by Mike Chen on 12/11/08 at 02:32 PM ET
Like a train colliding with a Zamboni that’s crashing into a rusty old shack, the Tampa Bay Lightning story is just something I can’t stay away from. All personal bias aside (I always loved Barry Melrose’s enthusiasm on TV, even though I thought he was wrong much of the time; I’ve also been a closet fan of the Bolts since their 1996 Alexander Selivanov-Daren Puppa run), this story just keeps going and going. In summary:
-Barry Melrose thinks he wasn’t given a fair shake, Steven Stamkos isn’t ready for the NHL, and Rick Tocchet is a puppet of the ownership.
-The ownership thinks that Melrose is guilty of gross negligence when it comes to preparation and research and that he should, to steal a phrase from old Bolts coach John Torterella, shut his yap.
-Rick Tocchet thinks that Melrose is sour grapes and sees the team as slowly evolving into using a real system.
The real culprit? I can see why people can point fingers at one guy or another (though Stamkos is absolved of everything other than simply being an 18-year-old rookie learning the ways of the NHL) but when it comes down to it, everyone is at fault here, from the wacky ownership duo of Len Barrie/Oren Koules to Melrose and his then-assistants to veteran leaders like team captain Vincent Lecavalier.
Yep, you’re all guilty, and you should feel bad because the fan base that slowly built up from the early 2000’s is now disintegrating as the team becomes one of the biggest sideshows in pro sports.
The thing that I don’t get is that even though moviemaking (Koules) and real estate (Barrie) are completely separate businesses than running a pro sports franchise, the basic tenants of “get good people/have a plan/work hard” are still in place. Here’s how any organization, pro sports or otherwise, should work: leadership at the top has a vision and a plan. They bring in supervisors (coaches) to create strategy for that plan, then the supervisors motivate the workers (players) to properly execute the plan with a good attitude and strong work ethic while providing feedback about what’s working and what’s not. I don’t see any of this here.
Apparently, Melrose didn’t have a system in place other than a mid-90s neutral zone trap. Ok, he’s at fault there for lack of awareness and preparation—but don’t you think Barrie and Koules should have, you know, asked him about what he planned to do with the team when he took charge? What was the vetting process like? Did they just kick back a few cocktails and have a Saw movie marathon or did they actually say, “Hey, we want to emulate the style of Team X and Team Y with the hustle of Team Z—and here’s how we’re going to do it”? Because while the former option provides short-term laughs, the latter option provides structure, milestones, and goals.
As for assistant coaches Rick Tocchet and Wes Walz? Well, they’re not that far removed from the game—Tocchet as Wayne Gretzky’s assistant in Phoenix and Walz as a player—and they should be able to easily fill in the blanks anywhere Melrose was still stuck in the mid-90s. Why didn’t they say, “Hey Barry, with training camp a few weeks away, why don’t we have a set offensive and defensive scheme yet? We need this!”
What about veteran leaders like Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis? When they saw the locker room was going awry from all of the player turnover, why didn’t they approach GM Brian Lawton and say, “Hey, we really just need a few weeks to settle. Players can’t play well if there’s no stability.” Similarly, there was an apparent divide between Melrose and the veteran players (no names were named but you can read between the lines); isn’t it up to the owners and GM to try and settle those differences so that everyone can make it work rather than drive off the cliff? And don’t the players owe it to the organization to provide feedback about what’s working on the ice and what isn’t?
What you’ve got in Tampa is a total system failure of ownership with enthusiasm but no foresight, headstrong coaches lacking vision and modern sensibilities, and players that are seemingly in it for themselves rather than trying to work their way through a tough situation.
It’s really a shame too, as the Lightning have made strong inroads into being a Tampa-area fixture. Lecavalier was even voted the region’s most popular athlete—ten years ago, who would have thought that was possible?
Koules and Barrie came in with a swagger but they didn’t come with a plan. While the finger-pointing deserves to be aimed at just about everyone from top to bottom, the ultimate blame falls with the organization’s leaders. Bolts fans, there’s your answer.
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