Randy Carlyle would get up at first light, shower and get dressed.
Then he would get into his car and take the first road to nowhere.
There is no count on how many times Carlyle drove around Anaheim from November 30, 2011, the day he was fired as coach of the Ducks, to when he was hired by the Maple Leafs on March 2, a year Saturday,
The desolation of those drives has not left the 56-year-old Carlyle.
“I had my period of time I was driving around at 6:30 in the morning not having any self worth and wondering what I was going to do the rest of the day,” he said.
Finally, Carlyle approached his old bosses. He asked to scout the Eastern Conference for the Ducks.
“I learned I had to work,” Carlyle said. “I could have sat at home and done nothing and got paid but that’s not how I view myself. I need to be doing stuff. I need that to have value in my life and I had none.”
When you take in Carlyle’s hockey career you understand the devastation that being fired would bring. He had never failed.
Drafted 30th overall by the Leafs in 1976, Carlyle racked up 1055 NHL games. He played 94 games with the Leafs, then starred in Pittsburgh and then Winnipeg. He won a Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenceman in 1981.
Carlyle spent six seasons behind the bench of the Manitoba Moose, two years as an assistant with the Washington Capitals and then went back to the Moose.
He was an instant success when he returned to the NHL. His teams made the conference final in his first campaign and won the Stanley Cup in the next.
Three and a half seasons later, he was driving aimlessly around Anaheim.
Scouting is not the kind of move most ex-coaches willingly embrace. Scouts spend their days in transit and are marooned from the daily urgency and purpose that envelopes a hockey team. Everywhere you go, in every press box and dining room, people see someone who used to be someone far more important.
Carlyle’s assistant coach, Dave Farrish, has known him for 40 years. The two first met when both were Sudbury Wolves’ defencemen. Idleness, he said, was a particular enemy for Carlyle.
“Randy’s a Type A personality,” Farrish said. “He’s not a golfer, not somebody else who can just do other things (unrelated to work). He needed to be busy and he needed to be on the road.”
Carlyle’s a hockey guy, a Northern Ontario guy, a Sudbury guy, a guy who played under a dozen different coaches as a pro. Nearly all of them were journeymen, itinerant coaches, Johnny Wilson, Lou Angotti, Dan Maloney, John Paddock.
A life without hockey in its middle was by nature empty because to Carlyle, hockey had and has elements of the sacred.
The game is built on inviolate principles. It is a hard, elemental game that is to be played hard. It is an aggressive game whose violence serves as a form of self-governance. It is an exclusive experience shared by a select few who are among the most fortunate human beings to walk this earth.
If you understand all that, then you have gone a long way in understanding Randy Carlyle. For one thing you understand why he is unconcerned about all the elements outside the dressing room: the media attention, the adoration of fans, the demands of friends.
“Randy likes that term… white noise,” said forward Nazem Kadri. “That’s everything that is outside this dressing room. We like to keep it tight like a family. I don’t think you’ll be getting much from this dressing room.”
“When you get here, the other stuff, the white noise, doesn’t exist,” Farrish says as he stands in the Leafs room. “It’s just us, our family basically.”
What the signs in the dressing rooms mean: ‘Burn the boats…Close the gap…Make today count’ isn’t mysterious. The Romans were known for nautical invasions in which the ships that carried the soldiers were torched. Kind of a motivational thing. The slogans about closing the gap and making today count could grace the wall of a high school guidance office.
Just don’t expect any Leaf to explain them to you. As Brian Burke enjoyed saying, “it’s none of your business.”
“Because I believe there are certain things that are sacred,” Carlyle said. “What happens inside the dressing room doesn’t need to be on public display, day in and day out.”
Exclusivity, the idea that playing professional hockey is a privilege to be cherished by the lucky few, is at the centre of Carlyle’s value system.
“That’s how you create unity within your group,” he said. “That all for one, one for all mentality, that’s what successful teams and successful organizations have been able to do. The crest on the front is more important than the name on the back.”
For years New Zealand’s famous rugby side, the All Blacks, kept a proprietary rein on its uniform. The only way you could gain an All Blacks jersey was to play for the team. Similarly, the exclusivity, the privilege of being a hockey player, is central to being a Maple Leaf under Randy Carlyle. There isn’t much play there.
“He’s firm,” said Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman. “He makes the players produce and he makes them responsible.”
“With his resume, he’s often looked at as a stern coach but when you succeed he rewards you,” said defenceman Mark Fraser, a player from whom Carlyle has extracted 16 minutes of solid play a night. “There’s a combination of the superior who is intimidating but the player’s coach as well.”
The rest of it, the relentless line matching, the unyielding demand for fitness, the gruff benchside countenance, those things are the staple of most coaches.
So too are the tension-breakers, the games of three on three after a tough loss, the theatrical punishment of a solo lap for the last player in the huddle at practice.
“Just fun things, things you steal from other coaches,” said Randy Carlyle. And then he grins. “Besides, there’s nothing better than making a rookie skate.”