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.