Rick Tocchet sleeps off mistakes, accepts hard Coyotes challenge

On three different occasions during his introduction as Arizona Coyotes head coach, Rick Tocchet mentioned that there are only 31 jobs of this nature in the National Hockey League.

He had one of them before, with the Tampa Bay Lightning from 2008-10. He went 53-69-26, failing to make the playoffs in either of his two seasons.

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His assistant coach in Tampa, Mike Sullivan, had also flamed out in his first head coaching gig with the Boston Bruins, losing his job after two seasons. He was given a second crack at it with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2016, and kept Tocchet aboard as an assistant coach after his promotion.

Together, they won back-to-back Stanley Cups.

Tocchet’s résumé was basically rewritten, having been credited as the “players’ coach” while Sullivan was bad cop. He found a way to motivate Phil Kessel, was a sage for the Penguins’ young supporting cast and had grown as a coach since his stint with the Lightning.

There are only 31 head coaching jobs in the NHL.

It was time for Tocchet to have another one.

“For me, he’s one of the best communicators I’ve come across, in hockey but professionally as well,” said John Chayka, the Coyotes’ president of hockey operations and general manager, who did thorough homework on his new hire. “The phrase ‘best coach I ever had’ was used so much, it’s almost a tag line.”

Tocchet’s advantage as a communicator with players? That they see him as one of their own, no matter how they play the game.

He banked 1,144 games in the NHL from 1984-2002. The skill players see the 48 goals he scored in 1992-93. The supporting cast sees his ability to play in a top six role, a prototypical power forward during an era when that position was at a premium. The grunts see him as a player who could drop down to the bottom six and play a role, amassing 2,972 penalty minutes in his career.

And he sees them.

“Communication is just a flow. I don’t have a blueprint on it. I guy can come into my office, I can just see how the flow should be. And I’ve been in that seat before,” he said.

Tocchet gets plenty of credit for getting Kessel to a Conn Smythe level of play, but perhaps not enough for his work with the Penguins’ younger players. Chayka was quick to mention defenseman Brian Dumoulin and forwards Conor Sheary and Jake Guentzel as Tocchet success stories. He’s also quick to credit him with being one of the only coaches he’s interviewed that can back up his words with examples of success and realistic plans for success.

“He wants to play with the puck. Play aggressive, play fast. We had a lot of coaches come through and say something similar, but he had a concrete plan on how to do it,” said Chayka. “He doesn’t just have the buzzwords down. He knows how to do it.”

Tocchet wants to play fast and make it fun. He wants the creative players to create. To simplify things. It’s the kind of thing Sullivan was credited with doing when he took over the Penguins, after Mike Johnston got a little systems-happy. The spark that approach gave players like Sidney Crosby and Phil Kessel was apparent and palpable.

“I don’t want to take the stick out of guys’ hands. I want them to be creative. I don’t want them to think too much. I want them to play,” said Tocchet.

There are only 31 head coaching jobs in the NHL.

The majority of them do not involve being “good cop.”

One of the things Tocchet learned from Sullivan was that the buck must stop with the head coach. He relied on his staff for input, but ultimately the big decisions that helped the Penguins win consecutive Stanley Cups – Sidney Crosby’s linemates, the goaltending changes – were triggers pulled by Sullivan. The backlash would have been his. But he had a knack for making the right calls.

Tocchet was watching.

“I’m a more decisive guy now. He gives his staff a lot of autonomy, and then he makes the decision. I like that,” he said. “But you have to be decisive, and Sully is. I’ve learned that over the years, that there are going to be some unpopular decisions.”

Tocchet was learning.

“I think early in my career in Tampa, I got swayed a little bit on decisions. I think I’ll be a little bit more decisive. I know I will,” he said.

But here’s the challenge for Tocchet: Can one make the unpopular decisions and still be one of the boys? Can a head coach, whose decisions can sometimes lean hard into everything from team politics to economics, separate the business from the personal, or at least combine both in a reasonable way for his players?

