Doug Weight had begun to sense the day might come when New York Islanders general manager Garth Snow would turn to him.
He didn’t know when, or if, head coach Jack Capuano was going to get fired. But Capuano was in his seventh season behind the Islanders bench, and after going two rounds deep in last spring’s playoffs New York sat dead last in the Eastern Conference on Jan. 10, wheels spinning.
So it was with some sense of inevitability that Snow pulled the trigger on Capuano and bestowed upon his trusted lieutenant Weight his first head coaching job in the National Hockey League. And Weight, as is his personality, was prepared.
“I had all these things written down. I’m going to talk to these guys after games, and show them clips, and handle this a certain way, and that a certain way,” recalled Weight on a Monday morning in Edmonton, his team enjoying a day off on the road. “I preached that to myself, and my opening 35-minute talk to the team was about how I’m not going to take my foot off the gas. I met with each guy and talked about how we’re going to mesh together, and how I’m going to manage them.
“Well, now I’m in deep,” he chuckled. “Today’s their day off. I’ve got to work on film from Calgary, I’ve got to figure out Edmonton. I’ve got to meet with four or five people in the morning. Guys like you are calling…
“I don’t know why it’s working, but I’ll say this. It’s a lot of freakin’ work.”
There is a reason why very good players so seldom make very good coaches. It is because it is so much easier to take care of one’s self than it is to take care of a group of 23 players, while directing three or four assistants and satisfying the other responsibilities that come along with being the head guy.
Hockey comes naturally to the star player, which Weight surely was, a distributing centre who notched 755 assists and 1,033 points in an NHL career that spanned 1,238 games. He was a three-time Olympian, had a 104-point season with Edmonton in 1995-96, and lo and behold, so far he’s been a pretty decent coach.
The Islanders are 13-5-3 under Weight, and riding a 9-0-2 streak at home as they cling to the final wild-card spot out East. On Jan. 10 they were the last-place team in the Eastern Conference. A week later Capuano was fired, and now they’re holding down a playoff spot under Weight.
When a coach gets fired, “It’s a shot at every player in there,” Weight said. “If they have the character and leadership to take the accountability for the fact a coach got fired, that’s going to raise your team right away. And we have that, a team that feels it’s a playoff team.”
He handles his bench differently than Capuano did, among other changes. Because you can’t walk in the door as the same guy who just got walked out, even when you like that guy as much as Weight does Capuano.
“You’ve got to do what you believe in your heart. Run the team the way you want to run the team,” he said.
That is to say, don’t lose the gig being some other coach. Or coaching the way someone thinks you should coach. Be yourself and succeed or fail. But either way, be yourself. Not someone else.
And his other tenet of coaching: “Every guy on that bench, they’re thinking exactly what you were thinking when you were rolling your eyes at the coach 20 years ago.”
His team gave up four goals in the final 5:05 of the first period in Calgary Sunday, losing a game in five sloppy minutes. So he’s got to find a way in on Edmonton, a hard team to beat these days. He needs to present a scheme that will tell his players their coach knows what he’s doing; that the game plan he gives them will win if executed properly.
Weight, 46, had enough coaches in 20 NHL seasons to know how important that perception can be.
“I’ve taken the good things from a guy like Joel Quenneville,” he said of his coach in St. Louis from 2001-04. “If you saw him making a bagel before practice, it was, ‘Hey, how ya doin’?’ Real nice guy. You go into his office? It’s all business. It was very professional.
“Then there was a guy like Ronnie Low (in Edmonton), who was pre-video. You wanted to play for Ronnie, because he wanted to win so badly. You could sense his passion. His emotion was real — it wasn’t phoney.”
Go through the 30 NHL coaches today, from Dave Tippett, to Quenneville, to Randy Carlyle, to Darryl Sutter, to Mike Sullivan. None of them had a playing career as long and productive as Weight, though Carlyle would be the closest.
Now, the second chapter. If it unfolds as well as the first, we’d better get used to having Weight around.