Coach Opera


By Avi Goldberg, Featured Writer,  All Habs Hockey Magazine

MONTREAL, QC. — For fans of the Montreal Canadiens, one of the most compelling stories of last offseason was the repatriation of Michel Therrien as head coach. Though this development gave an academic colleague and me a surprise opportunity to employ a little humour in a fancy stats lite analysis of Therrien’s potential in his second go around with the club, many of us fans routinely enjoy observing the movement of coaches from one NHL gig to another. And, despite its abbreviated and intensified pace, or maybe because of it, this past season provided a handful of interesting developments to be written into the script of hockey’s ongoing coach opera.

To make some sense of it all, I’ve looked at this past season’s major coaching transactions in conjunction with a half-scientifically gathered sample of comments from the Twitterverse, and I’ve come up with four storylines that fans and hockey media pundits use to talk about NHL coaches. A comparative look at popular coaching storylines reveals a lot about the relationship between the perceived needs of NHL teams and the drama produced and consumed by those who follow the plotlines of their favourite team serials.

Coaching Storyline #1: ‘Coach Vanilla’

The first storyline used by fans and media to talk about NHL coaches is also the least interesting in that it’s told in cases where there isn’t a lot of content, either positive or negative, that’s said about the coach in question. Coaches in this category may have had some pretty solid success with their teams, are eminently employable, and are even included in the discussion over whether they should be named to coach at the Olympics or at the World Championships. Even with their praiseworthy backgrounds, these coaches elicit entirely banal, or vanilla, commentary on either their past achievements or future potentials.

vigneault-alain_940The two coaches who fall into this category this past year are Lindy Ruff and Alain Vigneault. While it didn’t take long for either man to find new positions after their respective tenures with the Canucks and Sabres came to an end, solid runs and near Stanley Cup victories on their CVs have evidently done little to help them establish strong new media reputations. A search for comments on Twitter, both at large and specifically from hockey fans and media members I follow, revealed precious little in the way of public opinion.

In response to breaking news about both Ruff and Vigneault’s new jobs, few examples of overt praise were found, and only sporadic negative comments were made. The following type of take, critiquing the appropriateness of Ruff’s coaching style for his new players, stands out for its specificity, and was quite rarely seen.

Despite the odd complaint like this one, fans and media were mostly content to report the news of Ruff and Vigneault’s employment, and they provided little additional editorializing on the virtues or downsides of their appointments for their new teams.

The absence of splash in these cases is best demonstrated by this comment by TSN 690’s Ted Bird as he addressed the basic lack of familiarity that some members of the media have with Alain Vigneault.

At first, I was surprised to find evidence that pointed so clearly to a Vanilla coaching narrative being told about Ruff and Vigneault. But, the more I thought about their new teams’ recent records, their departed coaches, and the big stages on Broadway and in Dallas, I came to the view that coaches who’ll fly under the radar may be exactly what’s needed to avoid inciting the fans during what very well could be even leaner times in the seasons just ahead.

Coaching Storyline #2: ‘Coach 3.0’

If the first storyline was marked by blandness, the second is characterized by detailed descriptions applied to what’s been referred to as the hyper avant-garde generation of coaches making their way into the NHL. A couple of years back, coaches like Guy Boucher and Cory Clouston (now either forgotten or out of favour), Dan Bylsma (more below), and Kevin Dineen were lauded as young hockey minds possessing coaching philosophies that contrasted greatly with those employed by the veteran coaches in the league. According to the Coach 3.0 storyline, the hot new coaches are poised to bring refreshing innovations to teaching hockey, and are chomping at the bit to gain the opportunity to actualize their potential.

78835493_837710_cooper-jon-coachThis year, the lead characters of the Coach 3.0 storyline are Jon Cooper and Dallas Eakins. While Cooper was hired during the season to replace the erstwhile young glory boy, Boucher, Eakins’ stock was so high that he was hired in Edmonton when not even the Oilers GM himself, Craig MacTavish, knew that his team was on the market for a head coach. New employment opportunities are viewed much differently for these young coaches than they were for the Vanilla coaches.

In complete opposition to the steady stream of neutral and fact-based comments made in response to news about Ruff and Vigneault, Cooper, and especially Eakins, drew a much higher density of specific and colourful tweets about their anticipated coaching qualities. Another major difference emerged in the source of the comments. Whereas Vigneault and Ruff drew commentary mostly from media folks on Twitter, news regarding Cooper and Eakins brought out more of the fans’ voices.

Though large numbers of tweets described the young coaches as ‘winners’ and as bringing high levels of ‘passion’ to their new teams, fans also provided fairly precise statements on the nuances of their coaching philosophies. While the requirement for high levels of fitness from his players was bandied about as a keystone element in his coaching repertoire, this comment is fairly representative of the Eakins’ narrative that circulated on Twitter.

Even in the absence of an existing NHL footprint, fans and media offered detailed pictures of the tactics and philosophies of those making up the emerging generation of NHL coaches who landed jobs. In Edmonton, where the team is loaded with potential star talent, the Coach 3.0 narrative is a seductive fit for a fan base starving both for real change and for a leader who’s innovative enough to instill the confidence that he’s the one to finally deliver it.

Coaching Storyline #3: ‘The Cult of Personality’

One of the most entertaining coaching storylines is told in cases when the coach’s actions suggest that he views himself as being bigger than the team, the games, and seemingly everyone around him. The Cult of Personality narrative is sewn when reporting, discussion, and memes describe a coach’s altercations and troubles outside of the games, and are even tinged with the expectation, or even voyeuristic hope, that his most recent incendiary dustup will be followed by the next one. Regardless of the coach’s actual record with his team, it’s the non-hockey antics that take centre-stage in this storyline.

