Scotty Bowman

My junior hockey career started out a little rough. I signed a card with the Vernon Vipers, and I immediately struggled to adapt. Our coach Mike Vandekamp, to me anyway, seemed like a crazy person. In retrospect I’m eternally grateful for the player he made out of me, but at the time, I thought there was a pretty real chance he might tomahawk me in practice.

I’ve still never asked him about the night he called me into his office to send me down to junior B, listened to my counterarguments, let me call my parents to make plans (quit and college? More Jungle B hockey?), then grabbed me before I walked out the door to say the staff had changed their mind. I’m pretty sure I was being emotionally manipulated.

This sort of thing went on over the course of two years, albeit at less preposterous levels, until Vandekamp, the Vipers and I had been to two BCHL finals (winning one), I had a college scholarship, and we were more or less buddies.

Some people need a pat on the back, others a kick in the ass. If you don’t think coaches intentionally keep players on “Holy hell I need to be at my best tonight” eggshells with their words and actions daily, you’re naivé. It’s why I’ve mentioned comments in the past from Mike Babcock to the media about certain Red Wings players – these are usually calculated comments, as he’s speaking to his players indirectly. 95% of players who say they don’t read what the media is writing about them are full of it. They watch SportsCentre every night, just like everyone else.

Here’s what Ken Dryden wrote in The Game about how Scotty Bowman handled his Montreal Canadiens roster. This followed a blurb on Guy Lafleur and his unwavering ability to self-motivate…

Bowman feels much the same way about the team’s other exceptional players — about Gainey, Robinson, Savard, Lapointe, Shutt, Cournoyer, Lemaire. He believes that while he can set a constructive tone for the team, and can prepare these players physically and tactically, reminding them from time to time to their annoyance that they are not playing as they can, ultimately what drives them is them.

Not so the marginal player. Young players whose styles are not yet set, older players on the other side of their careers, their egos battered until they’re willing to listen: These players are vulnerable and can be manipulated. So Bowman manipulates them–Tremblay, Chartraw, Larouche, Larocque, and others–sometimes cruelly. Benching them, ignoring them for long periods of time, he makes them worry, and makes them wonder why. Then the team hits injuries or a slump and he uncovers them again. He works them hard in practice, watching them, telling the press how hard and well they are working, making them feel they are earning their place in the team. Given a chance, usually at home, they give back an inspired game. A few games later, the inspiration fades, and it all starts again. He holds them by their emotional strings, often for many years, manipulating them until he gets out of them what he thinks is there; then, when he gets it, when feels it is grooved into place, he stops.

Things were different in that era, but the fundamental motivations of humans haven’t suddenly changed. Over the course of a long season, sometimes these internal struggles can be what drags effort from a player less prone to find it in themselves. Honestly, I didn’t realize what hard on-ice work was until I played for Vandekamp and found that my body had another gear to use if my mind would just ask it to fire up. Even today, when I see people in the gym trying to burn calories, I can’t believe how little sweatless effort some of them put in. You really can get more from yourself than you realize.

All this comes back full circle to guys like Evander Kane in Toronto on Friday, or Brandon Saad in Chicago on Sunday, or to any of the other surprise healthy scratches you’ve seen in the NHL this season. From day one to the end of the season a coach has to find a way to maximize what he’s been given, and while making the right decisions on personnel and systems are of premier importance, finding what makes your players tick matters too.

At this time of the year, it almost always stops. This is the time of year where coaches start telling everyone how wonderful they are and how great they’re playing and how pleased they are with them. It’s time to top off the confidence reserves, because nobody has trouble getting up for playoffs. They stop raising their voices in the dressing room almost entirely, and the group tries to come together as a team, not as a group of individuals trying to get the most out of their personal seasons.

82 games is a long time – so is 72, so is 60, and so on down the line through the leagues. A coach’s job in-season is to wring every last drop out of their team to climb the standings and give them the best chance to win in the post-season.

From here on out, tough love becomes a thing of the past. There are reasons coaches mess with guys during the season. During the playoffs, there’s rarely a need.