Friday, January 21, 2011

Feelings...Whoa, Whoa, Whoa...Feelings

Not long ago, I spoke with an old friend of Jacques Martin's. Ron Davidson has known Martin for a long time, and he coaches alongside him at Martin's summer hockey clinic every year. If anyone knows about why Martin does the things he does, it's him.

In the course of our conversation, Davidson mentioned how much the Canadiens' coach loves working with young players, and how Martin thinks teaching is one of the best parts of his job. That was a bit hard to reconcile with the benchings of guys like Ryan O'Byrne and Sergei Kostitsyn, but listening to the logic behind those moves as understood by Davidson, it made some sense. He said Martin tries to make the players understand what he wants, but if they're not getting it they can't be allowed to hurt the team in game situations. The coach, apparently, believes a player who made a mistake deserves a chance to make up for it, but only if he's mentally strong enough to put the first mistake out of his head. Some players get nervous and dwell and just feel more pressure if they're sent out again right away.

Okay. Fine. I'll buy that maybe P.K.Subban is able to instantly move on after a mistake and make up for it on the next shift, while Ryan O'Byrne gets down on himself and makes another mistake. It's harder to understand why Martin never shows any emotion behind the bench.

I asked Davidson why that is. Why does Martin always look like a big-eared automaton, whether the team is up four goals or going into OT after blowing a four-goal lead? Why does he never react, no matter how stupid the penalty call that puts his team in a hole, or how vicious the foul that puts one of his players out of action? Why does he just stand there during timeouts, staring at the clock while Kirk Muller huddles around the white board with the team, drawing up the play?

The answer, according the Martin's buddy, is that the coach is too emotional. Davidson says Martin wants to win very, very badly. In Ottawa, during timeouts, he would attempt to communicate his plan but would be so nervous he found it difficult to make himself understood. He learned from that experience that it's better for him to let the assistant coach talk during those situations. As for yelling at the refs or his players, that's just not his style.

I understood Martin a little bit better after having spoken with Davidson. But I can't help wishing he'd let some of the deep passion for winning his friend says he feels show sometimes. When a ref lets a blatant foul against the Habs go, then calls a borderline penalty to put the Canadiens down a man, I wish Martin would let him have it. Not all the time...lord knows we don't need another Carbo, whining after every call...but when something really egregious happens, it'd be nice for the coach to let the ref know he screwed up. It probably wouldn't really work to make the officials think twice about calling another penalty against the Canadiens, but Martin should do it for the sake of his team. If the coach blew up at a ref at a time when the team feels particularly wronged, it would let the players know the coach has their backs and maybe inspire some righteous push-back on the bench.

Martin should also show a little more feeling when answering reporters' questions designed to stir up controversy. This week, for example, a journalist asked Martin about P.K.Subban's celebration of his OT goal against the Flames. Martin said something benign about Subban "learning to be a pro" and having "talked to him about it." The implication was that Martin wasn't really thrilled with the kid's exuberance and thought Subban should have toned it down. That's just the kind of fuel that builds the fire in the bellies of the "Subban's too cocky" crowd. What Martin should have said was "This kid just scored a huge overtime goal to give us two really important points. He was thrilled, and so was I. He can celebrate however he wants to in that case." His wishy-washy answer, while probably designed to defuse emotion around the Subban debate, came across as a lack of support for the young player.

Sometimes, a calm presence is exactly what a team needs behind the bench. It keeps a team from panic when things are going wrong. It's not always the best thing, though. There are occasions when players need to feel like their coach is standing up for them, because, sometimes, players will go the extra mile for a guy they think has their backs.

When Ron Wilson got fined for breaching the salary cap after he offered his players money for a win over the Sharks, there was a sense of disapproval from players around the league. A couple of them tweeted that players love it when a coach does that, because he makes himself part of the team. The leafs went out hard that night because, for that night, Wilson was one of their own, on the same level.

That said, it's probably not a great idea for a head coach to be too collegial with his players. If he is, he won't be taken seriously when it's time to be a hardass and he'll lose the respect of the room. On the other hand, he can lose the players just as easily by keeping himself apart from them at all times.

Jacques Martin gets a lot of flack for his boring System, which, while I have to agree is often sleep-inducing, I must admit is also probably responsible for allowing the team to compete despite major injury problems. He gets just as must grief for coming across as an emotionless drone. His friend, Ron Davidson, says that's not the case at all. He says the Martin he knows is a driven and passionate competitor. If that's true, it would be really nice if he'd let it show once in a while.

9 comments:

kyleroussel said...

