In the early 1950s, a generation before the advent of the assistant coach, a rough-hewed winger named Bert Olmstead would sit on the Montreal Canadiens bench beside Maurice Richard.
His job was to light the Rocket’s fuse.
“I’d always know how to get to Rock. If Irvin (Habs coach Dick Irvin) nodded, I’d get on him. If he didn’t, I’d leave him alone,” Olmstead told me 15 years ago.
When the cue was given, Olmstead would gesture toward the opposing bench. Olmstead would sting the great man’s pride.
“Look at them Rock,” he would say. “They’re laughing at you.”
The venom was poured directly into the Rocket’s ear. “If I had done it in front of anybody else he would have laid me out,” Olmstead remembered.
Richard played in a rage, a beautiful destructive rage that was mostly but not always successfully harvested.
Cultivating passion, like many things, has become a specialty. There is, on every coaching staff a consistent but not entirely predictable dynamic. It’s good cop, bad cop translated to the rink: tough head coach, sympathetic assistants.
When a car dealer confides that he’s working for you but he needs a better offer to take to his manager, when Marlies coach Gord Dineen quietly counsels a player shredded by harsh criticisms from coach Dallas Eakins, the shell game is played again.
Eakins is Dally. King is Kinger. Dineen is Gordo. Often, but not always, the message becomes more easily digestible when it is spoon fed by Eakins’ surrogate rather than forced down the player’s throat by the boss.
Monday’s announcement that Eakins had been extended for another three years meant the coaching staff stays together for a while yet.
There is nothing accidental about their chemistry.
“My personality, I know what it is,” Eakins said. “I hired Derek King because I knew he was going to be great one-on-one. I knew his personality. I had played with Gord Dineen and I knew his personality. I thought the three of us could be a great fit.”
Experience brings rueful conclusions. King, a veteran of a dozen NHL seasons, is outgoing and keen. Most players, he said, understand the dynamic in a coaching staff only in retrospect.
“I think as a player you see it behind you,” he said.
For King, who enjoyed his most productive years as a New York Islander, Hall of Fame coach Al Arbour was an authority feature. It fell to assistant coach Lorne Henning to put the sugar to the pill.
“Lorne was the guy who put out Al Arbour’s fires,” King said. “He would give you the hug and say ‘don’t worry about it. Here’s what you’re doing, blah, blah, blah.’ I kind of learned from that. I look at myself as a positive guy. I read off of Dally and he kind of reads off of me. “
“I don’t know if there’s any one formula,” Eakins said. “But you can’t have three or four guys who are all doing the same thing. We can’t all just yell at them or all just hug them. You have to work together to get your message out, to have them receive the message and then move forward to action. “
The game inside the game spans generations. Arbour hasn’t been a full-time coach in 19 years and yet a descendant of the tandem act he managed with Henning is played out regularly in the Marlies dressing room.
“Lorne Henning was the sweeper, I guess,” said Dineen, whose demeanour is calm, even professorial. “He would go in after Al was done and translate the message. You come in after the tornado, the circus, whatever. You go in and clean up.”