Hockey coaches are a cagey bunch, often reluctant to disclose the finer points of their on-ice strategies and player deployment – let alone injuries or dressing room speeches. Fans and reporters constantly hear Jack Adams Award winners dishing out banalities at their post-game press conferences: “He’s a good player and he made a great play. I thought we played good.”
To delve deeper into the minds of the men who guide the world’s top players, we now have Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches by Craig Custance. For his first book, the long-time ESPN hockey writer, who now works for The Athletic, convinced 10 top NHL bench bosses to sit down with him during the summer, rewatch one of the biggest games of their careers, and share their insights. That includes the likes of Dan Bylsma, Bob Hartley, John Tortorella, and Ken Hitchcock, all of whom have headed up national teams as well.
It’s a compelling concept, and Custance delivers on its promise with vivid attention to detail. The two months he spent driving around North America to get these interviews – often at the coaches’ homes – did not go to waste.
For fans of IIHF competition, the two most interesting chapters feature Mike Babcock and Ron Wilson’s separate takes on the 2010 Olympic gold medal game between Canada and the United States in Vancouver. There, Sidney Crosby’s overtime winner on Ryan Miller gave the host country its biggest international victory since Paul Henderson’s dramatic last-minute goal in Game Eight of the 1972 Summit Series in Moscow.
Babcock, the only coach in the IIHF’s Triple Gold Club (WM 2004, SC 2008, OG 2010, 2014), emerges as even more business-like, inquisitive, and passionate than his reputation would suggest. Taking notes throughout the viewing session, he analyzes the importance of an attempted Mike Richards hit on U.S. blueliner Ryan Suter in the opening minutes. He adds that in hindsight, he would have put Drew Doughty out on defence instead of Shea Weber during the sequence that led to Zach Parise’s 2-2 tying goal with 24 seconds left in regulation.
Wilson, who led America to victory in the inaugural 1996 World Cup of Hockey, lives up to his reputation for sarcasm and forthrightness. As he rewatches the gold medal game, his then-oft-maligned Toronto Maple Leafs star Phil Kessel is a frequent target: “You never have a ‘come to Jesus’ meeting with Phil. He’s impossible to talk to.”
Yet Wilson also relates with great animation how his silver-medal squad drew inspiration from wounded U.S. soldiers who came to speak to them. And he offers a terse verdict when asked about the challenge of coaching versus Babcock: “I don’t think there’s any challenge there. He’s like any other coach. I don’t think he outcoached me. Their team won in overtime on a little bit of a flukey goal.”
Custance does a stellar job of capturing the coaches’ home lives, too. Who would have guessed that Wilson’s possessions include “a black Bible with Wilson’s name engraved on the front, right below a Toronto Maple Leafs logo” or “a framed picture of a tiger in the snow, a gift from the Vancouver Canucks in 1997”?
The 256-page book is North America-centric. European readers may bemoan the absence of Jukka Jalonen, Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, Vladimir Ruzicka, or Oleg Znarok. Also, sometimes Custance goes overboard with his folksy scene-setting, such as when he visits Todd McLellan’s Kelowna house: “The family couldn’t be nicer, absolutely salt of the earth. I mean, besides the million-dollar summer home we’re currently standing in.”
However, it’s also evident that Custance’s ability to speak and relax with these coaches on their own terms is key to the material he gets. McLellan rewards him with insights on how his Canadian team shut down Alexander Ovechkin’s Russians in a 6-1 gold medal triumph at the 2015 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in the Czech Republic.
The foreword by Crosby illuminates how winning the 2015 Worlds not only put him into the Triple Gold Club but also revitalized his career. He followed up winning two Stanley Cups and two Conn Smythe Trophies with the Pittsburgh Penguins, plus the 2016 World Cup of Hockey.
“Playing for Todd McLellan in the World Championships was another great experience,” Crosby says. “I was pretty sour about being eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs by the Rangers that year, and the experience in Prague ended up providing a big boost to my preparation for the next season.”
Crosby adds: “We were there to win but [McLellan] wanted us to enjoy the experience in Prague as well, which we did. That was a big part of our chemistry throughout the tournament. The whole experience was awesome.”
Readers will echo that last sentiment after devouring Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches.