WASHINGTON, D.C. – The digital mileage counter on the stationary bike climbs higher and higher as Bill Peters pedals away, periodically flicking sweat from his brow. It hits three miles, then four. His playing career may have ended after college, but the Carolina Hurricanes’ head coach keeps in impressively solid shape at 52 years old. The icebox biceps and thick thighs, readily visible in his team-issued athletic garb, serve as proof. So does his ability to conduct a 20-minute interview, as he’s doing this Monday afternoon in January, while working out and barely losing any breath.
“Got to get after it,” Peters says. “Got to sweat out the poison, if there is any poison. But you’ve also got to clear the mechanism.”
Five miles, then six. A few minutes earlier, Peters had been sifting through pages of game notes, jotting thoughts into the margins and underlining key statistics before the Hurricanes visited the surging Capitals. This, too, was in the interest of multitasking. “You’re either going to be sitting down, or trying to get something down, accomplished,” Peters says. “I can only do two. I can’t do three. Two’s enough.”
What Peters sees on paper in his hosts—clicking special teams, relentless forward depth, scorching scoring throughout the lineup, the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in goalie Braden Holtby —becomes confirmed hours later. Behind points from 12 Capitals, five of whom notched more than one, Washington waxes Carolina, 6–1. Holtby makes 25 saves. For the young Hurricanes, the loss is the fourth of what will become five straight entering the all-star break. At 21–20–7 they return Tuesday night against Philadelphia, trailing Flyers by seven points for the second wild card spot, plenty of work ahead if they hope to make the playoffs for the first time since 2008–09.
As part of SI.com’s ongoing Q-and-A series with NHL coaches, Peters lent his own unique… ahem … spin to the format. Call it a Cycle-and-Chat.
Sports Illustrated: One thing about your team absent from the game notes there—your penalty kill not only leads the league [88.1% entering the break], but you’ve also taken the fewest minor penalties overall [136, according to Corsica.hockey] What’re you seeing on that front?
Bill Peters: Give our guys credit. We’ve been disciplined for the most part. We know that coming into a game against teams that are in the top-five and top-10 in the NHL in power play, you’re going to take some penalties. Don’t take anything after the whistle, don’t take anything retaliation wise, and if you’ve taken a penalty, it’s because you’ve negated a serious threat or a scoring chance.
No lazy penalties in the O-zone. Those drive everyone crazy, but they’re even more highlighted when you play against a team that can hurt you on a power play. They don’t even have to score to hurt you. When they hem you in for two minutes and wear out your players, that hurts you, and it gives you momentum. Their power play gives them momentum on a nightly basis.
SI: You might not expect such discipline from a team with 11 regulars under the age of 25.
BP: We’ve got a real mature, young group. We skate good, so we can establish and maintain body position. And if you lose body position instead of getting lazy and putting your stick in, drop your head and go to work, make up space. That’s why the game’s gotten so fast, because everyone can skate and you lose body position and have to work twice as hard to get it back. Better off knowing what you’re doing and being in the right spot.
SI: Let’s go way back. You worked in the oil fields when you were a kid in Alberta. For how long?
BP: Well, my dad grew up on a farm but moved into a town called Killam, Alberta, when I was 11, 12 years old. I was in around the oil industry for probably the next decade. That’s how my dad made a living. He was a consultant, hard-working guy. In high school, those were good summer jobs. They paid well. They’re long hours.
At the time in the ‘80s, the industry was booming. The price of oil per barrel was high. You wanted to work. Petro-Canada had a plant near my hometown and they were doing a bunch of expansion, so I was lucky enough to work on a bunch of those. But as I got a little bit older, I realized that’s a tough way to make a living. Hard work. I thought, ‘I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life, so I have to do something different.’ So I went back to school, finished my degree, always had a passion to coach and play, obviously. I was fortunate enough to get to do that.
SI: You always had a passion for coaching?
BP: For sure. It’s a great game. It’s a fun sport. It’s great to be around the people in the game at the level we’re at now. It’s a real tight-knit group. Got to spend time with Trotzie, Babs, Q, Julie Boy [Washington’s Barry Trotz, Toronto’s Mike Babcock, Chicago’s Joel Quennville, Boston’s Claude Julien]…it was fantastic this summer at the World Cup. Either you’re passionate about what you do, or passionate about something in life, or you drift and meander. All the guys I’ve been around, whether it’s junior level or American League level or the NHL, they have a passion for the game, a pure passion. And we’re lucky to have that.