“That’s the million dollar question. I don’t want to change as a person. I don’t think when you get a title as ‘head coach’ that you have to be distant from the players,” said Tocchet.

Except there’s no question that things have changed for Tocchet.

There are only 31 head coaching jobs in the NHL.

He’s taking one with a team for whom he played, and for whom he was once an assistant coach after his playing days were over, beginning in 2005.

“I’d be lying if it didn’t cross my mind. I think it means something to him to be an Arizona Coyote,” said Chayka. “It would have been the easiest thing in the world for him to sit back and do another year with Pittsburgh. He’s taking a chance on us. I respect that.”

He’s also taking one with a team that saw him take a leave of absence because he was facing federal charges.

In Feb. 2006, Tocchet was charged with helping to fund a national gambling ring based out of New Jersey. He took leave from his job with the Coyotes. In May 2007, Tocchet pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to promote gambling and promoting gambling, and received two years probation. By the time the NHL finished its own investigation, and Gary Bettman reinstated him, Tocchet had been away from the Coyotes for nearly two years.

This is an inescapable part of his legacy with the Coyotes, and perhaps the first thing that came to mind for some fans when news broke about his hiring.

“He’s a man of character and integrity. Any issues that are in the past are in the past. It didn’t raise any red flags for us,” said Chayka. “His track record speaks for itself.”

The controversy is so far back in Tocchet’s rearview mirror that it’s invisible to him.

“Uh, shoot … I haven’t really thought of it,” he said, when asked to think about it. “It’s 10 years ago. Put it this way: What happened 10 years ago? I sleep well. I slept well then, I sleep well know. I’ve won two Stanley Cups since then. It’s in the past. I don’t even think about that stuff to be honest with you.”

Assuming he’s thought about it for, like, a moment: Did he learn anything from the ordeal?

“You learn lessons in life, for sure. I’m not going to get into it, but like I said, I slept very well at night when it happened,” he said, before pivoting back to hockey. “I want to see how a player reacts from his mistakes on the ice or off the ice. To me, that’s high character guys that can do that. That they can come back from certain things.”

Tocchet has come back to the Coyotes at a critical time. There are a slew of young players on the roster and on the way up that he’ll be tasked with making NHL ready. Chayka believes the Coyotes can be good if the team over-performs, but Tocchet wasn’t ready to make any promises. “We want to have pressure. We want to be relevant in these games,” he said. “You never know what happens. There are always surprise teams.”

Then, off the ice, there’s the ongoing drama. The influence of owner Andrew Barroway, who bought out his minority owners and had an active role in the team’s decisions to part ways with captain Shane Doan and coach Dave Tippett.

Chayka said Barroway came into the conversation after Tocchet was determined to be the frontrunner by himself and assistant general manager Steve Sullivan. Said Tocchet: “They reached out to me a few times. I had really good discussions with John and Andrew.”

The bottom line is that Barroway not only signed off on Tocchet – not a surprise, considering he was a lifelong Philadelphia Flyers fan and Tocchet was a fan favorite there – but convinced him not to fret about the team’s ongoing arena drama.

Perhaps some of that optimism came from the news announced on Wednesday: Steve Patterson was named the team’s new president and CEO, having helped bring the Texans and the Super Bowl to Houston, as well as leading “the development of the 425 acre Sports Facilities District adjacent to the University in downtown Tempe” as Managing Director of Sun Devil Sports Group, Vice President for Athletics and Athletic Director for Sun Devil Athletics at Arizona State University.

Whatever the message, Tocchet was convinced to sign on with the Coyotes. “He asked good questions. He got the answers he was looking for,” said Chayka.

“I think that’ll rectify itself,” said Tocchet on the arena. “This a hockey market. They get in the right situation, it’ll burst out. And if that happens, my job here is a premiere job.”

The team believes he’s the right coach for the job. Tocchet believes it’s the right time in his career to take on the challenge, and the right team to coach.

“I know the market. I know the direction that they want to go. So it was an attractive job for me,” said Tocchet.

“Plus, there are only 31 jobs in the NHL.”

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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