Monday, November 8, 2010

Coach Walter

After more than a hundred years of existence, there have been many hundreds of players who've worn the Montreal Canadiens sweater. Some have ended up etched in silver on the Stanley Cup. Some are enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. A special few have become red, white and blue deities. Most, though, wear the colours for a few seasons and then move on to other lives and other dreams. So now, after more than a hundred years, you can find ex-Habs in a lot of interesting places.

Drop in on a peewee practice in Kuujjuaq, and you'll find Joe Juneau. Try to build a new hockey rink in the southern United States and you'll probably end up dealing with Steve Shutt in Atlanta. If you want financial advice in Halifax, you can call Mike McPhee. And, if you catch a Team Canada women's hockey game at the Four Nations Cup this week, you'll see Ryan Walter behind the bench.

Walter came to the Habs from Washington in a blockbuster 1982 trade that included Rick Green, in exchange for Rod Langway, Doug Jarvis, Brian Engblom and Craig Laughlin. He was a former #2 overall pick for the Caps, and was expected to boost the Canadiens post-dynasty offence. In his first season in Montreal, he scored 29 goals, but never matched his best years again. By 1986 he was a 28-year-old centreman whose best years were behind him. Or so he thought. That season started off as another exercise in futility for Walter, until the All-Star break, when everything changed.

"We were not a real tight team, even coming into February," he remembers. "Bob Gainey held a meeting down at the old Peel Pub, down in the bottom, and that meeting really turned a corner for our team. And I always say to people that there's a lot of hope when it comes to people because we basically went from not a real tight team in February to winning a Cup in May."

That's the experience Ryan Walter brings to Canada's national women's team. A dad of sons, he's never coached women before, but he thinks his passion for the national program is a good start.

"I'm a big Hockey Canada fan. I've coached at the minor hockey level with our three boys. I've been in four world championship tournaments as a player...boy that was a long time ago, late seventies and early 80s," he laughs. "So, I've always been a big fan of Hockey Canada, and any time I can add value to their programs, it's high on my list."

Love of the game can only get a coach so far, though, especially when the program of which he's taking control has had its share of controversy despite a 2010 Vancouver Olympic gold medal. Of criticism that the women's game shouldn't be in the Games because the competition beyond Canada and the U.S. is so weak he says:

"Canada and the U.S. need to continue to keep to a high standard and let the other countries push toward them. You don't ask two programs to not be as good as they can, and hopefully have other countries, other programs catch up. That's one of the challenges for our coaching staff. This program in Canada demands gold. That's a wonderful thing. If we don't win the Four Nations Cup, we didn't have a good tournament. On the other hand, we have some young players we want to develop and get them in the lineup."

Asked what he'd do as coach if his team is up by six goals with a power play in the his best PP unit or lay back...he thinks carefully before answering.

"Typically, game preparation and game situations will dictate that," he finally explains. "There's gonna be a time when we're going to put out young players and try to grow them. This is four years out. On the other hand, from all the athletes I'll be coaching, they've all said to me, 'listen, we're pushing to be the best every time we're on the ice.' So, it's gonna be a balance. I think only timing and game situation will allow us to know how we'll dictate that."

Walter says the women he's coaching are just as dedicated and work just as hard as the players he grew up with in the NHL. And the program offers the kind of close-knit environment that allows him to really get to know them.

For him, hockey and relationships have always been inseparable. Even his Stanley Cup moment was a shared one.

"I have one that's pretty special," he remembers. "When we won in Calgary, the Cup was on the ice, then it was in the dressing room. I ran with my skates on across a bunch of cement to get my mom and dad and my two brothers and sister in the dressing room. And when the Cup came to me, it came to us. For me, that was really important. I grew up in Burnaby, B.C., where there was no outdoor ice. There was only rain. If you were going to be a player, your parents had to be committed. Mom and Dad would get up at 4:00 on Saturday morning after a party on Friday night, and they never said no. It was really special to receive the Cup together."

Walter won't ever forget that moment, but he hopes to coach his way to one that matches it. He's starting his national team coaching career at the Four Nations Cup in Newfoundland today, with Russian Olympic gold in his dreams. Even if that fantasy comes true, he knows it will be a whole different kind of special than winning the Cup in Montreal. The women's game, despite the passion and skill of its players, is still struggling to draw the kind of attention a good NHL team attracts.

"Oh, well, the one mistake that was made was so crazy...we were in open-topped Cadillacs," he recalls of the 1986 Cup parade. "A whole bunch of people weren't waving, a bunch of hooligans would jump in the car with you. I finally got tired of it, so I got out. Here are all these guys in the car, waving to everybody and people are saying, "Which one is the player?" I just got out and walked. So, I'm waving at all the players, and made my way back to the Forum."

That was it for the celebration back in 1986, although Walter's heard the league plans to bring a new tradition to the older winners.

"In those days we didn't get the Cup. Somebody told me that the NHL has a program now, where they start with the older players that didn't get it, and they're going to work down to us. So we're eventually going to get our day with the Cup. I want to confirm that, because I'm looking forward to it."

The new Team Canada coach can add it to the list of things he's got to look forward to, and it all starts today.


moeman said...

Great article J.T.

Anonymous said...

I second that.