SI: You played for Mike Babcock at Red Deer College, too, right?
BP: I did. I was 23. He was 25. It was his first coaching job in North America. It was my third year in the league, called the Alberta Colleges Athletic Conference. If you can imagine, the coaches at the time were [current Canucks assistant] Perry Pearn, Mike Babcock and [former Penguins head coach] Mike Johnston. Three of those guys went on to coach in the NHL, out of five or six teams in the league. That was an opportunity to be around high-level thinkers of the game and learn from them, ask them questions and grow your passion for the game.
SI: So how does your path randomly veer off into Texas?
BP: My wife and I got married in 1990. We went to high school together. She graduated from a nursing program called the Misericordia School of Nursing in Edmonton, took a 13-week nursing assignment and ended up lasting eight years. The reason we—she—picked San Antonio, was it was the furthest south. Wanted to go somewhere nice, somewhere warm, enjoy our three months, then come back home and resume our normal life.
But at the time, so now you’re talking 1990, 1991, the economy was no good in this age. They’re closing down total wings of hospitals in a province of Alberta. When it was time to come home, a lot of uncertainty. She didn’t want to come home and not have a job, so I was able to finish my degree at the University of Texas [at] San Antonio. We stayed eight years there. San Antonio was very good to us. Then got the opportunity in 1999 to go coach in Spokane in the Western Hockey League, and jumped at it. And then, the rest is history.
SI: When you think of ‘furthest south’ you don’t exactly also think of ‘ice.’
BP: No, but it was pretty good timing. I don't know how long we’d been there, but a gentleman out of Houston started a privately owned rink, so I helped him with that project, then helped him start minor hockey and men’s hockey. Stayed involved in that regard.
But also, at the time I had a hockey school company, went around North America, and still did some work with Spokane in their training camp. When Mike coached the world junior team in 1997, I went in for those two, three weeks when he was gone. Had the opportunity to stay for the whole second half, and I did. That opened up the door through the opportunity to become a full-time assistant from 1999-2000. Paying your dues.
SI: What do you think Mike means when he refers to any one of you, himself or others as a ‘straight, old-fashioned, Alberta redneck’?
BP: Oh, I know what it means. What you see is what you get. You’re going to get the truth. Sometimes it’s a little more blunt than it needs to be. But you’ve got to know where you stand. A lot of honesty. And you know what? We care. You look at a group from western Canada, they care about their guys, they care about their players. Players might not know that, but we do. Deep down, when we’re making tough decisions, we have no problem making them, because they have to be made. But some of them are harder than others.
There’s a human element to this game. If you want to look at cold-hard facts, you could say there are 23 independent contractors on each team, but you’re trying to mold that into one group. It’s tough.
SI: I know you’ve been asked a decent amount before about analytics. In the past, you’ve referred to the projects that you’ve given [Hurricanes hockey analyst] Eric Tulsky as “simple-minded.” In other words, that you were still in the early stages of exploring the world. Have you learned more? Have you been digging more into analytics?
BP: I love that world. It’s another source of information. And you use it. There’s all kinds of information out there. The best information I have is I’m around my team. I know who’s practicing well. I know who’s coming off, being sick. I know stuff that the analytics don’t know. I’ve got my analytics too. They work real good, and they’ve worked real good for me for a long period of time.
But I love getting the information. I love the conversations the information provokes, because it provokes thought, and once you have thought, you can have great banter. You can have great…what are they called…hot-stove sessions. They’re outstanding. And there’s no one way to do anything. There are multiple ways to skin a cat, and you’ve got to believe in your convictions, and your players buy in, and you play that way, and everyone knows how you play. I think analytics have helped our game.
But at the end of the day, too, you have to make decisions based on what’s going on right in front of you, spur-of-the-moment decisions. We’re going to have 12 forwards in the game tonight. Three of them are going to be better than nine. So let’s find those three that are going. Maybe they’re on the same line. Maybe they’re not. Maybe there’s a situation we’ve got to move people around within the framework of the game based on how they’re playing. There are a lot of things that go into every decision you make, but you have to be able to make decisions quickly.