Fred Smith who once owned the now defunct CFL’s Memphis Mad Dogs has another notable accomplishment. His college professor wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about his paper on running an overnight delivery company. There was some praise for the plan but not a lot for thinking of something that could realistically be achieved. Smith overcame significant obstacles including where to hide airplanes from folks who wanted to be paid but, his idea called Federal Express took off.
At the beginning of this year Steve Spott heard from all corners about how patient he was going to have to be, how growth and development were going to mean lower expectations for this year’s edition of the Marlies. The voices were the equivalent of the that college professor. It is the only record you might have of him not listening. Add to the closed ears the rest of the Marlies coaching staff.
“Those expectations? Those aren’t ours as an organization. We don’t put teams out there with the idea that they will fail. We drive to win and the Marlies are no different regardless of the personnel and their experience level.” Dave Poulin set the record straight and it may have been pressure for some coaches, not for this group of teachers.
“I don’t know where it comes from. We have expectations to make the playoffs and do well.” Spott said this six months ago when asked if he felt that his young group was over-achieving in the early going. They had not had a losing streak of longer than three games. “Why wouldn’t our goal be to win as well as make NHL players? One thing doesn’t stop you from doing the other. Winning brings with it, some great learning.”
When you watch the AHL for an extended period you begin to realize that plotting success and failure can often be forecast by looking at the youth a team has to work with. For the staff this year it seemed there was enough first years to get government funding for early education. There were times that many of these charges could have been mismanaged but they weren’t. It isn’t really luck when you have good players doing good things but more a recognition that these guys are human beings as well as being hockey players. Credit should be spread around to a number of different corners from the video work of Mark Phalon, who is the Vegas casino of video (open all the time) to the goaltending tweaking of Piero Greco. It isn’t just the knowledge in the room, it is the knowledge transfer from the room.
If there is any question more useless than; How do you feel about being sent down? It would be hard to imagine. It isn’t how the player feels, it obviously bites harder than a pit bull on a steak bone. It’s how they deal with it. You should admire Trevor Smith and Jerred Smithson or Carter Ashton and anyone else who just flat out performed when they found themselves on the outside of the NHL picture. But, you should also save some back-slapping for the coaches who set a clear and honest picture for these players. It isn’t tough love or go get’em sales jobs. Each player faces a different circumstance each time they find themselves in the AHL. Each one requires different information that allows them to succeed.
There is a thought out there that coaching any sport isn’t really about the actual game, it’s about the people. How many different ways can you run a power play? How many 5 on 5 combinations can you run? There is some definite reaction to in game scenarios but mostly it is about the people. Derek King and Gord Dineen played the game in a number of different leagues including the NHL. They have a first hand emotional and experiential knowledge of the hockey world that transcends the textbooks.
Some management folks use the phrase: you have to get the most out of your people. Maybe this is just semantics and maybe it turns the phrase around but this coaching staff this year has been about getting the most into their people. Steve Spott’s repetition is scientific and surgical and unrelenting. There can never be a mistake when he gets up at the front of the bus and says, “Guys real quick…” The information that follows, be it practice time, hotel procedures or suggestions about conduct is said three times. There’s a science to that. Radio ads don’t say the phone number three times because they love numbers. They want to get the information into you.
Steve Spott hasn’t had to hide airplanes to keep the Marlies successful over the regular season (though at times it seemed like some were being hid from the Marlies) but you can say he and his staff, in the regular season, resembled Fred Smith’s famous delivery service in its most prominent feature.