Hanging from a banner in Honnen Ice Arena at Colorado College is a quote from one of hockeys greatest ambassadors. You can also find it painted above the stick rack at PPG Paints Arena — home to the Pittsburgh Penguins. “It’s a great day for hockey” was not simply a slogan used by legendary hockey coach “Badger” Bob Johnson, but a standard for life. The Minneapolis, Minnesota native is best known for his accomplishments 300 miles southeast where he redefined the game of hockey while coaching at the University of Wisconsin.
His innovations — borrowed from Europe — were originally brushed off while he was labeled as a coach who failed to understand the game.
The game as it had always been played.
At a time when ashtrays lined locker rooms, Johnson emphasized conditioning. He preached fundamentals and encouraged creativity. His innovative ways led to three championships in Wisconsin; a playoff appearance in every year he coached the Calgary Flames, including a Stanley Cup Final in 1986; and a Stanley Cup in his first — and ultimately his only — season in Pittsburgh. Johnson passed away in 1991 after losing his battle with brain cancer but his contributions to the game are as alive as ever.
The game has changed dramatically over the last 50 years and college coaches have been at the forefront.
Clare Drake, a long-time coach at the University of Alberta, valued skating and shorter shifts. To adapt his players, he utilized what we now call interval training. He kept to 30 or 45-second shifts during a time when the NHL continued to see players break the two-minute mark. Coaches at the top level recognized the value but struggled to implement it into their own systems as players rejected the model.
”We used to scrimmage a lot more then than they do now,” legendary coach Scotty Bowman told the Globe last year. “I had a football horn and a stopwatch. I used to go as close to a minute as possible. At 50 seconds, I’d blow the horn to let them know they’d been on for 50 seconds and the next chance you get to change, take it. If they didn’t change, I’d blow the whistle and stop the play and say, ‘We’re already at a minute 10, and you’re not even close to getting off.’ For me, the shorter shifts came in the 1980s.”
Eventually, everything took hold and shorter shifts led to an increased emphasis on skating and ultimately a quicker game. But it doesn’t stop there. College coaches have always been forced to innovate and NHL teams are taking note of their results — especially when it comes to their systems.
This past May, the Dallas Stars hired new head coach Jim Montgomery only two years removed from taking the University of Denver to an NCAA championship. David Quinn, the former BU frontman (Go Terriers!), was hired in May by the New York Rangers. Jumping directly to the NHL is not a common occurrence, having only happened a few times in the last 50 years, but one we have seen twice in 2018.
So, would it be wise to hire a coach directly from a college program? Maybe not. But would it be a good idea to at least take a look? Probably. Nate Leaman of the Providence Friars is known for his ability to develop young talent while Scott Sandelin has taken the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs to two national championships and four Frozen Four tournaments. Those are two names worth looking into.
It’s not just college. The American Hockey League has been a training ground for future NHL coaches.
Last season, 23 of the 31 coaches in the NHL had experience at the AHL level. Bruce Cassidy of the Boston Bruins, Barry Trotz of the Islanders (wow, that is weird to say), and Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh just to name a few. So while Dave Tippett is helping untangle an AHL affiliation for Seattle, it may be wise to peek around the corner and take a hard look at some of the leagues head coaches — one of whom I thought for sure was going to land a job in Dallas.
The Toronto Marlies (the AHL affiliate of the Toronto Maple Leafs) won their first-ever Calder Cup last season and behind the bench stood Sheldon Keefe. A name hockey fans should get to know if they don’t already.
Keefe began his coaching career with the Pembroke Lumber Kings in the Central Canada Hockey League after three seasons playing for the Tampa Bay Lightning. In Pembroke, he led his teams to five straight league championship wins, obtained a 51-9-2 record in 2010, and took home the Royal Bank Cup in 2011. Before Kyle Dubas hired him to turn around the struggling Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, he had tallied up 285 wins and 95 losses. Setting new records for most career wins and highest career win percentage.
In his first full season with the Greyhounds, Keefe led his team to a 44-17-7 finish. He somehow improved on that and set a franchise record the following year when the club finished their OHL season at 54-12-2. They probably would have won it all if it hadn’t been for some pesky kid named Connor McDavid whose Erie Otters knocked them out of the playoffs two years in a row.
Again he was finding success, and again Kyle Dubas came calling.
In 2015, Keefe was named the head coach of the Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League where he has since compiled a winning percentage of over .650. The stakes may have changed but his winning ways didn’t. He is a progressive coach, led by analytics, who took the Marlies to their first-ever Calder Cup victory.
There is no question that hiring a coach without NHL experience - especially to run an expansion team - comes with a lot of risks, but are they risks you would be willing to accept as a fan in Seattle?