Dallas Eakins, Oilers new coach. (Pic from The Toronto Star)

Dallas Eakins, Oilers new coach. (Pic from The Toronto Star)

With a lot of head coaches changing roles this summer, it seemed like the right day to re-run a column I wrote a number of years ago (so excuse the dated political references) for Hockey Primetime. Relationships between head coaches and assistant’s aren’t always as peachy as they appear.

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A hockey team, like any workplace, is made up of a huge number of relationships.  Between the players, players and coaches, coaches and managers, managers and owners.  But by far my favourite relationship to keep tabs on, are the ones between the coaches behind the bench.

Being named head coach isn’t like being elected president.  They rarely get to step in and make sweeping changes to their “cabinet”.  Imagine if Obama stepped in to run the country and had to keep Bush’s staff.  I’m pretty sure he’d hire a professional food-tester to take the first bite anytime “Cheney” was left alone with his meal – I’d feel the same way if I had a scorned coach in waiting offering to “help” me.

And occasionally, assassination-worthy tensions exist between the staff.  This only makes sense, since most assistant coaches will still be striving to be head coaches after not getting the chief gig.  The pay is better, and you get to be the boss.  Your way or the highway.

On some teams it’s obvious who the smarter man is, and it’s not always the big dog.  To stick with my political analogy, those teams have to be run like the Bush administration.  The man in charge is surrounded by smart people offering mountains of advice, and it usually functions alright for awhile.  The problem with this is, the man in charge – who may not be the smartest dude around – might make snap decisions without sufficient consulting.  Scaaary moments.

The difference between the political side and hockey is that at any given moment hockey coaches can have their job title changed.  “Assistant” can become “head” as sure as “head” can become “ex”.  Because of this, head coaches are often oh-so-aware of assistant coaches getting too big for their track suits.

I always truly enjoyed, with all the enthusiasm of a sociologist, the days that the head coach would let the assistant run practice.

As a player, it was always nice to hear something new from a different voice.  Plus, the assistant coach has been scheming for so long, thinking “these drills are mindless, if I were head coach I’d…”.  Because of the two months he had to plan a practice, it’s usually something fairly different and refreshing.

Without fail, the head coach will chime in with his ever-important addition to the assistant coach’s drill, which serves the purpose of reminding the team who Daddy is.  Also, it’s wonderful to watch what happens when somebody with a small amount of power gets undermined.  And you thought tension and bitterness was reserved for ex-wives.

During practice, the assistant’s job is usually confined to standing at the side of the net and yelling at the players to “stop in front” after shooting, or some other piece of advice based on improving habits.  Rarely are they allowed to offer outspoken input on the head coaches drills, for fear upsetting the person who assigns their daily tasks.  And when they do get asked to contribute an extra idea, they’re usually caught so far off-guard that they offer a gem like “we just gotta work hard”.  Fascinating insight, just let me grab a pen here…

The best work assistant coaches do for the team is behind closed doors with the coach, offering advice, opinions and insights on the direction of the team, in a setting where their isn’t a power struggle or players to judge.  The overall system and roster are often greatly influenced by their opinions, but it seems important to head coaches to make sure this influence isn’t seen by the players.

Players gossip like high school, and coaches want to be sure that the players “know” who’s making the decision, because in the end, coaches are accountable for their team.  If a team was to feel that the assistant coach was actually the one running the show, it’s only a matter of time before the people in charge find out, and the appropriate changes get made.

Most teams don’t love their coach because he’s the authoritarian who makes the tough decisions, where the assistant gets to be a little more buddy-buddy with the guys.  And head coaches encourage this – that way, the players will be more likely to confide in the assistant, and the coaches can deal with the grumblings of the players without having to open a counseling office.  The staff keeps the pulse of the team without the head coach having to mic up stools at the bar.

And some coaches are better suited to the confidante role.  Maybe they aren’t X’s and O’s guys, but some relate to the needs of players better than others, which is a valuable skill to have.  Players respond to different coaching styles differently, and having someone they can vent, or ask extra questions to, may help certain players get to the right mental place they need to be to succeed.

The problem we seem to have in coach development, is that we view the assistant coach’s position as a training ground for the head coach’s job, and not as a totally different type of role, which it should be.  Coaching staffs work best with a smart man in charge (not the best player when he played, as we tend to do *cough*Gretzky*cough*), a second X’s and O’s guy, and a coach on staff who’ll listen, and relay the needs of the players to the man in charge.  Two or three men on a staff will have better success if they take advantage of each person’s individual skills, instead of viewing it as a man in charge, and two others trying to do the same thing, waiting for their chance.

As a coach, it is success and success alone that makes your resume valuable.  My Dad used to say that the way to be the best coach is to get off the bus with the best players, and there is something to that.  Maybe a team’s potential is sort of fixed, and as a coach, you’re only able to affect it so many degrees in either direction.  But a staff that thinks about the good of the team first, instead of individual fears about job security will be the ones who end up with the most success, and in turn, the shiniest résumé’s.

Comments (3)

  1. David Tennant, new coach of the Edmonton Oilers

  2. Thank you for this article!

    I’m a high school coach who’s been an assistant, and happily so, but I have recently been applying for open jobs, with potential for being either a head coach, or an assistant coach.

    For whatever odd reason, I’ve always felt more comfortable in the assistant’s role. Never understood why . But maybe it’s just as you said, not everyone is cut out to be a Head Coach, and some people are better at being assistants. I’ve tended to notice that I’ve fallen into that “Confidant” role with the teams I’ve coached.

    Thanks for the insight, and the knowledge that this goes on at even the highest levels, not just high school.

  3. Insightful, witty writing. This blog is a treasure.

    So, what is it that coaching offers, if not advancement to the top rank? A living, sure – which is not to be lightly dismissed, but is it also a calling? Is it fun to do the assistant’s role in and of itself?

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