Rick Tocchet’s unyielding honesty has resurrected Canucks franchise

Rick Tocchet joins Ron MacLean moments after being named the winner of the Jack Adams Award to discuss what he told his team in the second intermission of Game 7, how he's grown as a coach, and his relationship with the Canucks and their staff.

VANCOUVER – For a guy who amassed nearly 3,000 penalty minutes and was ferociously combative as a National Hockey League player, the toughest thing about Rick Tocchet is his honesty.

In this way, he is as unyielding and unrelenting as a coach as he was as a player.

Tocchet would trade in a heartbeat his Jack Adams Award, and probably the more superfluous parts of his anatomy, for one more win this season — for the chance to open the Western Conference Final Thursday in Dallas with the Vancouver Canucks instead of conducting exit meetings three days after his team lost Game 7 to the Edmonton Oilers.

But his coach-of-the-year honour reflects Tocchet’s paramount role in the Canucks’ dramatic ascendancy this season, the franchise’s resurrection and the culture he has built for players.

“Anybody that has a problem with honesty, then we really don’t want them to be part of the Canucks,” president of hockey operations Jim Rutherford told Sportsnet on Wednesday. “The thing about Rick Tocchet, the things that he preaches are all things that he has experienced himself.

“On one hand, he’s going to push them to the limit, and he’s going to be honest and tell people how he feels about them. But within five minutes, he’s going to be right there working with that player to make the player better. You’re not going to find anybody that will go to bat more for players than Rick Tocchet.”

Just last week, after a dismal 5-1 loss in Game 4 allowed the Oilers to even their Stanley Cup quarterfinal series at 2-2, Tocchet dropped a truth bomb in his post-game press conference, talking about the “passengers” on the Canucks and wondering, “Some guys, I don’t know if they thought it was the playoffs. We can’t play with 12 guys.”

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Whether healthy-scratching and then building up players like Nils Hoglander, Dakota Joshua and Nikita Zadorov or making critical comments about top players like Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller, Tocchet has been unwavering in his honesty and beliefs about standards and accountability.

“The authenticity thing, you just know he’s for real,” Canucks winger Conor Garland, who also played for Tocchet with the Arizona Coyotes, told us in January. “He’s genuine and he wants you to improve and he also wants us to win. It’s easy to get buy-in when you have that.”

“His door is always open to go in and talk about hockey,” veteran Ian Cole said. “But just personally… he’ll talk to you like a person. I think sometimes coaches miss that. It’s almost like a two-caste system, but he’s able to kind of blend that. Now, he’s also the coach and he’ll call you out and he’ll say, ‘That was s—.’ He’ll do all that. But he’s also really good at hearing what you say, taking it in and having a conversation.”

This is exactly how general manager Patrik Allvin envisioned it working when he hired Tocchet just 16 months ago, taking a chance on a coach blemished by a career record of just 178-200-60 from untenable head-coaching stints amid upheaval in Tampa and Arizona.

Battered by those tumultuous experiences, Tocchet turned down three senior assistant coaching positions and two opportunities to pursue head coaching jobs in the NHL after leaving the Coyotes in 2021.

“We needed to establish accountability,” Allvin said Wednesday. “And I think that’s the biggest strength of Rick Tocchet — his ability to communicate with the players in ways they understand that he has their back and he wants them to be successful. He forms that partnership with the players to demand more out of them.

“In assessing where the team was when I took over and Jim was here… it became pretty clear to me what we were missing. We had a lot of individual, skilled, good hockey players, but we didn’t play as a team. I felt for the communication and the credibility for players, they needed somebody that has done it in the past. That’s where (adding assistant coaches) Adam Foote and Sergei Gonchar was the best fit for our group, too. But going through it here made me even more sure that Toc was the right guy because of his values. And on top of that, we needed to have a structure in place and Rick and his staff were able to implement that, so I’m really happy with Toc and the coaching staff.”

Allvin and Rutherford knew Tocchet from their years together in Pittsburgh, where Tocchet was an assistant coach on Mike Sullivan’s staff during the Penguins’ runs to the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017.

“I felt very strong about our organization and the culture that we were building, and the strength and support that we give each other,” Rutherford said of convincing Tocchet to leave his television studio job with TNT to take over the Canucks. “I don’t want to get into comparing those other organizations (he worked for), but certainly he knew and we knew that we were all in this together. And if we ever get a guy that starts going in a different direction, he doesn’t stay here long. We all have different ideas here, but at the end of the day we’re going in the same direction and we believe in each other.

“That was important not only for us to go get him and believe in him, but for him to make the decision to come here. He had some chances to go other places and decided not to do that.”

Universally projected before this season to be on the outer fringes of the playoff race, the Canucks instead went 50-23-9 and won the Pacific Division ahead of the Stanley Cup champion Vegas Golden Knights and the Cup-favourites from Edmonton.

The Canucks brought playoff hockey to Vancouver for the first time since 2015, won a non-pandemic series for the first time since 2011 by beating the Nashville Predators in Round 1, then not only proved to be a far more credible opponent for the Oilers than most people expected, but actually led Connor McDavid’s team three times in the series before Edmonton found something close to its A-game in the final two contests.

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Under Tocchet, players like Miller (103 points) and Brock Boeser (40 goals), Garland and Tyler Myers were transformed far beyond their statistics. Goalie Thatcher Demko is a Vezina Trophy finalist, Quinn Hughes the Norris Trophy favourite. All in a little more than a year.

“It’s not about Toc, it’s not about individual success,” Allvin said. “It’s all about the team’s success. It’s all about the crest that he’s been talking about. I think that’s where the players understand. We’ve become a team, which was important. (Players) understand that the next level it’s about winning as a team, the team structure. That’s something that Rick and his staff have stressed over and over, and the players are starting to get it.”

“I’m in the stage now, can this be a special team?” Tocchet said before going to the All-Star Game in January. “I’ve heard that word ‘special.’ To be a special team, you’ve got to do special things. And that means, you know, discipline and your staples and all that, we have to do those things consistently to be special. You have to do extraordinary things to be a special team. So we’re trying to strive for that.”

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