Thursday, April 19, 2012

Growing Hope

This is a tale of two hockey players. One of them is Martin Gelinas. You  probably saw him play for one of his seven NHL teams, at some point in his nearly 20-year big-league career. You may have seen him score one of his 309 goals and maybe cursed when one of those goals burned the Habs in an important game. The other guy is Jimmy Roy. Unless you're a die-hard hockey fan, or you love the Manitoba Moose, you've probably never heard of him. He was an AHL lifer who was the heart and soul of the Moose in his nine years there, and who spent the last five seasons of his playing career crowing with the German league's Iserlohn Roosters. For two guys who eventually ended up in the same place, they couldn't have taken routes more different.

Both former players are now directors of player development, Roy for the Winnipeg Jets and Gelinas for the Nashville Predators. Until a handful of years ago, the role didn't really exist. Then, teams began to worry about the number of draft picks who flamed out or just didn't reach the potential everyone thought they had, and realized they needed to reach out and nurture the kids in whom they were investing so much. Gelinas was one of the first guys given that job by an NHL team.

"They were drafting players and hoping they were going to get there eventually," he explains. "Now, it's my fourth year of doing player development...I think I was the third one in the league doing the job at the time. So it is quite new. And now, they're not just hoping their prospects are going to develop. Now, right from day one, when they're drafted, they do everything they can as an organization to make sure the young players get from point A to point B."

While Roy and Gelinas were very different players, they were both driven by a deep and abiding passion for the sport.  They also developed a desire to see other young men succeed, probably driven by their roles as team leaders when they played. Now, at this point in their lives, they're both dads. The role they've been asked to play by their respective teams is, in many ways, an extension of that. Roy has three kids, including 5-year-old twins.

"You want to build relationships with the players so that if there's issues or anything going on, they can come to you and speak to you and be open and not intimidated," he says. "It's a combination of a lot of things. Being able to communicate with the kids and sharing experience, talking with them. When I played I talked too much, now I have to listen. Listening is a skill, and I'm learning to listen. Anything they want to discuss or I can get them to elaborate on, that's one of the things I really try to do.

Both Roy and Gelinas make themselves available to talk if young players have personal problems or questions. However, they spend most of their time teaching the kids what it really takes to be a pro hockey player. Casual fans might expect the biggest pitfall a young, single athlete can face could be filed under one of "wine," "women," or "song." Roy says it's actually something much simpler.

"One of the biggest things is nutrition," he notes. "If you're out eating in restaurants all the time, and you're on your own, you have to use your time wisely. And when you eat out, you have to not order the fattiest thing on the menu.  Eating properly is a big part of it when you're on your own for the first time."

The simple things, and the hardest ones to deal with, all fall into the grab-bag of a job description these men have taken on. Gelinas says some young players are easy. They understand they have to sweat to succeed, and they take any help they can get.

"Ryan Ellis and Craig Smith are perfect examples," he reveals. "They took advantage of it right away. "Marty, can you get me this video? Can you provide me this tool to get better? They got it right away. Some guys, it takes a little longer. I didn't get that. If I did, I think it would have speeded up my progress quite a bit. So hopefully, I can make a difference in our prospects' lives. Not to just become better players, but to become good citizens."

Then, there are the ones who don't "get it" so easily. And, more heartbreakingly, the ones who try their damnedest but just don't have what it takes.

"It's hard. I take a lot of pride in my job, and I want to do a good job and make sure they get there. And it's frustrating if they don't. The reality is, not all of them are going to make it. You just have to provide them with the tools and hope they get there,"  Gelinas explains. Then, with the optimist's view necessary in his position: "My job is to never give up on a player. Obviously, there's frustration. But I'm there to give them hope, to give them information and get them on the right track. And hopefully, they get it eventually. When they do, it's very rewarding."

Jimmy Roy believes the work he does can make the difference between a kid realizing his dream and making the NHL, or coming up just short. He, like Gelinas, didn't have anybody making personal connections with him as a young player, and he feels he's playing an important role for the new generation of prospects.

