Thursday, January 19, 2012

What's the Difference?

A few months ago I found myself sitting at a Blue Jackets game next to a guy who said he was the brother-in-law of one of the players. For any of you who saw me on TV during the Bruins game when I was sitting in front of Derek Dorsett's mom and grandma, I am speaking of a different game. So, for the record, the guy sitting next to me, who I will hereafter refer to as Guy, was not related to Derek Dorsett. Other than that, I'm not going to reveal Guy's identity and it isn't important to the story.

Guy was a friendly . . . umm . . . guy, especially during the second period after he had "loosened up a bit," shall we say. From the outset the game wasn't going so well for the Jackets and I engaged Guy in a brief conversation about the state of the team. 

We discussed goaltending. We discussed the offseason acquisitions. We discussed specific players. But whenever Guy's comments would turn to the negative, he would pause and then add, "I really shouldn't say anything more." I didn't push him. I thought it would be uncool.

But to this day the one thing that sticks out in my mind about the exchange was when I mentioned Scott Arniel. It was at the very end of the conversation. I said something like, "I think Arniel will rally these guys. It's a long season." At first Guy didn't say a word, but the look he gave me read like a book. I did push him on this one. And this time he didn't hesitate.

"The players hate him," he said. "He treats them like minor leaguers. There's no respect."

Guy said some other things that would raise a few eyebrows, but I've never been able to shake this one comment.  I thought about it now and again as the season progressed and the team imploded. I thought about it as Arniel's fate became sealed and he was relieved of his duties. And I thought about it as I watched the game on Tuesday night against Edmonton, and especially as I watched Todd Richards in his post-game presser.

After getting embarrassed by a depleted Oilers squad in the first eight minutes of the game, Richards called a timeout. The Jackets came out of the timeout a more determined and focused bunch, and would go on to tie the game with one second left in the first period. An early second period goal gave them a 3-2 lead that they would not relinquish. It was the first time all season that the Jackets have come back from two goal deficit to win.

Afterwards, everyone wanted to know what Richards said or did during the timeout. As Richards explained in his post-game comments, he didn't say much. He told them that they were better than how they were playing. That's it. As for what he did, he preferred to highlight what he didn't do. He didn't yell at them. 

At 4 minutes and 40 seconds into the presser, Lori Schmidt noted that a couple of the players told her how, in between the first and second periods, Richards had "left it on them" to challenge themselves to play better than they had in the first period. She asked Richards what it was that he saw in the leadership group that trusted him to do that. Richards responded:
"Well I just want the players to take more ownership in the team," he said. "I want the leaders to take more ownership in the group, in running the group, so that when things aren't going well they take it upon themselves to try to turn it, and not waiting on a coach, not waiting on a referee, not waiting on the fans, not waiting on someone else or something else to do it." 
What is Todd Richards doing differently? Read between the lines and it sounds like he is saying the players don't need to be yelled at and berated into playing well (like they are minor leaguers). Read between the lines and it sounds like he is treating the players like professionals, with respect and trust, asking them to lead from within and to start playing like they have some control over their destiny. Read between the lines and one begins to sense that this is a new approach for this team, one that is at least fresh in the context of this season.

I'm not saying that the players were being treated unprofessionally by Arniel, or that they felt disrespected by him and didn't trust him. Guy said it. And who knows if Guy was accurate. But I'll say this, he certainly believed it. And it was the one thing he had no issue sharing with me. Maybe the divide between Arniel and this team got so wide that the players quit responding to Arniel. Or maybe they never did in the first place.

The approach Richards is taking right now sounds simple in theory, but clearly it is anything but simple in practice. Great coaches, let alone lesser ones, have failed at it from time to time. And, as I'm sure is the case with Arniel, it wasn't for a lack of trying. But it takes more than trying to get it right.

It takes a sense of balance between being a hard-ass and being a pushover. It takes at least a perception of fairness. It takes an incredible sense of timing, knowing when to push and prod, and when to back off. And it takes the right group of players as well, players with character, heart and drive. It's a two way street. Yet when it works it's described as the players "buying in," as if they should get the credit. And when it fails it's described as the coach "losing the room," as if he should shoulder all of the blame.

Such is life as a head coach. Sometimes it clicks and sometimes it doesn't. Todd Richards knows what happens when it doesn't click. This is his second trip to the rodeo. Did he learn some things during his first trip that he has been able to put into his bag of tricks? Lots and lots of CBJ fans are hoping so, and that what happened on Tuesday night is the sign of things to come, not an aberration.

If we are to believe Scott Howson, changes are coming to the Blue Jackets roster. We'll have to see how that plays out. As we wait, we can take some comfort in knowing that other changes are already occurring in the locker room, changes that are just as important as any future roster moves, changes that are long overdue, changes that need to happen before any meaningful success can occur, no matter who the coach is next season and beyond.


  1. Richard's comments hit me and AlisonL as well, as we listened to the postgame on the drive home. Alison quickly said, "maybe Arniel was coaching too much?" I think that ties in with "treating them like minor leaguers".

    On the contrary, they deserve to be treated like minor leaguers, when effort is lacking (as we saw last season, and early this season). The inmates continue to run the asylum in CBJ land, where quitting on the coach is an annual right of passage. If the young coach knows his job is on the line, and the team is not playing well, he probably tries too much.

    Coaching is as much psychology, as X's & O's.

  2. Dutchman1350: Great points. I agree that a team that is lacking effort should not be allowed to quit on the coach, but once they do I think it's damn near impossible to get them back. And of course, there is always the possibility that they never bought in to begin with.

  3. Very interesting post. Nice work. So let's follow the timeline. 08-09 there is Peca in the room to buffer a demading coach in Hitch. Lose that buffer & the players perceive a micro-manager. You don't have Peca to say 'this is what we are doing to meet your demand, leave us alone!'. Bring in another demanding coach perceived by the players as a micro-manager and you end up with the same result that happened to Hitch. If Richards can sustain the balance (nice term) they may do better. Very interesting stuff!


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