Scotty Bowman smiled a tight little smile when asked about Randy Carlyle.
“Firm,” he said. “He’s firm. He makes the players produce and he makes them responsible. Plus, he has them working in the right system.”
There are few more lasting endorsements than hockey’s all-time winningest coach finding you properly stern.
It should come as no surprise, I suppose. The Old School Randy Carlyle, the one who scoffs when reporters ask about a practice that lasts longer than an hour, the one whose actions suggest a disregard for soothing feelings, that guy is never far away. Ask James Reimer, outplayed by Ben Scrivens over a week of practices or Matt Frattin, demoted for tepid performances in the same scrimmages.
“He’s setting the tone now with his personality,” appraised Leaf alumni Wendel Clark. “When a coach comes in he’s really tough early. Then he gets everyone in line. In a shortened season you’re really trying to get them to toe the line right off the bat.”
The measure of a coach’s security is his willingness to follow his instincts. Moving Dion Phaneuf to left defence, installing him with Michael Kostka and then giving Kostka 23 minutes of ice time in his first NHL game, these moves speak to a healthy decisiveness.
“He really knows what he wants,” said defenceman Carl Gunnarsson, who was moved off the number one pairing in favor of Kostka. “He says ‘this is the way we’re going to go’ and he has everyone pull the same way. He’s really honest about it.”
No surprise that Bowman, who periodically moved a future Hall of Famer in Sergei Fedorov back to the blue line, finds favor in Carlyle’s style.
But what is most interesting about Carlyle is the subtle tactics he has taken in overhauling the feeling inside the dressing room.
He runs an insular room. Carlyle was ticked when goalie James Reimer explained what the sign ‘Burn the Boats’ meant to a reporter. Carlyle has constantly challenged his players to restore the luster to the franchise because he knows preaching respectability means demanding more self-respect. That is how, to use the vernacular, cultures are changed.
“I think it’s a vital motivational tool that we can use to bring back respectability,” he said of the team’s seven-year string without a playoff game. “It’s something that isn’t just talked about. It has to be earned night in and night out.”
This is the marriage of Old School and New Age with Randy Carlyle. The pillars: block more shots, win more draws, come out on top of more puck battles were tenets even when Bowman was a boy. So was the use of playing time, or even keeping a player on the roster to fan competetiveness both inside the roster and out.
But while Old School coaches, the Bowmans, the Toe Blakes and Punch Imlachs were aloof, Carlyle comes across as a guy from Sudbury who happens to work as a hockey coach.
Carlyle is absolutely uninhibited when talking about hockey. “Happy wife, happy life,” he said when he described how important it was to consult with his family before taking the Leaf job. Hard to imagine Ron Wilson invoking that slogan.
“I think people see one side, the coach side. There is a person behind that,” Kostka said. “You see the figurehead. He’s a real person. He can be a really intense guy but he’s also real understanding. He played the game. He understands what’s involved.”
The Leafs didn’t give Joffrey Lupul five more years without Carlyle’s explicit approval. That’s interesting because Carlyle had to sign off on the trade that sent Carlyle from Anaheim to Toronto. In appraising Lupul, Carlyle recognized the player he has now, not the player he traded.
“Lupes and I didn’t see eye to eye in the past but he’s a much different player now that he was then,” Carlyle said. ”
He’s shown a tremendous amount of leadership, a lot of courage and a lot of grit and determination to get where he is.”
Clark, who played for Pat Burns, understands the theatre of coaching and the necessity of an accessible coach buried not too far behind the veneer. Carlyle thought enough of the negative vibe surrounding the team that he gutted the dressing room. There is something decidedly new age about a coach who renovates the workplace because it doesn’t have the proper hockey Feng Shui.
“On the ice, in the dressing room, there’s one persona and there’s another persona because he’s a normal guy and likes the game,” Clark said. “He understands. He played the game. “