Monday, June 3, 2013

You Do This At Your Own Peril

This has been a tough week or so for coaches of elite teams. The Vancouver Canucks of the National Hockey League released the entire coaching staff from their coaching duties, a move that has brought more than its share of scepticism here on the left coast of Canada!

More recently, the curling world was notified that Team Ulsrud had decided to part ways with their long time coach Ole Ingvaldsen. I'm not here to judge the validity of these decisions but one thing is certain from where I sit, when you change coaches, you do so at your own peril!

In the case of a professional team making a coaching change, the stakes are different from that of an amateur curling team as the money involved is so vastly different. So why does a professional team, regardless of the sport, make such a change?

In some cases, you hear that the coach "has lost the room". That curious phrase refers to the team locker room and indicates that the coach's words are now falling on deaf ears as he/she tries to inspire the team to greater heights of performance by inspirational locker room verbiage. Occasionally, key players will have issues with the coach's style, and all that comes with that, at which time the seeds of discontent will have been sown among the rest of the roster. In most cases, as has happened with the firing of the New York Rangers (NHL) head coach, John Tortorella, the team simply has not performed to expectations (Coach Tortorella's ascerbic attitude, especially with the NY media, didn't help his cause).

The dynamics are also very different for a professional teams as there are two layers of administration that just don't exist with an elite curling team, notably the team owner(s) and the general manager. This unholy alliance of owner, GM & coach can be a curious one.

Owners come in all different flavours. Some just like to own a professional sports team and leave the front office and on the field/ice/court decisions to the GM and coach respectively. The owner happily just sign the cheques! Professional sport team owners have D-E-E-P pockets!!!! Then you get the Jerry Jones (Dallas Cowboys [NFL]) of the world who feel that ownership gives them all the rights and privileges of GM, coach and players. To say Mr. Jones and his like are "hands on owners" would be like saying a hurricane is a stiff breeze. Thankfully, most owners of professional sport teams fall somewhere in the middle. Then you have the NFL's Green Bay Packers whose owner is the City of Green Bay. Yes, each resident of Green Bay, WI can say he/she is an owner.

General managers are now much more prominent in the triumvirate than ever before, to the point that some teams are known more for their GM than owner or coach ("Can you say Sir Alex Ferguson, formerly of Manchester United of the English Premiership?")!

For those reading this who might be unfamiliar with the roles and responsibilities of a GM, it's his/her task to "put the team together" by signing players to contractual obligations. The coach then takes those players signed by the GM and tries to make them greater than the sum of their parts. Occasionally, one person will take on both roles, GM & coach but that is relatively rare in modern times as it's a burdensome responbility. One doesn't have to be a genius to figure out that if a GM and coach work well together and have the best interests of the team at heart, along with an understanding and supportive owner, you have a winning combination. And the best part is that the players will recognize the harmony among the three and usually respond in kind.

There is a "pecking order" among owner, GM & coach and that's it, owner, GM & coach. You'll notice that the coach is at the bottom of the totem pole. In the case of the Vancouver Canucks, the owners of the team are a family, the "Aquilini" family and the GM is Mike Gillis. The coaching position is currently vacant but for the last seven years was filled by Alain Vigneault and his staff. When a new GM comes on the scene, usually he/she wants to choose the coach with whom he/she will work. That was not the case in Vancouver but now it will be as GM Mike Gillis searches for a new head coach.

There are many Canuck fans who feel, as do I, that the person doing the firing, in this case the aforementioned Mr. Gillis, should have been the one to leave but if that were the case, it would have to be the Aquilini's who did the firing and that didn't happen and in fact, when Gillis went to the family with the idea of a coaching change, the family clearly agreed.

When a team replaces the coach, it's a risky move due to the message it sends. Alain Vigneault was recently recognized by the NHL's "Coach of the Year" award. I don't think he's lost his coaching skills since that award was bestowed upon him. In fact, he's very likely a better coach now from a skills, experience and knowledge perspective. Did he "lose the room"? There was no indication that had occurred. Historically when that's the reason, the "leaks" are numerous. So I feel we can stroke that off the list. Do the players simply need to hear a different voice? That might hold some water.

Coaches have an expiration date. It's a daunting task to keep the challenges in practice and games fresh. Sooner or later, the message, valid and as fresh as it can be, starts to fall on those deaf ears. It's really difficult to turn that truck around!

Sometimes, as in the case of Coach Vigneault, the Aquilini's and GM Gillis felt the culture surrounding the team needed changing. Do you replace 10 or so players or the coach? Clearly it's easier to change the culture by replacing the coach but is that the "message" you really want to send because there will be players who will see the coaching change as a validation of the attitude/culture the players espoused. I feel when the coach and his staff are of such a quality that they are quite likely the best you might have at the time, it's a better message to retain the coaching staff which then tacitly let's the players know it's their performance that's the problem.