(Photo by John Major / QMI Agency)
(Photo by John Major / QMI Agency)

While Habs fans know this narrative as they worked to establish the Legend Of The Walrus following Paul MacLean’s actions during the Montreal-Ottawa playoff matchup this past spring, two of the best subjects of this year’s Cult of Personality narrative are John Tortorella and Patrick Roy. With Tortorella heading west to coach the Vancouver Canucks, and with Roy landing his first NHL coaching gig with his former team, the Colorado Avalanche, it was like two Christmas mornings for fans and media that relish telling and hearing tales of the coach perpetually on the far edge of self-control.

The Cult of Personality narrative was told multiple times and in many different ways on Twitter by media and fans as they digested the news of Tortorella and Roy’s new hockey jobs. With Tortorella having come off a particularly testy year in terms of his interactions with the media, his hiring in Vancouver provided the perfect opportunity for hockey writers to vent. Their comments tended to focus nearly exclusively on Tortorella’s tendency to overshadow his team.

While plenty of media and fan tweets questioned whether Tortorella would blow up even during his introductory press conference in Vancouver, a good amount of comments, like this one from the National Post’s Bruce Arthur, also expressed concern for Canucks players who would be forced to adjust to a coach who, unlike the majority of his peers, didn’t hesitate to publicly call out his players.

And though the Cult of Personality narrative is fundamentally premised upon conflict and the path to inevitable tragedy, a complementary theme is the potential that always exists for individual reform. In this tweet, Tortorella’s known weaknesses are simultaneously tempered and reinforced by the cautiously optimistic hope that, this time, he’s prepared to do what it takes to leave his bad behaviour in New York.

Whereas Tortorella’s track record easily secured him a role in the Cult of Personality storyline, Patrick Roy, an NHL coaching rookie, gets the part by virtue of his career as an attention-drawing player, and from his time as the man in charge of the Quebec Remparts. Drawing from knowledge of his uncompromising need to be at the forefront of everything going on around him, comments about Roy’s coaching appointment, like this one from Sports Illustrated’s Michael Farber, went far beyond addressing his potential as a head coach.

Fans and media repeatedly stated that the spectacle of Roy’s all in tendencies behind the bench would provide tremendous entertainment, but they also suggested that past antics tainted his reputation. For Montreal Canadiens fans like Mike Obrand, assessing Roy as a new coach in the NHL is an exercise that is indelibly marked by the residue of frustration he feels over Saint Patrick’s infamous transgressions during his time as a Hab.

It’s a feedback loop, really. The outrageous actions of a coach enable the telling of the Cult of Personality narrative, and then the established narrative shapes what fans and media expect to see out of the coach. In both Colorado and Vancouver, fiery coaches may be just what the doctor ordered to either awaken a disillusioned fan base or to serve as a force meant to stir up an underachieving team. And, in the worst-case scenario, even if the shelf lives of Tortorella and Roy end up being painfully short, at least the arenas will be full of spectators watching how it will all go down.

Coaching Storyline #4: ‘The Sinner/Saint’

The final storyline gleaned from the roster of significant coaching moves this past season addresses the case of the coach who’s both respected and loathed by segments of the media and fan base at the same time. The Sinner/Saint narrative includes the finding of little or no fault with the coach’s tactics or manners as well as the obverse, namely assertions of either coaching underachievement or incompetence. Jacques Martin, simultaneously critiqued for encouraging boring hockey and praised for devising effective strategy, fits this narrative. More dramatically, Claude Julien has constantly had the high levels of adulation given to him hover precariously close to expressions of mistrust regarding his coaching capabilities.

danbylsmaFrom this season’s coaching transactions, it’s somewhat surprising that Dan Bylsma is the sole subject of the Sinner/Saint narrative. After yet another early exit from the playoffs, and following a short period of reflection by GM Ray Shero, Bylsma was handed a contract extension. While some fans clearly show that they hold on to memories of the Stanley Cup win, and respect the coach for his early success, others suggest that recent playoff failures show that the coach has either lost his luster or was possibly overrated to begin with. Weeks after receiving his contract extension, a polarized account of Bylsma prevails on Twitter.

A large number of comments celebrating Bylsma’s communication skills and his professionalism can easily be found. The appreciative comments not only address Bylsma the coach, but also identify him as a man of character. Other comments, such as this one, frequently call attention to Bylsma’s genuine involvement and presence as a member of the community in Pittsburgh.

Yet, accompanying the praise is also the frequent and direct comments revealing doubt. Fans, like this one, demonstrate opposition to Bylsma’s judgment, as well as to the coach’s stated intentions on how he plans to use his core players next season.

The Sinner/Saint storyline takes hold of fans of teams whose high expectations have been unmet, but the line separating love and hate can be razor thin. It’s nothing but respect and love for Joel Quenneville and Claude Julien on Twitter these days, but late last season, and as recently as round one of this year’s playoffs, folks were clamoring for both to lose their jobs. So, despite their anxiety, fans in Pittsburgh need to chill out. It’s very likely that Bylsma and the Penguins will figure things out, and when they do, the fan narrative of the coach will follow in a more unified direction.

Based as it is on those who were in the news for changes to their job status this past season, this list of coaching storylines is incomplete. And, lest anyone feels too bad for Torts for being labeled a hothead, or sympathizes with Ruff for coming across as flat, our local experience with Michel Therrien leads me to close this story with a moral: As close to reality as the plotlines of the coach opera can seem, they’re not only based on the actions of the individuals leading our teams, but also on the imaginations we unleash to make order out of the things we think we, or even want to, see.

Follow me on Twitter @AviGoldberg