• How to “activate” players
• Learning from Mike Babcock, Pat Quinn and Jacques Lemaire
• Why “leadership is everything”
Coaches are involved in every facet of the game, from drawing up a last-second play to making sure the healthy scratch works harder instead of losing hope. They don’t often have time to talk at length, but when they do, you’d better listen. And learn.
In partnership with ProSmart, Sportsnet will publish a number of coaching-related pieces over the next couple of months. In this installment, Guy Boucher talks to senior writer Ryan Dixon about how he got into coaching and his philosophies on and off the ice.
Whatever the context, Guy Boucher has his bases covered. The Ottawa Senators coach has four degrees, including a master’s in sports psychology from Montreal’s McGill University, where he played hockey and later got his first real coaching gig as an assistant with the McGill Redmen.
In addition to his time on the bench at McGill, Boucher has coached at the midget AAA, major junior, American Hockey League and NHL levels, not to mention his international experience with Hockey Canada, including a golden stint as Pat Quinn’s assistant at the 2009 World Junior Championship and as the bench boss for two Canadian Spengler Cup squads. Along the way, he also unwittingly befriended the son of a coaching legend, which led to a very influential relationship in his professional life.
Boucher lost his father when he was still a teenager, and his playing days came to an abrupt end due to a serious, befuddling illness of his own. But Boucher’s sickness also helped push him toward the career he’s thriving in today.
“When I came back to Canada [from playing in Europe] I had a contract in the old [International Hockey League]. That’s when I got sick. I was sick for about three years, I lost about 35 pounds in four months. I really didn’t think about hockey at that point. I was taking all kinds of tests. They thought I had cancer, multiple sclerosis—you name it. Eventually they figured out I caught a virus that affected the [membrane] around my nerves and it was going to take a few years to get back to normal. That was the end of my hockey career, so I went back to McGill.
Jean Pronovost [who coached Boucher at McGill] was the first guy who made me see the game in a different way. I thought he was terrific at taking care of the individual before taking care of the group and the systems. For him, we were teaching people, teaching individuals, and I really stayed with that. You could see he cared for the players and they cared for him. I’ve always thought there was more to coaching than just trying to win. It’s about individuals. I won’t say it’s about motivating people, because I don’t believe in motivating people—I believe in activating people. They’ve got their own motivations for being where they are; we just have to find out what those are and be able to activate them.
I think the job is really to figure people out—who they are, where they come from, what they’ve seen in the past, what they respect, what they don’t. Eventually you figure out why they’re doing what they’re doing. Some guys became hockey players because their dad was on their case; for some it’s because they didn’t have a dad and they wanted to prove themselves. Some people’s mothers inspired them; for some it’s about the money. Sometimes it’s about being part of a group. People do what they do for all kinds of reasons, and that doesn’t change at the NHL level because all of a sudden guys are millionaires. The reality is that they’re doing what they’re doing now because of everything they’ve been in the past. So I don’t swim against the current. You waste time and you end up figuring out you’re working hard with somebody but you’re not going anywhere. Over the years, what’s helped me the most is trying to figure out who the players were before they tried to figure out who I was.
“Leadership is everything. I hire people who I think can eventually take my job.”
[Former McGill Redmen defenceman] Mike Babcock is a big inspiration for all us McGill guys. He’s done so much already. We’ve tapped into his brain quite a few times and still do. Pat Quinn at the world juniors, he basically showed me how to handle the media, how to deal with extremely stressful situations and take a lot on your shoulders so your players can just play. I thought he was terrific for that.
I met Jacques Lemaire’s son [Danyk] when I was younger, playing hockey. We became good friends, but I didn’t know his dad was Jacques Lemaire. One day I showed up at his house and Jacques was there, and I was just like, “What?” and he said, “Yeah, that’s my dad.” We became good friends and I’ve known [Jacques] for 20 years. I was able to tap into his genius, so I was really lucky.
Jacques has a knack for smelling things before they happen. For many years, whether he had a good team or not, he could always make his team better than they were. When you sit down with him, you realize why. What he does best is take something complex and break it down to something that seems so simple to understand and execute, and the players can relate to that. He makes it understandable, even to the guy who understands the least. He’s always changed, always been ahead of everybody’s ideas, and he’s made it really simple to understand the game. One of the toughest things I’ve had to deal with in the NHL was coaching against Jacques. That was weird. He’s been a major mentor for me, I respect him so much, and all of a sudden I’m coaching against him. I did everything I could to stay away from that emotion because that doesn’t serve my players. It just makes it a little awkward for everybody, and I want to make sure the players don’t feel that.
No matter what you do, I think it can be lonely at the top when you’re the guy making the final decision. You need more than just a hockey guy as an assistant, you need someone to talk to about non-hockey stuff sometimes. You need people who know your mood and know how to fill your holes, because obviously different coaches have different styles and they’ve got holes in their armour and things they’re not so good at. You need people who complement you, so when you have someone who knows you as a person, knows your past, knows what you’re great at and what you’re not so great at, it gives you a head start.
I’ve always thought the biggest investment you make is not your systems or anything else that has to do with the physical aspect of things, it has to do with the people you hire. Leadership is everything. Everything rises and falls on leadership, so the way I approach things is I hire people who I think can eventually take my job. That’s how I evaluate things. I need people who are strong leaders, who will take my ideas further and push me to be more than what I am.
My father passed away [of bone cancer] when I was 17, and the one thing he always repeated to me was: You’re not allowed to leave people in a worse state than when they met you. That’s always been a life philosophy for me, and I brought that to coaching. There have been players over the years, obviously, who other people didn’t want, other people didn’t believe in, and you take it upon yourself to change that and make a difference. There have been some in midget, some in junior, some in the pros. It’s fun to work with guys and see what they become down the road. You might not be the one to make the difference, but you just want to be part of the difference. I never think I’m the one to turn someone around—they turn themselves around—but I always look at being part of the process.
We make jokes about the old adage that coaches are hired to be fired, but I’ve always gone into jobs thinking of today. It’s the same thing with players—it’s not about tomorrow or yesterday, it’s about today. That takes a lot of stress away, and it makes you focus on the right things at the right times. I get asked every year, “Where is this team going to go, where do you think you’ll be?” All I know is, today, we’re going to get better. The biggest mistake we make, whether it’s coaches or players, is we get ahead of ourselves, we want to be further down the road than we are and you drift off and lose yourself. I’ve always been pretty good at focusing on the present. So for me, losing my job, that’s not really something I’ve ever looked at.”