Locker room spark plugs are crucial Stanley Cup ingredients
It's something of an inside NHL slogan: "If you want to be good on the ice, you must first be good in the room."
An old, hackneyed cliché you say? Maybe that's what the 2010 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks thought last season, only to fall back into the pews to pay proper homage to the mysterious chemistry gods that seemingly make the difference between a good hockey team and a great hockey team.
The Blackhawks' flat defense of the Cup -- an eighth-place finish in the Western Conference followed by a first-round loss to Vancouver -- seemingly came from a couple of canisters:
Both have some validity.
But Blackhawks insiders knew it was more than that: the locker room was dead. Well, not "dead" dead, but coach Joel Quenneville and the rest of management noticed too often that the locker room all had the spirit of an insurance company board meeting.
"One of the ingredients that we talked about with our team that we were going to address in the offseason was (adding) some guys with leadership qualities that kind of complement team chemistry," Quenneville said on the morning of a recent game against the Colorado Avalanche. "It's been noticeably better. The excitement (level) on the bench, in practices and in the games, is more what we're looking for."
Team chemistry in hockey is like former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: tough to label exactly, but you know it when you see it. Or, in this case,
It's true: no team is going to win the Stanley Cup with just a room full of cheerleaders and comedians. You've got to be good on the ice, too. But woe to the coach and GM who don't properly take into account the importance of the many other hours that a team is together -- in the locker room, on buses and airplanes and in the coffee shops.
"It's so important to have locker room guys," says Hall of Fame coach Scotty Bowman, who is still an executive adviser with the Blackhawks at 78.
The nine-time Stanley Cup-winner as a head coach says he got educated on their importance during his third season as bench boss of the St. Louis Blues, in 1969-70. The player who gave him that education was Terry Crisp, who later won two Cups as a member of the Philadelphia Flyers (1974, 1975) and as head coach of the Calgary Flames (1989). Bowman's Blues were fresh off their second Cup final appearance, with Crisp a key role player at center, but Bowman started to think he needed to upgrade the talent level of his lower lines.
"We went to camp the next year and we wanted to make some changes. One guy we decided we could probably do without was Terry Crisp," Bowman says. "I made a bad mistake and we loaned him to Buffalo (AHL) to start the season, and as soon as the season started there was something missing. He was a fourth-line guy, sometimes maybe a third, and he was a holler guy in the dressing room. We thought we could get better, but we missed him in the dressing room.
"I remember like it was today, calling him into the office and telling him 'look, we're going to send you to Buffalo, we're going to do this and do that'," Bowman continues, "and he said, 'I'll tell you what, the next time I get my foot in the door, you won't close it.' By maybe December or so, we said 'To hell with this, let's bring him back' and all of a sudden we went back to where we were. He was the glue to all our guys in the room."
Crisp, who is now a broadcast analyst with the Nashville Predators, says it's no accident that most great locker-room guys are the lesser talented ones.
"I was just so happy to be in the National Hockey League. To me, it was such a privilege, and I couldn't help but let it out," he says. "I remember some guys would be like, 'Shhh, shut up, will ya' and I'd just say 'Come on boys, this is what it's all about, this is great, it's wonderful to be here in this room.'"
The NHL is now much more business-like in so many ways compared to the older days. Because of charter travel right after games, teams don't stay out late and carouse together anymore. The money is bigger, but with it is intense pressure to win in a league where the majority of revenue still comes from gate receipts -- with profits or losses hinging on making the playoffs.
But NHL coaches and GMs still realize the real success they seek often depends on what goes on between the players in the locker room. And very often, they say, the players who make the difference in a team getting to the top are the locker-room guys who not only accept their roles on the ice without complaint, but somehow keep the star players feeling loose and, perhaps more importantly, secure in the knowledge that they're not after the stars' jobs.
That's why the Blackhawks went out last summer and got players with some personality on and off the ice, guys like Daniel Carcillo, the former Flyer who has added some needed bad-boy spice to the room. And solid veteran wingers Jamal Mayers and Andrew Brunette, whose sage, calm exterior masks a ferocious will to win that younger teammates say is contagious. None of those three will threaten Jonathan Toews or Patrick Kane for top ice time, but they are more than "just happy to be there" players. The effective locker-room guy is also important "on the pond" too.
"A guy like that for me in Detroit was Kris Draper," Bowman says. "He always wanted to play more, but he never bitched and he eventually worked himself up to a third-line player. I remember telling Draper when we first brought him up from Adirondack, 'Come to Detroit for the weekend, and then you'll go back.' Well, he came for the weekend and he never went back.
"Draper was a guy like Crisp," Bowman explains. "Those guys are always full of energy, they come to the rink and work hard and they're not expecting miracles. The role players are so important on a team not just how they play, but how they accept their roles. And a coach's job is to find the roles they're good at, and sometimes that can be off the ice, too."
Bowman's locker room guys with his great Montreal Canadiens teams of the 1970s, he says, were Doug Risebrough, Mario Tremblay and, later, Yvon Lambert.
"We had good players in those early '70s teams, but we didn't show up every night. It was a good league, but we weren't tough," he says. "They joined up with another guy, (Lambert), and they made the difference. They'd go out on the ice every time and outwork the other players, and that would spill off on your stars. If they'd been on other teams, they probably would have been first- or second-line guys, but looking back I don't think they feel bad, because they won Cups and that's what it's all about.
"I've seen it in the faces of star players who never won a Cup and the role players who did. The role players look like the happier guys."
Count "Crispie" among them.
"I just love the game of hockey, and that's why it's so important to have guys on your team that love to play the game of hockey," Crisp says. "If you can't get excited about sitting in a locker stall and throwing on that NHL sweater over your head, well, then you need to go lay bricks or something."