So there was that time I got fired…
I was coaching the Brampton Thunder in the CWHL during the 2012-13 season. It was my first year with the team and we had a 5-7-1 start to a 24 game season. There are only five teams in the CWHL and since most players are fairly known commodities (Olympians, national team players, college and university players), it’s easy to know where your team sits with regards to talent level.
We were a very solid team - excellent goaltending, strong defence and a very good set of forwards. The only thing we lacked was real depth at the forward position. We were terrific on our top two lines but our third line wasn’t going to find too many goals, and was going to struggle against the top players in the league. The bottom line was that we were going to finish third of five teams. Boston and Montreal were simply more skilled than we were, and Toronto and Calgary, I felt, were not as skilled.
But, there was a plan! The was no question we were going to make the playoffs - a round robin format where you had to win at least two games to make the championship game. So that gave us 24 games to get our ducks in order to “steal” two games at the championship. I felt we had the best goaltending tandem in the league and both goalies, Florence Schelling and Liz Knox, could steal a game for us at any time. Given that, I knew that if we could develop into the best team in the league on the power play and the penalty kill, we had a very good chance to win a league championship.
So, we get to 5-7-1 just past the halfway point in the season. Pretty much where I thought we would be - lost to Calgary once, beat Boston once. We had been playing man on man in our own zone for the first half and were just going to make a critical and season planned transition to a zone defence when the general manager called me into her office. She told me that 5-7-1 wasn’t good enough and that the team would be “going in another direction” with regards to coaching.
I will say here that I was pretty disappointed. It was the first time I had ever been fired as a coach and I played “woulda, shoulda, coulda” for the better part of the next six months. My friend and colleague Tim Bothwell, who was coaching the Calgary team at the time, just said, “Welcome to the club!” I suppose all coaches get fired at one time or another. I had managed to get through more than 25 years without being let go - so that’s not too bad.
Now, there is a point to this story. For coaches, it is crucial to manage expectations with regards to wins and losses, and you have to “sell” your vision and plan to your team community. That season with Brampton I had done a good job of managing expectations with my players and my staff. What I had neglected to do was manage expectations with my general manager - which led to being let go. I had been “selling” to my players all year that our goal was to beat either Boston or Montreal in the championship round robin to get to the championship game. If we did that then anything could happen. Our focus was on getting better every day, not winning every game. Did it suck losing to Calgary? Absolutely. Was it awesome beating Boston 2-1 on the road? Absolutely.
Mike Babcock was interviewed on TSN this past week in St. Petersburg at the IIHF World Championships (you can access the interview here). At the start of the interview, Coach Babcock talks about the depth of the upcoming NHL draft and the amount of quality players the Leafs have in their system right now.
At the 10:00 mark, Babcock talks about the Leafs’ 2015-16 season - a year where they finished last overall in the NHL. There are three things in particular that stand out for me in what he says during the next three minutes of the interview:
1) Babcock talks about measuring success. Not once does he talk about the team’s record. He talks about people, attitude and team building.
2) Babcock talks about “selling”. That, regardless of wins and losses, if everyone feels they are going in the right direction then everyone is going to be happier and more supportive. This goes for the fans too, and in minor hockey, your fan base (i.e. parents) needs to be sold as well.
3) Players are now proud to be Maple Leafs. Winning this battle is paramount to being successful as an organization and as a coach.
One of my mentors in the coaching world, Brian Proctor, always told me “Coaching is mostly sales and marketing.” It’s about finding ways to get players and staff to “buy” into, as a group, what you want them to do and your vision of where you see the team going.
P.S. If you don’t watch the entire interview with Mike Babcock, there is one other point he makes that I really liked. At the 6:56 mark Babcock talks about great players, commitment and the gift of being a grinder. It’s worth a listen.
P.P.S. The picture on this blog post is of me behind the Brampton bench (it’s the only one I have). The player standing in front of me is Lori Dupuis who is now the GM of the team. A former Canadian Olympian and gold medal winner, Lori was one of my all-time favourite players to coach. Not only would she do things on the ice every game that made me go “Wow!” from the bench, she also challenged me and helped me grow as a coach like no other player has in my coaching career.
Read more from Coach Traugott on the “Sales and Marketing” of being a coach. His eBook Creating a Culture of Confidence is a terrific resource on coaching the mental side of the game.