History has shown that franchises that hire an excellent coaching staff and stick with them through thick and thin, in the long run, the team does quite well thank you very much!

I cite teams like the Dallas Cowboys and their long time coach, Tom Landry. In the NHL there's one team that has had the same coach for its entire existence. That team is the Nashville Predators and that coach is the diminutive Barry Trotts who for all the world looks more like your local bank manager than the coach of a professional hockey team. The point is that the Nashville Predators are not thought of as a real challenger for Lord Stanley's mug but they are a competitive team. Fans going to the games know they are going to see a team with a legitimate chance to compete for the "w" and take a serious run at the playoffs even though they don't make the post season games every season. The players seem to like playing for Coach Trotts and his coaching staff and the management of the team appears to be able to assemble a group of athletes who perform well. Hello!!!!

In the case of the Vancouver Canucks, given the success the team has had in regular season in spite of the goal tending fiasco with Cory Schneider and Roberto Loungo coupled with the early exits from the playoffs in recent years, a case could easily be made that Coach Vigneault and his staff were the only ones in the organization that did a good job, perhaps an excellent job that they were the ones who were relieved of their duties.

Look, every coach knows that when he/she signs a contract, at some point he/she will be replaced. It's just the nature of the beast. And, as some will contend, the coach is the most responsible for the "culture" in which a team operates (along with the owner, GM and even the fans), if it's agreed that the culture must change, well, do the math, as stated above, it's a lot easier to change the coach (and his staff) than 10 players! And back one last time to the Vancouver situation, many feel if there WAS a solid reason for the coaching change, that might be the one.

Even though I've painted the coach as something of a poor third party in the organizational triad, if the league needs an element of change (as with the "head shot" issue with the NHL) if the league gets the coaches on board, the players will follow as it's my belief that no player acts contrary to the dictates of the coach and remains an active player for very long. Even in professional sports, the players will do what the coach instructs them to do. There are head shots in the NHL because the coaches have not acted against them! Full stop!

On the day of the publishing of this post, there are only four teams, interestingly enough, the last four Stanley Cup Champions, remaining in the NHL playoffs. There are a number of coaching vacancies in the league and a number of both rookie and experienced coaches from which to choose. It's going to be an interesting few weeks as teams make their selections.

But most of you reading this are from the world of curling and coaching at the highest levels in our sport follow a very different set of guidelines. For example, we might be the only team sport where the coach is selected last. Usually the team has been formed and then a coach is sought. I hope that will change over time. The sooner a team aligns itself with a certified coach, the better that team will function and the more efficiently it will function. I don't want this post to be a diatribe on the value of a certified coach but suffice to say we now have athletes in our sport who have always had a coach. The days of the elite teams going it alone are over!

My post of 3/1/13 ("The Anatomy of a Curling Coach") delved into the perils of selecting as coach, a recently retired elite player, thinking that the value of someone who has been there, done that and has the T-shirt is a wise decision. Clearly that's a choice that's fraught with peril. I won't regurgitate the details on this matter. I'll leave you to read the post.

Team Ulsrud has decided that the team has plateaued. It simply needs to hear a different voice. If you have seen the team play of late, it's clear that something that was once there, is gone. I don't know what it is, although I do have my suspicions, but the team feels a different voice is in order. But, they've replaced their coach and his enviable track record, with a retired player. Since that former, very successful and likable player retired, he may indeed have spent time getting certified. If so, then it's a good decision. If not, well, Team Ulsrud, you have rolled the dice. I hope luck is on your side!

Right now, there's a crisis in coaching in curling. Simply put, there are many more elite teams than there are elite coaches. There just aren't enough to go around. I feel one of the reasons is that the impetus for many coaches is their son or daughter who wishes to play competitively as a junior athlete. When the athlete ages out, the certified parent/coach stops coaching. We need more of those coaches to continue. Even though your son or daughter may not have chosen to continue down the competitive path for a variety of very good reasons, you're missing out on the opportunity to grow as a coach with a young adult elite team that would benefit greatly from your certification, experience and skills.

If you're one of those coaches whose coaching career stopped when your son or daughter aged out of juniors, please consider returning to the coaching ranks. I can tell you from personal experience that's its rewards are as much intrinsic as they are extrinsic! Contact me if you'd like to talk (!

Now that there are no Canadian-based teams remaining in the NHL playoffs, I'm pulling for those Penguins of Pittsburgh so Jarome Iginla can finally get the Stanley Cup ring that the Tampa Bay Lightning "stole" in 2004 (in game #6, Martin Gelina's goal was "in")!

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