"I think it's very important for a number of reasons. It keeps a good line of communication open with the kids. They know somebody's there watching. You just haven't been drafted and left without contact with anybody on the team. It's a great way of instilling confidence and help them along the way. It helps more than most people expect," he says. "It's important to have a guy like myself who understands their development and can say, "He'll take a little longer to develop," or "He'll be a great player one day." Or there may be a kid who's slowing down, or others who'll you'll say, "Wow, he's getting smarter, getting stronger, putting on weight." It's important to keep lines of communication open with all these guys so you know them really well."

Roy says in some cases, his knowledge of a player and his development could very well encourage the organization to have a little more patience with a kid who's not coming along as quickly as management would like.

"Every player is different. Every individual is different and understanding each person's needs is a big part of it. There's what I call the "man body." There's a difference between a boy body and a man body, and it takes some kids longer to grow into their body. They may have the exact same work ethic and even do more than some others, but it may take them longer to develop. You have to understand that," he says.

Gelinas shares Roy's belief that what he's doing...all the hours spent in minor league rinks, watching  prospects play and talking with them filling a role that's been needed in the NHL for a long time.

"I think it's important. Hockey's not an easy job. From the outside it looks glamorous, but there's a price to pay to have some success," he explains. "I was lucky enough to play almost twenty years, and I can tell you there's a lot of ups and downs in that twenty years, so I know what they're going through. My message to them is, it's worth it. It's a great life, but there's a price to pay."

Jimmy Roy, who busted his gut for fifteen years in pro hockey and never set a blade on NHL ice, has his own message for the kids he's mentoring now.

"One of the things I'm really trying to instill...I was a minor league player and I never played in the national hockey league, whether because of skill or timing, whatever it was. But I have no regrets. I worked as hard as I could every single day to try and become an NHL player, and that's what I want them to know. Put everything out there, and give all you can. When you put your head down at night, you should know you've done all you can do. That's what I want to teach," he says.

Today, more than two-thirds of NHL teams have someone, most often a former pro player, filling the specific role of director of player development.  A handful, including the Montreal Canadiens, do not. In Montreal, the director of amateur scouting, Trevor Timmins, carries both titles. It's curious, for a team widely criticized for having a strong draft record and relatively poor success in developing the players it selects, that it's not bothered to bring in a guy like Roy or Gelinas. As Geoff Molson looks to overhaul the front office this summer, perhaps that's an oversight that will be remedied.

In any case, the majority of teams are buying into the value of having someone who's been where these kids are now on staff. After all, when youth is more highly prized than ever and teams know the quickest way to compete in a salary cap era is to get the most value out of draftees as early as possible, every advantage is worth exploring.

As for Jimmy Roy and Martin Gelinas, they couldn't be happier. Helping develop young players and watching them make it to the NHL allows one guy to relive his own journey and another help a kid realize the dream he was denied himself. They're two hockey players who traveled very different paths to get where they are, but who find the same deep value in the work they do.


MathMan said...

Montreal's lack of ability in the development is a myth. If Montreal was a weak development team, it would simply not have the record it has at putting players in the NHL (arguably the best in the league).

Their problem is after that, at the NHL level -- the tendency to trade away productive young talent for peanuts, because they fail to measure performance properly and don't realize what they have, or because they value off-ice behavior and/or lack of media headlines over on-ice performance.

But the point is, Montreal is one of the best teams in the NHL at drafting and development. For a while the team was being criticized for its drafting because of a mistaken perception of its drafting record; as that position is becoming more and more untenable as better comparisons of its drafting record with their peers circulate the focus of the blame has shifted to development rather than simply dissipate. But like the drafting, the same best-in-class record at turning young players into NHLers would disprove that notion.

The Habs have good drafting and good development, the problem is that they make other teams benefit from it, rather than themselves.

J.T. said...

@MathMan: the question here isn't so much how badly, or even whether, the Canadiens have failed at development. The point is, there is a definite perception that something in the pipeline is wrong because so many of the young draftees don't make it in Montreal. How many times have we heard about "attitude" problems or a lack of off-ice dedication? True or not, the perception that the Habs' young players lack guidance is there.

