Todd McLellan talks upbringing, his brief playing career and his surging Oilers

0:50 | NHL
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Wednesday January 25th, 2017

These days Todd McLellan lives alone. His oldest son, Tyson, is a freshman forward on the University of Denver men’s hockey team. His wife, Debbie, remains in San Jose, where youngest son Cale studies and golfs at Valley Christian High School. The family pays frequent visits to Edmonton, at least whenever schedules align, but mostly the Oilers coach crashes by himself in a single-bedroom condo. “It gets lonely at times,” he says. “But it works. We’re so busy anyhow.”

Indeed, McLellan has enough to handle, with a critical back-to-back against Anaheim and San Jose separating his squad from this weekend’s all-star break. Through Tuesday, the Oilers (26–15–8, 60 points) ranked third in the Pacific Division, just three points behind the Ducks for second place and a comfortable nine ahead of the second wild card spot.

Now, with Edmonton steaming towards its first postseason appearance since ’05-06, McLellan recently spoke with SI.com, part of our ongoing interview series with NHL coaches. (See: past installments with Arizona’ Dave TippettAnaheim’s Randy Carlyle, and Tampa Bay’s Jon Cooper.) The topics ranged from being raised by a police officer, enjoying a cup of coffee as an NHL player, finding his calling overseas in the Netherlands, seeing hockey grow in San Jose, and the value of delivering hard truths to young players.

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SI: What influence did your father’s work in the RCMP have on your childhood?

Todd McLellan: I grew up in a police family. When I say that, it extended far beyond my immediate family. I had uncles and obviously my brother, my father, in the policing world. I think that had a real big influence on myself and my family. We had expectations put on us at an early age, because a lot of times we lived in small communities. We had to toe the line. If my dad was in his work, and we were not toeing the line, it would make it hard on him. We learned that quickly. We were a disciplined group, and I think it carried over into every day life for my brother and sister and me.

SI: What do you mean by toeing the line? 

TM: It’s interesting, and it’s just my opinion, but I think that when you come from a policing background, and you grew up with parents who do that, you often go one way or the other. There are a lot of kids who rebel, because it’s all about the law and toeing the line, so you rebel, or you toe the line. We had enough freedom to toe the line, yet we knew that there were some high expectations put on us as far as doing things right.

SI: What do you remember about your very brief time playing in the NHL [five games with the Islanders in ’87–88]?

TM: I remember getting called up. Like any player, the thrill of the phone call, the excitement, making calls to family and friends, and then the nervousness set in. Like, okay, I’m going to play in the NHL. It was an honor, it was a thrill, it was a goal accomplished, it was what every kid dreams of if you’re a hockey player. It was my dream coming true. It’s just that it was a real short dream for me. It would’ve been nice if it was a lot longer.

SI: Was it hard that it abruptly ended the way it did?

TM: It was hard. I was kind of lost there for a little while. It ended for me not on my terms. It ended based on health terms with my shoulder problems, and that was hard. I was still real young and I wanted to keep playing. All my friends and buddies were playing on other teams at all different levels. They got to continue to do it, and when they came home they were all training and getting ready for their next camp, and I was kind of lost. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

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SI: And then you go to the Netherlands and find yourself there?

TM: I was able to get healthy enough. It was about a year and a half of rehab, where I was healthy enough to go play again [for Utrecht IJCU]. I just wanted to go play hockey again somewhere. I went over there, ended up playing for a year. It was one of my favorite years of playing. We had a lot of fun, we won a championship, met some great people, and really got into coaching at that point. That led to where I am today.

SI: How’d you get into coaching?

TM: My fiancée at the time, who’s my wife now, she came back to plan our wedding. We had fired a Dutch coach and hired Doug McKay, and Doug needed somewhere to live, so we ended up putting him in our place, because Deb wasn’t there, and lo and behold we end up analyzing our team, planning practice, doing pre-scouts together. It’s something I really enjoyed. Ended up winning, so there was a reward to that as well.

