Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Takes One to Know One

                                            photo credit: NHL.com

    Once upon a time, NHL teams had a manager and a coach. Sometimes, the manager was the coach and sometimes the coach was also a player. Not so anymore. Today's NHL teams have front offices to rival the playing roster. 
    The Canadiens, for example, have an executive vice president, a GM, an assistant GM, a director of player personnel, a director of amateur scouting and a special advisor to hockey operations. Behind the bench, there's the coach, three assistant coaches, a goalie coach and a pair of video coaches. There are four people in player development, three in analytics and another two in hockey development. That's 22 people, and it's not even counting the medical, training, equipment, communications and scouting staffs. It's a lot.
    So, a fan might be forgiven for wondering what on earth all these people actually do all day.
    Back in February, the Canadiens announced they were bringing in Vincent Lecavalier as a "special advisor." 
    Now, going on a year later, you might ask what is Vinny doing in Montreal, aside from being the head coach's good buddy?
    Well, first of all, he's not actually in Montreal. He lives in Tampa. However, he was brought on board for a very special reason. 

    June 27, 1998 was a beautiful summer day in Buffalo, New York. The sun was shining, a gentle breeze wafted in from the southwest and the NHL draft was set to go at the Marine Midland Arena. 
    Just two months past his eighteenth birthday and a stellar career as a junior in the QMJHL, centreman Vincent Lecavalier, standing an impressive 6'4", was the undisputed number-one prospect at that draft. After some nifty trade action involving the Florida Panthers and San Jose Sharks, the Tampa Bay Lightning had secured the first pick. Sure enough, when new owner Art Williams took the stage, Vinny was his choice.

                                                     photo credit: NHL.com

    "The new Tampa Bay Lightning is very proud and very excited to take back to our fans in Tampa Bay, the number-one amateur hockey player in the world, the number-one pick in the entire NHL draft, Vincent Lecavalier," Williams announced.
    The kid was thrilled.
    "When I got in the rink today, I had butterflies in my stomach," Lecavalier said at the time. "I'm really relieved everything's over and I got picked number one. So I'm very, very happy." 
    The day after the draft, the pressure to not only make the NHL, but to be, as Williams boasted "the Michael Jordan of hockey" began. As the team's franchise player for 14 years, that pressure never let up.
    At 19, he was captain of the Lightning. By 20, he'd been stripped of the "C" because the team decided he wasn't mature enough. He had a difficult relationship with coach John Tortorella and high expectations from fans and media. While he never achieved "Michael Jordan" status, he scored 52 goals in a season, won the Stanley Cup, played Jean Beliveau in a movie, suited up for more than a thousand games with Tampa, earned a personal fortune and had his number retired by the team that drafted him.
    He was also the frequent subject of trade rumours sending him to Montreal, where he had little interest in playing, knowing the pressure of being a homegrown superstar would likely crush him.
    So, the man knows a lot about what it means to be the first-overall pick in the NHL draft and what can happen afterwards.


    When Lecavalier was hired, the Canadiens weren't guaranteed the first pick in the draft, but they were second-last in the NHL, one point ahead of Arizona. It was looking pretty likely they'd at least be in the running. At the draft lottery in May, they locked up the top spot, and then had to decide which player would best fulfill his promise. In the end, they took big, strong Juraj Slafkovsky, and Lecavalier's real work began...number one to number one.

    "I'm working with Slafkovsky. It's his first year and we're trying to help him as much as we can. I cut his clips and then we work with the skills coach to try and help him in his process. Right now that's what I'm doing," he says.
    "He's 18. I remember when I was 18, I didn't have a clue. I'm not saying he doesn't, but I'm saying you have to learn through experience. I try to bring what I can, trying to bring out the best in him."
    "I watch him play every game," he continues. "He's way bigger than me. He's like 240. That's crazy. He's a big, big boy. But it's the knowledge. For me, from 18 to 30, you gain a lot of knowledge. The person who had the most knowledge for me was Marty St.Louis. When I started playing with Marty, I started getting better. You learn from the best minds, and Marty I think is the best player I've ever played with in terms of hockey IQ. You learn from different people, and that's what we're trying to do with Slafkovsky."
    Lecavalier says he's pleased with Slafkovsky's work ethic and his quickness to learn. Right now the Slovakian teenager is his top priority, but the Canadiens have two more first-round choices coming up in 2023. While they're closer to the playoffs than the draft lottery at the season's quarter mark, the former first-overall on staff is preparing to help the team make the most of those draft picks.
    "In January, I'll still focus on Slafkovsky, but I'll watch a lot of the top forty or fifty draft players for 2023, make sure I know all of them," he says. "First two rounds, and so when we get to the draft we have all the meetings and we can make decisions about players."
    And when those future Habs arrive in Montreal, they'll have the advantage of learning from somebody who's literally been there before.