In the end, when you consider the role guys like Roy and Gelinas have found with the Jets and Preds, what's wrong with bringing a guy like that onto the Canadiens staff? If it helps one kid who otherwise might have seen his narrow window of possibility close without realizing his dream, why not hire a development guy? It certainly can't hurt, and the Canadiens can afford to provide every possible piece of assistance they can to their young players.

MathMan said...

@JT: What's "wrong" with it is this: if Timmins is already doing the job and is good at it, by naming someone else you risk getting someone who doesn't do as good a job.

So yes, in a way it *could* hurt. The odds are low, but if there isn't a real problem here, why try to fix it?

This is without considering that it may simply be an org chart thing, where you have the guy doing development reporting to the scouting-and-development guy rather than directly to the GM. The Habs may (and really, probably already do) have a guy under Timmins doing the job already.

If there's a problem of perception in the fanbase, media and/or GM personnel, well, that's a different issue, but I don't see how replacing the guy doing player development would improve this.

JF said...

J.T. - I certainly hope the Canadiens hire someone like Roy or Gelinas. You have only to look around the league to see that the Canadiens draft well, but we fall woefully short when it comes to player development. Players usually come into the league in their very early twenties; they are immature, and the road to maturity can often be a bumpy one. It should be obvious that they will need help. The number of young players who are shipped out of Montreal because of "attitude" problems or immaturity shows that they don't get that help here and that there is little tolerance for players who don't fit the strait-laced mould that the increasingly hide-bound organization demands. From the moment they're drafted, players should be closely followed by the team; there should be communication, encouragement, advice, and help if necessary. At the moment, it seems there is none of this; for example, Ryan MacDonagh said that he had no communication with the Habs after he was drafted.

The Habs' last place finish can leave Geoff Molson in no doubt that sweeping changes are needed. It is not just a matter of a new GM and coaching staff; the Habs need to improve every aspect of team building, and player development is one of the most important of those.

Steve said...

Wisdom pure wisdom. If I had the money I would turn your post into a movie. It is amazing with all the crash and burn, Chelios the poster child, that Montreal is still out to lunch on this. I think a big part is the old boys, and the code. For example one of my co workers has a son who is a rookie in the NHL. The bullshit he must put up with is medieval. For example, rookies cant play Euchre on the bus.

So the mindset is sink or swim, we are not making Spartans idiots.

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. I was wondering what percentage of their time do Roy and Gelinas spend with junior, college, AHL, and young NHL players and if they have any problems with the player' coaches?

With the Habs I think there's been two issues: how the team helps players mature, and getting little in return for players that the coach kept on a short leash.

Martin kept Lats, Lapierre, SK74, O'Byrne, Pyatt, D'Agostini, Emelin, Maxwell, Chipchura, and pretty much any player called up for a few games, like Wyman, on a short leash and all the Habs have to show for that group is Emelin, Bournival and Palusjhi.

The Head of Development can help players mature, but he can do little if the Habs next coach finds Martin's supply of short leashes.


the Maritimer said...

In Saint John, NB, the Sea Dogs have two 1st round draft picks of the Minnesota Wild, Charlie Coyle and Zach Phillips. The Wild have on occasion (about once a month) sent former AHL and NHL defenceman Brad Bombardir to monitor their progress and do what J.T. points out - give them tips on how to be a pro hockey player. Nutrition and conditioning are part of that and Bombardir imparts that knowledge as well. Plus they have former Red Wing Gerard Gallant to help them as well. I don't know if Trevor Timmins or anyone from the Montreal organization has set foot in Harbour Station to talk to Nathan Beaulieu. I would certainly hope so and if not then J.T. is correct, the Habs need to get on the ball and address that need. Isn't that what happened to Price his first year in Montreal; they turned a twenty year old lose in Montreal without supervision?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this great piece. I was shocked but not surprised to learn that the Habs don't have anyone in this role. Immaturity was a HUGE issue with Gainey's first team - whether it be Ribeiro, Latendresse, Sergei Kostitsyn, Grabovski, Higgins, Price, Lapierre - so many of those young players had 'issues' that almost certainly could have been contained with better mentoring. Just a terrible lapse by the canadiens. Again, great piece.