SI: What about that process initially attracted you?

TM: I liked the tactical part. I think it’s one of the things that today’s players … I don't know if all players do it, but I think after the fact, once you leave playing and you start to coach, you say to yourself, ‘If only I had known this while I played,’ or, ‘Why didn’t I figure this out when I played?’ As a coach, you have to analyze every situation and plan and figure out why things are happening, not just how, but why. I never approached it that way as a player. I just wanted to know how to do things. I didn’t need to know the why part. And if I would’ve known the why part, I would’ve been a better player.

SI: You’re not the first coach I’ve heard say that.

TM: To me, that’s coaching. The how part— this is how we’re going to forecheck, this is our system—a lot of quality people can teach that at different levels. It’s getting the players to understand why they’re doing this. If you do this, this is why, and this is what likely will happen. Then the player looks up, ‘Yeah, okay, I get it. I’ll do it then.”

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SI: So that made you decide to take the leap into coaching?

TM: I had a chance to go back and play again. My skills were diminishing. I’d been out of the game for two years. There was an ad in the newspaper, my local Saskatoon newspaper, for a coaching position in North Battleford of the Saskatchewan Junior League. Today, that would never happen, because so many people want to coach.

SI: In the newspaper?

TM: In the newspaper. I sent my resume in, I got an interview, and lo and behold I got the job. That’s how I became a coach.

SI: Are you familiar with the website Reddit?

TM: Reddit? No.

SI: Okay, well, it’s basically user-driven forums, and there’s a Sharks’ subsection where fans told Todd McLellan memories on the day you left. [McLellan and the team agreed to part in April 2015 after San Jose missed the playoffs; he was hired by Edmonton less than one month later] One fan remembered you often playing roller hockey with kids in your San Jose neighborhood streets. True story?

TM: I have two boys. There’s no better opportunity to be around your kids and the neighborhood kids than that situation. When we moved in, there weren’t any nets or hockey sticks on the street. And by the time we left, there were nets and pucks and sticks all over the place. Kids were playing hockey everywhere. Now, when I go back to San Jose, to our place there—my boys are 20 and 17 now, they’ve outgrown that— but there’s a young generation of kids who have picked the nets up and are playing now. I take loads of sticks down to them whenever I get some old ratty ones, and hand them out, and the kids play all the time. It’s been fun to watch.

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SI: Does that give you a sense of pride, given how hockey has grown there?

TM: It’s rewarding. Kids aren’t in playing video games. They’re out in the street and they play and they play and they play. It brings back memories. We played all the time in the street, then we’d yell, ‘CAR,’ move the nets over and the cars would go by. That happens in San Jose, California, in the middle of winter of summer.

SI: Like Wayne’s World?

TM: Exactly how it happens.

SI: When you came to Edmonton, you talked openly about what it was like coaching against the Oilers and said they were, at times, susceptible to mentally folding. Then earlier this season, you said the team looked like the Bad News Bears during a 6–2 loss to Buffalo. What’s the value in hard truths like that when you’re trying to build sustainable success out there?

TM: I think you have to be honest. You have to be honest with yourself and with the people around you. There’s the old saying that the truth hurts sometimes, and it does. But if you face things, you have a chance to fix them. If you shuffle them under the carpet, and pretend they don’t exist, they’re always going to be there. You may as well be upfront and honest. There have been some nights we haven’t been good. If we are accepting of that and committed to blend in with our environment, then that’s all we’re ever going to get. There are days we have to be hard on them. It’s not that we’re making stuff up. We’re just being honest with them. I think the players appreciate us being honest with them.

SI: Do you like the Bad News Bears movie?

TM: I haven’t seen it in years. Reminds me of our ball team when I was growing up in Saskatoon. We could’ve been the Bad News Bears ourselves.

SI: That terrible?

TM: Eh, we weren’t too bad. Had our moments, though, like everybody else.

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