This is a nice piece, but I have just one issue: If Martin doesn't give a young player a second chance until he's mentally strong enough to put a mistake out of his head, then shouldn't Martin be mentally strong enough to compose himself during a timeout to relay his plan to the team?

J.T. said...

@kyle: Good point, except a player lacking composure can cost his team on the ice. A coach lacking composure can delegate to his assistant...no harm done. Not that I'm a huge JM defender; in fact, I had to be convinced he's not a total dinosaur, but it's a bit of a different situation.

kyleroussel said...

Point taken...I just feel as though Martin erodes his own credibility by delegating like that. It also feeds in to the belief that Muller is the guy the players prefer and play for.

I still believe that Martin is a bit of a dino with his "play to not lose" system, but he deserves some credit for getting his team to ride out the injury bug. His system homogenizes the entire roster and doesn't allow his best players to do what they do. Not a newsflash, but it's a drag to watch.

daniellejam said...

JT,

Martin's benign reply to reporters about PK's emotional display after scoring the winning goal somewhat echoes what Gomez said reported in the Montreal Gazette today.

(http://www.montrealgazette.com/sports/Veterans+give+histrionics+pass/4142622/story.html).

I don't think it's fair to criticize the coach for lack of support when this could be a feeling shared by many players from the team or even the league. Do I think it was too exuberant of a display? No, because I was doing it in my living room too just as countless other fans around the globe (yes, around the globe because we are everywhere), were celebrating it how ever they celebrate it.

What I'm trying to say is, JM's remark was less damaging than what I read in that article.

What do you think?

daniellejam said...

Sorry for the double comment, but I have to add to this...

While we want our JM coach to turn up his emotions, we want the players, particularly PK, to tone theirs down.

I'm a little lost as to what we want anymore. I'll go so far as to say this. Can we not respect each individual's emotional response without trying to change who they are? We are who we are and respond how we respond. Is that so bad? Let's accept each others individuality.

J.T. said...

@kyle: I'm not saying I like Martin or his style. Just making the point that there are probably reasons for his behaviour that you or I don't really see. That said, I bet it'd be a whole lot more fun to play for Muller!

@daniellejam: I read the article in the Gazette, and I listened to Gomez' comments in the audio provided at Habs Inside/Out. Hickey's written story doesn't convey the tone of what Gomez said, and he actually also misquoted Gomez there. When he said he and Gionta just kind of looked at each other, he wasn't referring to Subban's celebration at all. He was talking about having blown a four-goal lead and then managing to eke out the win in OT. He and Gionta looked at each other and "kind of smirked" because they knew they probably didn't deserve the win...not because Subban was celebrating. At least, that was my understanding after having listened to the entire scrum with Gomez.

In the context in which Pat Hickey presented the comments in the paper, sure...they could be seen as disapproving of Subban. In the context in which they were intended, though, not at all. Martin, on the other hand, was very quelling in his comments, which were not filtered through the keyboard of a newspaper writer.

Anonymous said...

Richards started the Subban stuff, so it is a story. When people ignore it the writers will move on. Soaps for sports fans.

I think that giving the refs a blast is ok if it isn't too specific. If you rant about the opposition getting a break every now and then, well, I think you might get a call later. But if you make a mistake and rant about how you're getting called while they aren't, you're going to get it. The refs will naturally think "Heck, maybe I am missing crud." So they will look to see how your guys are getting fouled. When they look too closely they catch the initial foul, not the retaliation that usually gets called. That would be your innocent stick, elbow, or tug.

If you play like an angel who cares. If you don't...oh.oh.

MC said...

Although I find it odd that JM delgates so much to Muller, in some ways it is an ideal situation for the Habs. Even if Muller is ready to be an NHL coach, he is inexperienced at being in charge and when ever your job is dealing with people, experience matters. Muller can focus on the tactics while Martin provides the leadership to handle all of the politics and drama of a team dynamic. As long as Muller is happy being #2 and JM let's Muller do his thing, I see no downside. It is just inevitable that Muller will want to run the whole show eventually.

As far as his system, it is a strategy that has been successful for many Stanley Cup winning teams. The Habs are never blown out nor win by a lot. It is a contrast to John Torterella's "safe is death" philosophy or the attacking, aggressive system of Guy Boucher. The Rangers and Bolts are winning, but they also get blown out of the rink on some nights. It would be interesting to see what would happen if this Habs roster played the other style. It would be also interesting if the Habs get the Rags or Bolts in the playoffs and let the two contrasting styles go head to head.

moeman said...

Excellent.