As much as we like to pretend that hockey success is predicated entirely on merit, a huge portion of it is based on luck. And when I say luck, I’m not referring the type that gave Boyd Gordon a goal versus the Blackhawks yesterday, I’m talking about being in an organization where you happen to get along well with the coach. That’s true luck. Sometimes your personality meshes well with a coach, sometimes he just happens to be watching you when you make a nice play in practice, and other times…other times you’re not so lucky.
Jake Gardiner is a solid example of a player who may have thrived under a guy like Patrick Roy or Jack Capuano or any of the other half-dozen NHL coaches who like to unchain their dogs and let them run free. Randy Carlyle, on the other hand, has had the guy in the minors, in the press box, and stapled to the bench. That was unlucky. Steve Downie was just healthy scratched in Philly, Nail Yakupov finds himself locked up in Edmonton, and we’re seeing articles about guys like Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane who apparently didn’t “buy in” in Winnipeg, which is apparently part of the reason Claude Noel lost his job this weekend.
Sometimes you’re not trying to be a jerk, but the guy just doesn’t like you. I’ve been there, and I’ve also been “coach’s pet” so to speak on a couple other teams. So, what happens in these situations? How do guys end up in the doghouse, and more importantly, how do they get out?
How to end up in the doghouse
This one’s easy (“Sleep with the coach’s wife! Punch his baby!”), but it’s important to note that nobody intentionally ends up in the doghouse. Every player-coach relationship with few exceptions starts out with good intentions, because both parties need each other.
So, the most common reasons are:
You usually realize right off the bat as a player when there’s going to be issues. You really don’t have to like the personality of your coach – if his systems fit your style, there’s not going to be a problem (Tortorella likes Kesler? Weird). But when they don’t mesh, you’ve got a dilemma.
Let’s say you’re Jake Gardiner. You were a point-per-game player in college as a young guy in a tough conference. You’re good. You know your strengths, and they’re all based in doing skilled things other players can’t. They simply can’t. That’s what separates you from the pack. And now, your coach would like you to dump pucks in and hit more people and oh yeah it’d still be great if you racked up points thanks.
You can try your best to play the coach’s way, but there are situations that come up, these reaction-style plays where you know you can use your skills to create something…only those plays don’t always work out. Nobody yells at you when you try those things and they go well, but when they don’t…pressbox.
And so starts the cycle of self-doubt and coach frustration begins. You stop reacting and start (over)thinking, suddenly the game seems faster because your head’s cloudy, you’re making more mistakes, and the downward spiral continues.
This can lead to resentment of the coach – just let me play, dammit – and the start of a deteriorating relationship. There are a million guys who can dump the puck in, why neuter the skills of someone who can do more?
I’ve written about entitlement in the past, and it’s a funny thing in hockey. Every pro hockey player was once the best player or two on his minor league teams, he was a stud in junior, and maybe beyond that. They got ice time and accolades. They played more or less how they wanted, and it worked. And then, boom – they’re in a pool of players as good as them in the pros and aren’t worthy of the same treatment…only they still expect the ice time and accolades. And now they’re acting like a petulant child.
Not everyone takes criticism well, with the entitled few at the top of that list. Yelling may motivate some, but it brings down others. I believe it’s a coach’s job to read those players and motivate them as they best see fit, but since not every coach is willing to play pattycake, sometimes you’ve got a hard-line guy who yells at a prima donna who shuts it down instead of picking it up, and the mutual resentment starts. Dog, meet house.
Some people are just jerks.
How to get out of the doghouse
Here’s the dodgy part: essentially, a coach dealing with a player he’s trying to change is like a cowboy trying to break a wild horse. The horse will either submit, or the relationship is never going to work. …I know nothing about breaking a horse, but that seems right.
The tough part as a player is accurately interpreting what your coach wants, because it’s not as easy as you’d think. Ron Wilson, for example, wasn’t much of a communicator with his players. I remember hearing interviews from players before he got fired where they said they had no idea what he wanted from them, which is an absolute joke.
Once you figure that out, hopefully by the helpful aid of somebody actually telling you, it’s up to you. Are you willing to change the way you play? If you genuinely believe it will damage your personal career (teams rarely look at a guy with bad numbers and say “It was the coach’s fault, let’s pay him what he could’ve done with more freedom“), you may not be willing to, and now we’re talking trade. If you’re unwilling to and you happen to be a star player, the coach may find himself suddenly sitting on the hot seat. It’s then up to him to live with that, or relent and give Player X more freedom (this is never a good idea for the childish “If he can play that way why can’t I” chain it starts).
It just comes down to your willingness to change. The team may benefit from you falling in line, and you never know – you may too. Either way, it’s the only way the relationship can improve.
The NHL is unlike any other North American hockey league because it’s the only one where the power dynamic is inherently different. Coaches are, more or less, at the mercy of their stars. Those guys earn more, you can’t win without them, and the fans love them. So in The Show, coaches like John Tortorella are more prone to run into the odd bad relationship, because he’s unwilling to defer the baton of power to his players. And, non-stars don’t have the leverage, so they’re more likely to end up in the doghouse for being unwilling as round pegs to try to cram themselves into square holes. You have to know your place and be appropriately flexible – that goes for coaches too.
The main problem for those like Jake Gardiner who’ve been in the doghouse is that it’s all-too easy to end up back there again. Once it starts, the in-again out-again cycle is tough to stop, which is why some guys ask for trades (ala Martin Erat), or wait out their coaches tenure. The Leafs are saying Randy Carlyle’s job isn’t in jeopardy, but we heard the same about Claude Noel’s not too long before he was asked to go. The doghouse is a part of everyday hockey life, and once a player’s been sent there, the relationship fractures can spread beyond repair.