top of page

What's in a Coach

by Nicole Wilkes

Graphic by Gabrielle DiPietro

Twenty-four different teams have won the Stanley Cup since its induction to the National Hockey League in 1927, and behind each and every one, there was a coach. When one watches any game that is broadcasted on television, the coach can sometimes seem like a minor character who is only shown celebrating a goal or debating the validity of a call made by a referee. It is so easy to forget that these coaches are working, planning and motivating each and every second-- long before the game begins and long after it ends. No coach is the same;each has different values, priorities and techniques and some have proven to be more effective than others.

With 1124 career wins and nine Stanley Cup rings to his name, Scotty Bowman is the most successful coach in NHL history. The Canadian-born prodigy coached five teams throughout his 35 years in the league, but is known for his work with the Detroit Red Wings, with whom he spent nine years and won three Stanley Cup titles before his retirement.

Bowman was incredible at utilizing information. He was the first coach in the NHL to videotape other teams in order to learn their style, plays and line strengths inside and out. Former Washington Capitals coach Gary Green admired how Bowman was always be one step ahead of his competition.

“He seemed to know your team almost better than you did,” said Green in an interview with the Washington Post.

Bowman paid meticulously close attention to the amount of ice time that specific players of the opposing team had received and instructed his own to especially physical towards those he decided would be the most exhausted. He also required that all of his players keep track of their plus/minus percentages—how many points were scored for and against their team while they were on the ice. This data is useful for ensuring credit is given to those who were especially dynamic and effective, but were not always the one scoring the goal or making the assist. It was equally as useful for identifying which players were slipping up more than they could afford to- which was unacceptable.

Currently 442 wins behind Bowman is Joel Quenneville, the current head coach for the Chicago Blackhawks. Quenneville, a former defenseman who himself had played 13 seasons in the NHL, got his start as a coach with the St. Louis Blues, where he coached for eight years. He then spent three years with the Colorado Avalanche and then was hired by the Blackhawks, where he has been the coach for nine years and won three Stanley cups. As a former defenseman, Quenneville puts a great majority of his focus on his defense, fine-tuning their positioning and skills in order to make them as impenetrable as possible. This gives his star-studded offense the freedom with which they have flourished.

Quenneville never used fear or intimidation to motivate his players. Rather, he established individual relationships with his players and acts as a mentor.

“In his style, everybody is involved. Everybody’s important,” said forward Andrew Desjardins in an interview with the Star Tribune, “The confidence we have, that Blackhawks mentality, that comes from him.”

Quenneville believed so strongly in this philosophy that he practiced an open-door policy with his players that encouraged all members of his team to come to him with any ideas, feelings or concerns, promising to listen to whatever a player had to say. Quenneville utilizes one-on-one attention and communication to build his players up and make them feel validated. This environment fosters a comradery within his team that inspires his players to play hard for one another. On his team, everyone believes in each other and acts as a cohesive unit to get the job done.

The late Al Arbour is best known for his work with the New York Islanders, whom he coached for 20 years. Over the course of his career as a head coach, Arbour delivered 782 wins and four back-to-back Stanley Cup wins, making him the third most successful NHL coach of all time.

Much like Quenneville, Arbour put an incredible amount of focus on the individual player. However, rather than nurturing and making an effort to emotionally support his team, Arbour observed them and tested each man in order to get a sense of what made them tick. He understood that the same discipline and motivation techniques would not work for each and every player-- he understood the need for a personal touch.

The ability to understand what a player could handle—whether they needed to be built up or whether they needed to be knocked down a peg—was the reason so many players respected him. It was the reason they were so ready to get behind them, the reason they never wanted to let him down.

Arbour applied the same talent of adaptability to how he prioritized his game. During the very beginning of his coaching career, he made defense his top priority. As disciplined and responsible defense became more effective, the Blackhawks brought home more wins. As they became more and more successful, the franchise made more money from ticket and merchandise sales, allowing them to afford more and more superstar players. Arbour recognized this and changed his coaching strategy accordingly, honing the talents of the new offensive stars and creating new plays and drills around them.

Both Bowman and Arbour regularly tested their players and attempted to catch them off guard to assess their mental toughness; however, that is about the only common trait between Bowman and the next two most successful coaches. While Bowman found it best to know absolutely everything about his opponents, Arbour leaned towards knowing everything about his own men. Arbour and Quenneville had more similar approaches, as they both valued their players as individuals and recognized that they were more than just hockey players.It goes without saying that Quenneville and Bowman have incredibly different techniques and philosophies. While Quenneville encourages open communication and makes an effort to validate each individual player, Bowman’s style resembled the sayings “it’s my way or the highway” and “shape up or ship out.” Although it is true that Bowman has over 400 more wins under his belt, some predict that Quenneville has what it takes to challenge that before he retires.

bottom of page