Tuesday, November 22, 2022

The Boss


    On a gorgeous fall evening in October, the usual crowd gathered in the Legion hall in tiny Gander, Newfoundland. A few down-on-their luck guys were playing video slots. A pair of couples sat drinking local beer at a wobbly table under bright, fluorescent lights. A trio of people chatted with the bored-looking bartender, while one guy played pool against himself. Otherwise, the place was quiet and empty.
    Heads turned when the door opened and strangers...a whole gang of them...strolled in. They were mostly young men; tall, fit, loud and energetic. Obviously, they were some sort of team.
    It turned out the visitors were the Montreal Canadiens training and equipment staff, in town with the team for a Kraft Hockeyville exhibition game against the Ottawa Senators. On the night before the game, they were out for some fun and to be screeched in.
    A screech-in is a silly game for tourists in Newfoundland, in which you become an honorary citizen by reciting a local phrase, drinking a shot of dark rum Screech and kissing a codfish, hosted by a local emcee.
    It wasn't a big deal to the regulars at the Legion. Screech-ins happen there fairly often over the summer, so nobody really paid much attention. Or, they didn't until another group arrived shortly behind the first. This time, their eyes followed one of the newcomers, knowing they'd seen him somewhere before.
    Marty St.Louis, casual in dark jeans, navy sweater and white-collared shirt, blended in with the rest of the crowd. He wasn't quite sure what he was doing there; only that the training guys said they were going and he decided to tag along. The rest of the coaching staff came with him.
    That was unusual. A couple of the trainers said most of the time on the road the coaches keep to themselves. Mixing in with the trainers and equipment guys normally doesn't happen, and it signaled to them the start of a different kind of team reality.
    The screech-in proceeded with the jokes, the recitation of the Newfoundland phrases, the rum and the codfish. Although a bit bemused, St.Louis played along in the spirit of the thing. He willingly drank the rot-gut rum and kissed the frozen fish, with a big smile. As more than one attendee explained, "That's just Marty."


