by Lisa McRitchie on 09/12/11 at 11:30 PM ET
Love him or hate him, Craig MacTavish was a huge piece of Edmonton Oilers’ history; both as a player and a coach. MacT was of course the last player in the NHL to choose not to wear a helmet and is my personal hero for tugging the tongue out of Harvey the Hounds mouth. I will note that that tongue is now strongly reinforced and would require scissors for removal.
On Monday September 12th, Mark Spector was able to catch up with the head coach of the Chicago Wolves, the Vancouver Canucks AHL team in Penticton B.C.
Besides coaching for Team Canada at the Spengler Cup in 2009, this is MacTavish’ first time behind the bench as a head coach since his days with the Oilers. To this seasoned coach, it’s just like riding a bike. Sort of. “Well I always remember, regardless of whether I’ve been out for a little while and I’ve been out for a couple years now you always remember, three months is like 2 years. Every time you step behind the bench at training camp, things happen fast the first game or two and then they slow down considerable. Even the first game that I ever stood behind the bench in New York, I couldn’t believe the speed difference between sitting a foot in front of me and standing behind the bench. You kind of get a sense of that and I’m sure I’ll be looking to just get the lines out there today and it will slow down quickly.”
It’s interesting to hear MacTavish say that he finds the game faster as a coach than a player. Interesting, but not surprising. It would be not only the speed of the game, but the how complex the game can be that would cause someone to feel that 3 months can be like 2 years. If MacTavish feels that taking time off from hockey would have made him lose touch with the game or lose his abilities I think that he’s not giving himself enough credit. But the game is fast and the season seems to go by faster, changes happen in the blink of an eye. Players move a split second too late and anything can happen; a goal, a save, a miss, a collision, an injury.
Of course coaching in the AHL will be different from coaching in the NHL. Most people would say that the AHL is a much more physical league, but MacTavish has another thought. “I think that there is a much bigger emphasis, I know there is a bigger emphasis on teaching and more an emphasis on individual skill teaching rather than team tactics and so forth. I look forward to that. I think that all coaches relish the opportunity to teach and view ourselves as teachers and this is maybe the purest form of that; when you get to the American league level.
“Coaches that I’ve talked to that have coached in the NHL and then went and coached in the American league have literally said that to a man it was just one of the more enjoyable coaching experiences they’ve had, that’s it’s been less about, maybe not less about wins, wins are important obviously. You’re getting kids that are highly receptive and you really have an opportunity at this young stage of their career to make a significant, positive impact on how they develop. And you ask the kids what kind of role they are going to play in their own development. How attentive they are and how focussed they are going to be in their own development. We’re hoping that they are going to be prominent in that role. Guys develop and get it at different paces and we want to expedite that process.”
Although MacTavish wasn’t behind a bench for the past two years, he has been busy. For a portion of that time, MacTavish completed a masters degree in business from Queen’s University. “I kept myself very busy through the two years that I was out. I took the job with TSN a little reluctantly; I wasn’t overly enthused about it but it forced me to stay in touch with the game at a level that I’m not sure I would have done had I not been forced to prepare for a lot of those night. I wasn’t idle by any sense. I kept myself busy, did a lot of things. Last year I did a lot of scouting as well that kept me on the road a lot and watched a lot of hockey and that kept me busy.
“But at the end of day I like to be on the inside rather than on the outside like you folks. I want to be in the trenches more than commenting on it and I was anxious to get back. I was a little surprised that I wasn’t given the opportunity at the NHL level but those things happen in this game. Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to go forward. I’m viewing this and looking at this as something that’s going to be highly enjoyable year for me.”
I can certainly see how knowing all the secrets is more fun than guessing at the secrets. There has been many times where I wish that I had an inside track because it would make it easier to write the story and that’s coming from someone who has never had the inside track. Going from a position of insider to one of outsider would be extremely difficult.
There may be many reasons why MacTavish didn’t find a coaching job right away, and he certainly wasn’t the only one surprised he hasn’t been offered an NHL job just yet. I say just yet, because I’m sure that it can’t be that far behind if that is what Mactavish wants.
“I think that the perception out there is that the young guys are connecting at a higher level than the older coaches, the old and more experienced coaches… Success is always in vogue and ownership is always looking to do what the last Stanley cup champions did.”
Further to speaking of teams being interested in young coaches, MacTavish sounds as though he feels his years of experience may have held him back. “The experience part has been deflated a little bit and I think that’s part of it. I think that’s the main reason that the older guys haven’t been the no brainers they were before for jobs.”
On this year, MacTavish will have to live up to some expectations, and his performance will be scrutinized. On goals for the the season; “You know what, the goal for me is to really enjoy my year, that’s my goal this year. You probably don’t believe that, you probably think I’m more ambitious than that but I’m really not and I just want to get back and teach the game. I’m not looking for the next move; I’m not looking forward to the next move. I’m just going to enjoy the year that I have and I think that given the circumstances that I have right now that that is very achievable. I’m looking forward to helping these players as best I can to get to the next level.”
By helping the young players on the Chicago Wolves make it to the next level, which is of course the Vancouver Canucks, the players will have to play exceptionally well. The Canucks are a team that has a lot of depth and was closer to the cup than 28 other teams last season and to make it onto the roster, players will have to deserve to be there, it will not be out of need. MacTavish will be judged as a coach by the rest of the AHL and of course the NHL based on the performance of the Wolves. Should MacTavish want to make it back into the NHL, an exceptional year with the Wolves may help.
As we have heard, MacTavish has been battling cancer for the past two years. “I feel good, I’ve always felt good. Who is guaranteed tomorrow? I feel good and my prognosis is good. You just, kind of, like many, many other people that are living with cancer, I’ve got it and just everyone has a different time table. But I feel good.” You wouldn’t expect to hear MacTavish say anything less than that, but those close to MacTavish, and those that knew/know him well, like Mark Spector say that MacTavish looks good, fit, healthy and strong.
There has not been much said on whether or not MacTavish is in remission, or where his health stands, but he says ”I’ve got it so far in the back of my mind that I couldn’t even tell you exactly what I have. [laughs] That might be a lie. It’s been closing in on a couple of years and I feel great, so what are you going to do?”
I hate to speculate, truly I do, but I wonder if health concerns may be holding MacTavish back from the coaching job of his dreams. It cannot be easy to live a life in the spotlight, but for everyone to know about your health battles or concerns can’t make things any easier. It is one thing for the world to know that I am a celiac, quite another for people to know that MacTavish has been battling cancer.
In the meantime, all eyes seem to be on MacTavish at the Young Stars prospect tournament in Penticton. On Sunday, the Canucks’ prospects lost 7-2 to the Oilers’ prospects, but Monday saw the Canucks beat the Calgary Flames’ prospects 4-3 in overtime. Battling .500 isn’t bad at all and the tournament isn’t over yet.
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Lisa McRitchie is a fairly new writer, online at least, but makes up for inexperience with passion for the game of hockey and memories of Mrs. Leskiw’s English AP class; who knew they would pay off one day.
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