VANCOUVER – In 14 seasons as a National Hockey League player, Travis Green had 11 head coaches. This works out to 1.57 head coaches for each of Green’s seven teams.
“I knew it was a lot,” Green says. “I probably couldn’t name them all.”
But then he does.
Starting with Hall-of-Famer Al Arbour and ending with Paul Maurice, Green names all 11. Sure, he gets Lorne Henning in the wrong order while listing the four coaches he had during six seasons with the New York Islanders, and Green calls his former Phoenix Coyote coach “Ronnie” Francis instead of Bob. Ron had 1,798 points in the NHL; Bob had a great moustache. But Green remembers them all, and says he learned something from each one.
The point of the coaching pop-quiz was not to probe Green’s memory but his sanity.
When the Vancouver Canucks open their regular season Saturday against the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Arena, Travis Green will achieve a goal he has fervently worked towards since leaving the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2007 to finish his playing career with one season in Switzerland.
Green, a 46-year-old from Castlegar, B.C., will be an NHL head coach. Just like all those guys who have been fired.
“It’s not the most stable job,” Green says during an interview with Sportsnet.ca. “I knew how hard coaching was going to be. Coaching is not playing, and not all players can coach. You’ve got to learn how to coach — how to put together video, how to present, how to speak to a team. Patience. I still don’t have a lot of patience.”
Then he’s in the right market because Canucks fans haven’t shown much patience either. Mind you, they’ve been tapping their toes and staring at their watches waiting in vain for a Stanley Cup since the Canucks entered the NHL in 1970, so their impatience is understandable.
The problem, for Green and fans, is that patience is as essential as talent for a team that is partway through a rebuild after consecutive bottom-three finishes.
There are seven new players on the Canucks’ 23-man roster since the end of last season, and this doesn’t include rookie Brock Boeser, who scored four times in nine games after he was fast-tracked to the NHL from the University of North Dakota last March.
With Jacob Markstrom and Anders Nilsson, the Canucks lack an established No. 1 goalie. And an attack that finished 29th last season still pivots largely on Henrik and Daniel Sedin, 37-year-olds who were never great skaters and fairly plod by today’s NHL standards.
“Playing fast doesn’t mean Connor McDavid fast,” Henrik Sedin says. “It’s moving the puck and getting out of our end quick.”
Their new linemate is 33-year-old Thomas Vanek, one of six free agents Canuck general manager Jim Benning signed over the summer. Five of them, including key forward Sam Gagner and defenceman Michael Del Zotto, are in the opening-night lineup.
And yet, Green, the rookie head coach promoted from the Canucks’ American Hockey League farm team in Utica, N.Y., to replace Willie Desjardins, wants to play an up-tempo game where transition is quick and defencemen join the rush.
The landscape does not exactly appear favourable for immediate success for Green.
“Vancouver is a perfect fit for Travis,” Portland Winterhawks coach Mike Johnston insists. “Travis is not expected to win tomorrow. He’s expected to develop a team there. And that’s kind of what we did in Portland. That’s where his skill set is – developing players, developing a team.”
Johnston wasn’t one of Green’s starting 11 of NHL head coaches, but is one of the most important in his development. Johnston hired Green, who had zero coaching experience, in 2009 to be his Western Hockey League assistant. Green says he learned “the art of coaching” from Johnston.
When Johnston was suspended by the WHL for rules violations halfway through the 2012-13 season, Green took over the Winterhawks and merely went 37-8-2 as a head coach. He won the league championship and went to the Memorial Cup, where Portland was beaten by Nathan MacKinnon’s Halifax Mooseheads in the final.
That spring, former Canucks GM Mike Gillis hired Green to coach in Utica.
Despite limited talent – the Canucks had few prospects until recently – Green managed a winning record each of his four AHL seasons and took the Comets to the Calder Cup final in 2015.
“I haven’t tried to copy anyone,” Green says. “I’ve tried to learn. The game is evolving. And if you’re not learning as a coach, you’re going to be behind.
“I do believe (the Canucks) need to play faster. The game is going in that direction. It’s a fast game now and you need to have defencemen who can move the puck and get up the ice. One way or another, you’ve got to get the puck out of your zone. Hopefully, you’re carrying it. And if not, you better have fast forwards that can get it back.”
Part of the Travis Green narrative is how much he struggled as a highly-drafted player to make the NHL, how he spent 2½ seasons in the minors and then built a career only after he adapted and embraced a two-way game. It’s true, and it gives Green insight and credibility when he speaks about the transition facing young Canucks like Boeser and Jake Virtanen.
Despite what he thought at the time, Green says he’d have had a career as a millworker had he tried to play in the NHL when he was 19 or 20.
But Green actually became a point-per-game player for the Islanders and in 1997 was good enough to lead in scoring a world-championship-winning Canadian team that included Mark Recchi and Jarome Iginla. It was at those 1997 words in Finland where Green met Johnston, who was on Team Canada’s coaching staff.
“I was young. I thought I knew everything,” Green says. “I don’t like the player that I was when I was younger. I just wasn’t a good player. The value of winning wasn’t the same. Like a lot of young guys, I worried about scoring. To win championships … I was not that player. I was a better player the last seven years (of my career) than I was the first seven. The turning point was when I just wanted to win. Ten goals was a good season for me. I wanted to win.”
And this ideal is what he is preaching to the Canucks. It’s not about points – except in the standings.
“There’s a process to everything,” he says. “Nothing is built right away. Even when you have great teams, you don’t win it right away.
“I want fans who want to win. Everyone wants that. But as a coach, there are times we have to be patient. I’m not saying we have to wait 10 years, but there’s a process to everything. Our team needs to improve. Are we sitting here saying we’re Stanley Cup contenders? No. But we want to win as many games as we can. And the team we have today might be a lot better in March. You never know.”