    A few years ago, Forbes magazine published an article called 7 Things That Make Great Bosses Unforgettable. The first item on the list: great bosses are passionate.
    Vincent Lecavalier played in Tampa for twelve years with St.Louis, and counts him as a friend and mentor.
    "That's probably one of his biggest things," he says. "If you talk about Marty St.Louis, that's what it is. Passion. Determination. That's something he brought as a player and obviously as a coach now. He loves what he does. He's hockey. That's his life. I loved hockey. I loved a lot of things about hockey. But to be a coach, to do that game in and game out, it takes a special kind of person."
    Mike Gilligan agrees. St.Louis joined his University of Vermont squad in 1993, and immediately impressed the coach.
    "I have to give him the highest ranks in passion," he says. "When he was a younger player in college, he was almost too passionate and losses hurt him so. He expected a lot from himself. He enjoyed the game so much, he didn't want to play poorly or have his teammates play poorly. He didn't like it if he thought they weren't respecting the sport and respecting every minute they had to enjoy that sport. He was the heart and soul of my teams for four years. Passion is one of his great traits."
    Number two on the Forbes list of excellent boss traits is "standing in front of the bus." In other words, the opposite of throwing players under the bus when things aren't going well. Gilligan says St.Louis ticks that box as well.
    "When he was hired up there last year, I said to myself, one thing he won't do is embarrass his players," he remembers. "He'll back them up, and he'll do one on ones with them if he has anything serious to say. He won't make a spectacle or coach through the media. He'll be right up front with these guys. He's not gonna blame anybody else except himself if things go wrong. He takes the hits. He'll own everything."
    Third on the Forbes list: "They play chess, not checkers." That is to say, they recognize not all pieces of their teams are interchangeable. They each have a specific set of traits that can be applied in a situation, and there are situations when a particular team member cannot be used.
    "Marty has been in every situation," says Lecavalier. "He's been a fourth liner, he's been an American Leaguer, he's been everything. He relates to everybody because he's been through it all. He can relate to a fourth liner. He can related to that guy who's gonna be up and down all year. He can relate to the top player. The only thing he can't relate to is probably the goalie."
    "That's what makes him understand that everybody does need a role on a team and how important everybody is on a team.  Even if you're playing eight or nine minutes, he'll get the best eight or nine minutes for that guy. I think he really understands that."
    Next, a great boss is who he is all the time, with no pretense, false promises or hidden agendas.
    "He's as serious in life as he is in hockey," Gilligan explains. "He expects a lot from the people around him, but he expects more from himself. He doesn't change. He hasn't changed one bit since I've met him. He doesn't forget anybody. With all his successes, his best friends are some of the guys he grew up with along the way. Not big shot type players, but just regular friends. He's as nice to them as he is to everyone else."
    Number five on the Forbes list is "a great boss is a port in a storm." When everything is going to crap, he's the one who calms everyone down and remains cool under pressure.
    "I think he's pretty calm," Lecavalier says. "I think he was like that as a player. That's probably very hard to do as a coach because you're basically looked at as either a winner or a loser. A lot of coaches can't take the losing."
    "I think Marty's done a really good job in believing in the process of getting better. Sometimes you don't always get the results, but you know that's gonna come.  So I think as a coach, it's good to be patient if your team is trending in the right direction and he's doing that."
    According to the list, an excellent boss is also human, not afraid of emotion or embarrassed to show his own. He's also warm and relates to his people as people before workers
    "He's very easy to talk to," Lecavalier shares. "He was a guy who wasn't afraid to go and talk to coaches, and that's what he's bringing. His door's always open. Not every coach does that. They say their door is open, but it's not really."
    "But he's a good communicator. He understands everybody has different needs and responds to different ways of coaching. I can just remember with me and John Tortorella, it was hard for me to go into his office. And Marty would say why won't you go in his office? You'll feel so much better after. You'll both feel better. He was always about communication, and he does that with his players."
     And finally, according to Forbes, a great boss is humble.
    "He doesn't brag on himself at all," Gilligan confirms. "As much as he's done, he doesn't talk about himself. He just goes on with his life and tries to help people around him. He just loves the sport and respects it so much. It's given him a career and it's been his lifelong dream."
    If St.Louis has all the qualities of a great boss, neither Gilligan nor Lecavalier is surprised.
    "I got in the league before him, but I was five years younger," says Lecavalier. "He really helped me on my mental game. He made sure I got better. He was a natural leader that brought the best out of me. He was almost like a player-coach type guy with not just the caring, but how to play the game. Little things on the ice that make you better. He was a big brother type of guy. A friend and a guy you could talk to."
    "He sees the game like he's in the third balcony. He's always had great hockey sense. Even when he played with me, he'd suggest things to do," Gilligan says.
    "I remember on his first penalty kill with us, he came off the ice and I said 'Hey Marty, when you get that puck, you get rid of it and throw it down the other end.' He looked at me and said 'I kind of see it as an offensive opportunity. There's fewer people out there to go around.' He was almost like a coach from day one for us."
    "He was a great hire. Some of the younger kids have rallied around him. They're really starting to grow as players right now. He's a good match for them. Some of them remember him as a player. It wasn't that long ago that he was doing the stuff they're trying to do right now."
    "He's got a great set of values. As good as he is as a hockey person, he's a hall of famer in life. He's quite a guy."

    Back in Gander, after the Canadiens crew were screeched in and shared a few laughs and beers, they headed out to get ready for the next day's game.
    At the door, they stopped and looked around. "Where's Marty?" they asked.
    Looking back, there he was.
    Quietly helping the bartender clear away the empties before he hit the road.