerhouse team whose window was slamming shut, Tortorella brought his characteristically old-school, macho approach to the gig. The Sedin twins, two of the greatest players of their generation and well-known for their incredible playmaking and passing, were asked to play defensive hockey, blocking shots and working the body. During a much-publicized Winter Classic game in Vancouver, Tortorella started Vancouver’s backup goaltender, snubbing superstar and emotional core of the team Roberto Luongo. Luongo was traded two days later. Finally, in a crazy game emblematic of Tortorella’s time in Vancouver, he started a line of brawlers in response to Calgary coach Bob Hartley putting his fourth line out to start the game. The result was a massive brawl that ended up involving Tortorella charging the Flames dressing room to confront Hartley. Torts was suspended 15 games for the incident.
Basically, imagine what you want out of a hockey coach. Now, do the opposite. That’s how Tortorella’s single, ill-fated season as head coach of the Canucks went. He was sent to the Columbus Blue Jackets for a second-round draft pick at the end of the season.
Two years later, he won the Jack Adams as coach of the year, leading the Jackets to an unprecedented 17-game winning streak.
Tortorella was the absolute wrong coach for Vancouver, and while he’s had some stumbles since then with the young Blue Jackets, he’s once again considered a great coach — at least for a certain kind of hockey club.
A Matter of Fit
In each of the three examples above, coaches lost their jobs both for their recent coaching records (all of these teams missed the playoffs the year their coaches were fired) but also for being a bad fit. In Sutter’s case, he was the guy for the job, until the players couldn’t stomach his tough-as-nails approach. Gulutzan didn’t provide the Flames with the, uh, fire they needed to hold on to a lead (sorry), and Tortorella was culturally incompatible with Vancouver’s core players. These examples are all cases where the franchise’s players could have had what it takes to win a championship, but failed to make the postseason because they didn’t leverage their strengths.
In Tortorella’s case, he proved himself to be an excellent coach only two years after it seemed like he might not be able to stick in the league anymore. A ‘bad’ NHL coach might just need a change of scenery.
Coaching Isn’t Just For Hockey Players
Here’s where we can talk business. As a business owner, manager, employee, or hell, simply as a person, we all can benefit from coaching, formal and informal. In fact, we all make us of it in some way every day. Each of us both provides and receives some form of coaching in our day-to-day lives — from friends, families, managers, coworkers, and employees.
All of us have strengths and weaknesses.
Coaching is the act of building another’s strengths and mitigating their weaknesses by developing specific skills or working toward clearly outlined goals.
We can all benefit from that. Many ambitious, talented people have big visions for their personal and professional future, but may lack some of the skills and aptitudes necessary to achieve those goals. Coaching is about filling those gaps, collaborating to improve in the ways that help you be effective.