Coaches readying for All-Star experience

📝 by Patrick Williams

Some of the best young talent bound for the National Hockey League will first gather this weekend in Laval for the 2023 AHL All-Star Classic presented by Bell in collaboration with Manulife Bank.

Standing behind the benches Sunday and Monday will be four of the AHL’s most successful coaches this season. Neil Graham, Mitch Love, Greg Moore and Todd Nelson earned invitations to Laval by virtue of their clubs owning the top record in their respective divisions as of Jan. 1.

All four of the invitees spoke with recently to discuss their careers in the business of developing NHL talent, what they have learned, and how they manage the different challenges that confront a head coach.

In his first season with the Bears, Nelson has the club atop the Atlantic Division. He is one of three people in AHL history to win the Calder Cup as a player, as an assistant coach and as a head coach.

On handling a bad loss
“After [the game], I had all of these ideas. I always want to sleep on it after a game. When you wake up in the morning, then you can watch some video and have a better idea of how you want to handle certain situations.

“That comes with experience. Early in my career, maybe I’d make some drastic moves.”

On reaching 500 professional coaching wins Jan. 14
“I didn’t know, to be quite honest, until [that night] when I looked at the game notes.

“I’ve been very fortunate to work with some very good players and very good teams over the years, and this [Hershey] team is no different. A lot of the credit goes to the players.”

On what he learned in the AHL that he took to the NHL
“I think the biggest thing in the American League was just trying to get the team to be a team because there are guys coming [and going].”

“In the National Hockey League, it’s no different. When I went to Edmonton (as an interim head coach in 2014-15), I just brought along my philosophy. I wanted to build a family atmosphere. When I first got there, there were pockets and cliques of two or three guys. About a month later, there are 14 guys at the lunch table, so I’m proud of creating that situation.

“I’m going to continue to create that culture, because I firmly believe that’s why you have success — because nothing is stronger than a family.”

On the tone of a meeting with a struggling player
“First off, I want to make sure everything’s fine with the person on the ice and off the ice. Sometimes things bother guys away from the rink that are out of my control, and it affects their style of play.

“You have an honest conversation. You just tell the player, ‘I need more out of you. You’re better than that. You know it, and I know it. Here are some things that I feel that you have to work on or get better at if you want to contribute to this hockey team and also get a chance at the National Hockey League.’”

Moore joined the Marlies as their head coach Dec. 1, 2019. He was an AHL All-Star in 2008 and joins Peter Laviolette and John Stevens as the only people to participate in AHL All-Star Classics as both a player and a head coach.

On building a strong team culture
“We have a really strong group of men on our team who show up every day. They’re good teammates. They support each other. They work hard. They challenge each other in a healthy way to get better on and off the ice. They’re building friendships.

“The same thing for our staff. Our staff has done an incredible job coming together as a group as well and building relationships with our players. All of our departments and the resources that we have all work in unison really well to help support these players.”

On evolving as an AHL head coach
“There are a lot of different elements of being a head coach, and one of them is the on-ice play. A lot of the tactics, systems, the strategy that I was [using] at the junior level I tried to bring to the pro level. Some of it has carried over, and some of it hasn’t. It’s a very different game at this level, a lot more equal level of play in terms of talent and ability.

“It’s been eye-opening for me to build myself a better mindset for weaknesses I have structurally and in game play and get better in certain areas.

“Off the ice, managing people and managing your players and building relationships and day-to-day conversation. They’re so important to the players and for the staff. That just takes reps. That takes time, and I feel like over time I’ve gotten better at dealing with and managing all the little moments of the day and all the different people. I think only experience over time can help you in a lot of those areas.”

On guiding today’s player
“I think it’s a lot more relationship-based. “Coaches in any sport at any level understand that the best way to help develop an athlete is to get to know them as people and have those interpersonal relationships.”

On how he has seen coaching change from his days as a player
“Practices and drills. Everything is more high-paced, and there’s a lot more detail and information expected out of the players to execute on a day-to-day [basis].

“Video and technology have really increased the speed in which people are coaching and increasing the speed of people or understanding the game and either copying or tweaking different things you’re seeing other teams and staff do.

“The chess match of moving pieces is just evolving faster than it used to.”

Graham in his fourth season as leading the Stars after taking the Texas head-coaching job when Derek Laxdal was promoted to the Dallas Stars in December 2019.

On being part of the Texas contingent in Laval
“I think that’s what makes it special, that I can represent a group that’s put in a lot of work up to this point.”

On last season’s Stars team battling for a berth in the Calder Cup Playoffs on the final road trip of the regular season
“You talk about development, you probably squeeze in a month or two worth of development on one road trip just on preparation, heightened expectations, bottling nerves and all that stuff that comes with important moments.

“That was critical for our group. It helped us. Some of the hard things are really tough when you’re going through it, but they made us a better group, and they made us a more appreciative group this season.”

On how the COVID-19 pandemic changed him as a head coach
“All coaches, and myself included, we got to learn the element of flexibility. I think now there’s an appreciation of just controlling what you can control on a daily basis.

“I think I’ve become a better coach because of it. Focus on what truly matters. Understand things can change on a moment’s notice, and it doesn’t always mean it’s going to affect your team or affect the way things go. Preparation is a daily product. We’re prepared for practice. We’re prepared for the game. When things change, that doesn’t mean we’re no longer prepared. You just reset and adjust.”

On having a chance to reconnect in person with Nelson in Laval (Nelson was a Dallas assistant coach for four seasons before going to Hershey)
“[Nelson] and I get along great. We have a lot of respect for one another. I’m excited to see him. I’m very happy he’s had the success this year that he has. It’s no surprise to me at all, so to get to spend some quality time with him will be great. I look forward to seeing him in person.”

Now in his second season guiding AHL prospects for the Calgary Flames, Love won the Louis A.R. Pieri Award as the AHL’s outstanding coach in 2021-22 when his Stockton Heat posted the best record ever by a Flames AHL affiliate.

On what going to the Western Conference Finals last spring meant taught his players
“This is a tough league. It’s good hockey. There are a lot of players in this league striving to get to the next level. If you’re not prepared, and you’re not focused on your job and the way you need to play the game within the organizational structure, you get left behind, and people pass you by.”

“You spend some time in your offseason, not just physically but mentally, understanding how hard this league is. I think it was real beneficial for our players having to go through that, especially our young prospects here.”

On incoming players to the AHL
“I probably could speak for other teams that go through the same with young players out of college or junior who may think that it’s not that drastic of a jump from the level they were before, but it really is.

“That just shows you how much the mental side of the game is as important as the physical side in terms of learning the program, learning the demands of the league and then using the resources around you.”

On players having patience with the development process
“I think the biggest thing is the focus of just the day-to-day.

“You can’t put the cart ahead of the horse. You’ve got to just focus on, ‘Did I have a good practice? Did I have a good workout? Did I have a good one-on-one video session? Did I have a good recovery day?’ Those are the things as a player and an athlete that you can control.

“[Do not] spend too much time and energy worrying about ‘Well, this guy got called up. Why aren’t I getting called up?’

“Well, worry about yourself. Worry about your organization and what’s going on there, and then just put the focus in on getting better that day. That’s been a big focus on our team over the last couple of years — the process, not the end result. If you put that work in and that consistency into your game, good things will happen to you as you go along.”

On his non-negotiables
“It’s that focus and preparation to be a pro and showing up with the right mindset that I’m going to get better today. Even if it’s just two, three, four percent better today.

“As a coach, you can see it real quickly in practice if a player’s not prepared to do the right thing in terms of the execution component.”