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Tocchet’s outspokenness helps get message across to Canucks

EDMONTON– Rick Tocchet wondered if he had lost his mind.

It was January 22, 2023, and he had just been named coach of the Vancouver Canucks, replacing Bruce Boudreau. He had just left a job he loved so much as a TNT hockey analyst to take over a team that had the sixth-worst record in the NHL with an 18-25-3 record.

“I’m not going to lie,” Tocchet told NHL.com. “The first few days, I asked myself: ‘What have I done?’”

What he did was prove that he and the Canucks made the right decision. Since he became coach, the Canucks have gone 70-35-13 in the regular season, including 50-23-9 this season.

This record was good enough to secure first place in the Pacific Division, making him a finalist for the Jack Adams Award, given to the NHL coach of the year.

More importantly, the Canucks are still in the hunt for the Stanley Cup. Their best-of-seven Western Conference second-round tie against the Edmonton Oilers is tied 2-2 heading into Game 5 at home Thursday (10 p.m. ET; TNT, CBC, TVAS, SN, truTV, MAX) . They are looking to reach the Western Conference final for the first time since the 2010-11 season, when they lost in the Cup final.

Yet getting close isn’t enough for the Scarborough, Ont., native. And in true Tocchet fashion, he’ll let you know, no matter who might be rattled, including the players on his own team.

A perfect example came after the Canucks lost 3-2 in Game 4 at Rogers Place on Tuesday, when they allowed the game-winning goal with 39 seconds left in regulation.

“Some guys play break hockey, and you can’t win if you have five or six passengers,” Tocchet said in his post-match press conference. “There are at least half a dozen passengers this evening.”

He was a straight shooter during his 1,144-game NHL playing career, accumulating 952 points (440 goals, 512 assists) and 2,970 penalty minutes, 10th all-time. Whether in the corners or on the scoresheet, he got his message across.

Just like he does now as a coach.

This time he shoots from the lip. In a one-on-one interview with NHL.com this week, he made it clear why.

“It’s all about communication,” he said. “Say what you want to say. Get your message across. Let them know what you want. Let them know what you expect so there are no misunderstandings.

It’s a credo he’s followed since he was behind the Canucks bench, even early on when he admitted there was no shortage of chaos in and around the team.

“Again, I’m not going to lie to you,” he said. “I had a great gig with Turner. I really enjoyed that. The guys there were awesome. Turner Broadcasting, TNT, was amazing to me. And they made it difficult for me to leave. As you know, I was going to re-sign there.

Then the Canucks came calling. More specifically, the team’s president of hockey operations, Jim Rutherford. Tocchet was an assistant coach when the Pittsburgh Penguins, with Rutherford as general manager, won the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017. There were good relationships there.

He left Pittsburgh to coach the Arizona Coyotes from 2017 to 2021. He also coached the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2008-09 and 2000-10.

These competitive assets would not allow him to refuse Vancouver’s offer.

“I just like a challenge,” he said. “And I knew there would be one when you launched into the Canadian market.

“I remember thinking, ‘The Vancouver market is going to be quite a challenge.'”

Especially with a segment of outspoken fans calling for the team to tank after his arrival in order to have a better chance of landing the No. 1 pick in the 2023 NHL Draft and forward Connor Bedard. The fact that Bédard was from North Vancouver further fueled this narrative.

Tocchet knew that for the Canucks’ fortunes to change, the culture had to do the same.

“First of all, blocking out outside noise was something when I came in, it was the one thing we really wanted to attack as a team,” he said. “We had to block out the outside noise.

“You go there with people who say, ‘They should tank and go for Bédard, so why are they winning?’ Why do they do this? And why aren’t they signing some of their best players? There was a lot of noise which I think affected our players. And I think we’ve kind of created a sort of cocoon environment in our room.

How are you doing that?

“Well, I think you have to create a safe environment inside when a player comes in,” Tocchet said. “He knows he feels safe. He can let his guard down. I’m not saying it was just because of me. But I felt like when the players went in there, they were always on guard.

“I felt as the year went on, guys started to come in and were more comfortable, able to be themselves. This is the trust factor. And when you have a player who is always on guard and who doesn’t trust anyone, it’s difficult to coach a guy like that. They’re really not going to absorb the information. But I felt the players were more comfortable and engaged in their membership roles. Suddenly I wasn’t even saying that stuff anymore because they started saying it to each other.

Already familiar with their outspoken coach who preached a recipe for team structure and discipline, the Canucks bought into what Tocchet was selling.

They finished last season with a 20-12-4 record, missing the playoffs by 12 points, and went 7-2-1 this season and never looked back. Suddenly the concept of a fan base calling on the team to tank for Bédard a year earlier seemed ridiculous, of course.

Especially to the Canucks players who had little success as a team in Vancouver.

“I think we had confidence when we started winning because of the way we were trying to play the game,” Tocchet said. “And we were successful. I thought it helped.

“And I felt the Quinn Hughes, the JT Miller, the Elias Petterssons, the Thatcher Demko, I think they were at the point where enough is enough. They were tired of this loss and everything that was going on there and they just needed to believe in something.

Tocchet ended up being something.

Beating the Nashville Predators in six games in the best-of-seven Western Conference first round helped increase the frenzy around the team in Vancouver. But the series’ victory didn’t come without its own drama.

With starting goaltender Demko and backup Casey DeSmith unable to play after three games due to undisclosed injuries, rookie Arturs Silovs got the call for Game 4 against the Predators in what would kick off the ‘a Cinderella series. The 23-year-old went 4-3 with a 2.71 goals-against average and .907 save percentage while displaying the composure of a calm and cool NHL veteran.

“When Casey came to us after the third game against Nashville with an illness, there wasn’t much choice,” Tocchet said. “We thought Casey would eventually get back into it too.”

Except that Silovs played so well, Tocchet says the decision became easy to consider.

“I think the way he played, even when Casey was healthy, he earned the right to score. He enjoys it,” Tocchet said. “And he doesn’t seem to be shaken.” Even after a bad goal or something bad happens to him. I think he rebounds very well.

Now the Western Conference second round against the Oilers depends on who wins two of the next three games. And the biggest challenge remains figuring out how to defeat a team made up of forwards Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, who have totaled 16 points in the first four games of the series, Draisaitl with 10 (three goals, seven assists), McDavid with six ( one goal, five assists).

So how do you find ways to achieve this?

Tocchet played with many Hockey Hall of Famers, including Wayne Gretzky with the Los Angeles Kings, Mario Lemieux with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Ray Bourque with the Boston Bruins, Eric Lindros with the Philadelphia Flyers, and coached future Hall of Famer Sidney Crosby. an assistant with the Penguins.

As such, picking the brain of a legend like Gretzky is something he does frequently.

“I’m lucky to be able to rely on someone like ‘Gretz’ for information or advice, you know, like Gretz in the way he can tell a story that helped him or help the team where she can help me,” Tocchet said. “There’s other guys too – (coaches) Craig Berube, Travis Green, Kelly Chase, it’s good to hear other voices sometimes.”

Ultimately, though, it’s Tocchet’s voice that reigns supreme among the Canucks these days, no matter who loves it or hates it.

“It’s a chore, but I love this chore,” he said. “And look, it’s a great organization and a great market. And it’s really cool to see the enthusiasm in and around the team. I love seeing people get excited.

“As for how far we can go, here’s the problem. I think this is a team that believes that even when we are down, we can come back. And I think when you have that, you can be a dangerous team.

“When you believe in things, anything can happen.”

Especially if you believe in Rick Tocchet, judging by the last 16 months.