Glen Gulutzan Q&A: On coaching philosophy, Calgary and a promise he still hasn't delivered
- In continuation of our ongoing series of interviews with NHL coaches, Calgary Flames coach Glen Gulutzan dives into topics that span from his his coaching philosophy to his one-day stint as a substitute teacher, and a promise to his children on which he still hasn’t delivered.
It was to his great benefit, Glen Gulutzan believes, that he first experienced coaching in Canada from an assistant’s point of view. Before Gulutzan joined John Tortorella’s staff with the Vancouver Canucks in July 2013, he had only run benches under relative seclusion—the ECHL’s Las Vegas Wranglers, the AHL’s Texas Stars, and finally their parent club in Dallas, his first head job in the NHL. “Then I went to Vancouver, so I got used to a Canadian market,” Gulutzan says. “But certainly not as the head guy. It’s a lot tougher to be Batman than it is Robin, I’ll tell you that.”
Today, three-quarters through his first season helming the Calgary Flames, Gulutzan has gained sufficient perspective. The major crash course came early, when they started 5-10- and allowed four or more goals in nine of them, at which point talk among fans turned to the length of locally sourced leashes. But the turnaround was equally swift. Entering Tuesday night’s slate, Calgary sat three points ahead of St. Louis for the first wild card spot, firmly in playoff position among a wide-open Western Conference after missing the field last spring.
“Listen, we’re on the right track,” Gulutzan says. “We made big changes. You can certainly see now in our analytics that things have changed here quite drastically. But I really had the belief and the experience that we’re going to stay the course, the ship will right itself, we’re on the right path. Coaching’s really about confidence. And I did really have that strong belief, even though we were taking in lots of water.”
Indeed, Gulutzan isn’t one to shy away from naked truths. This was the case after Calgary lost four straight in mid-November, when Gulutzan called the team “fragile,” and certainly was when he blasted the Flames for“a pathetic display” against Montreal late last month. And, evidently, at the Gulutzan household too.
“I really believe that you treat your players like you treat your family,” Gulutzan says. “I have four kids. If one of my kids didn’t do well on their report card, which happened, I’d let them know in front of the other kids that that’s not right, and unacceptable, and we don’t have bad report cards. All the other kids get the message. I take that same philosophy in the locker room.
“We don’t play favorites. We’re honest with our video, how we communicate. Do we have some tough talks? For sure. We have some really good laughs in there. We’re a family. We ultimately have each other’s backs. You can fight with your family, and at the end of the day you’re still a group. When I was hard on them for certain things, after the Montreal game it wasn’t just bravado out in the media. I was hard on them in the room. I was demanding of them in the room. But we have a lot of good times. I think that’s what it’s about, building that trust that we’re all together, we’re a family, we’re going to be honest.”
So, in keeping with the promise of candor—and continuing an ongoing series of interviews with NHL coaches -- Gulutzan engaged in a wide-ranging conversation last weekend, before the Flames won their fourth straight on the road Sunday in Carolina. Topics span his coaching philosophy to his one-day stint as a substitute teacher, his relationship with the fiery Tortorella to Calgary’s surprising increase in penalties, and a promise to his children on which he still hasn’t delivered.
The transcript has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
SI.com: In the course of cramming research about you, I found a YouTube video of an hour-long talk you gave at a hockey symposium in Saskatchewan in 2015. Something you said stuck out to me: “Whatever you’re teaching, teach it.” That seemed to be about believing in your principles. How did you develop that philosophy?
Glen Gulutzan: Probably in the last few years it’s evolved. I was in my own there for a long time coaching, so you have your own beliefs. When you go through the minors and start at the bottom in the West Coast League then the East Coast League then the American League, your thoughts are very isolated. You’re in your own world, doing your own work all the time. Then when I went to Dallas and had two years as the head coach, I had a big staff for the first time in my career. I had three, four, five guys and a GM who’s with me constantly. Now you have more input coming in rather than going through the minors almost solo.
Once I got fired out of Dallas, I worked [in Vancouver] with John Tortorella and Mike Sullivan, who had been fired out of New York and had been head coaches. Now all of a sudden you’ve got these different ideas coming in. What I really found was there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s however you connect the pieces and whatever you believe through your experiences, then teach it and go with it. There’s not really a right way or a wrong way. Everyone has their different philosophies. But whatever you believe in, make sure you stick to it.
SI: Are there things you do now -- whether it’s drills or system stuff or deployment or abstract philosophy – that you can trace back to picking up from specific people?
GG: Completely. I feel like a thief at times. Certainly some of these things are my ideas that I generated, growing up almost by yourself. But others are completely stolen. I watched how this worked for Willie Desjardins [Tortorella’s successor with the Canucks], or how this worked for Mike Sullivan or John Tortorella. I watched how things didn’t work, what could work for me and what hasn’t worked for me, what I can an can’t do, my limitations. You just build your own style based on learning from other guys of what might fit your personality or your beliefs, and what doesn’t. I can tell you where most of my drills have come from. I can tell you which ones are mines, which ones are stolen.
SI: You mentioned the relative solitude you had before you got to Dallas. What was that adjustment like when you suddenly had staff to manage, people to report to?
GG: One of the adjustments I made was, I used to ride to the rink with the coaches. It was a drive on game days and there would be five of us going down to American Airlines Center in Dallas. I started to drive down by myself the second year. I just needed some of that time. I always had that time to reflect on your drives to work, on your drives home. Just that quiet time where you could think about how the pieces fit together, the things that consume a coach’s day. I found I wasn’t getting a lot of time for myself. I really like to trust my gut and be in touch with what’s going on in the locker room and how everything’s flowing.
I didn’t have that when there were a lot of voices, so I started taking a little bit more time for myself on those rides. The other thing too, I’m a guy, when I worked out, I started working out a lot harder at the levels up higher. I don’t put on headphones. I don’t watch TV. That’s another hour of my day where it seems that my best coaching thoughts and organizations come from a little bit of that solitude.
SI: What’s your workout routine?
GG: I can tell you this, I work out for coaching first, to keep sanity second, and third to eat. There’s too much food in the NHL. I’m just fighting off that 45-year-old guy who wants to eat everything. I work out probably five or six times a week. I still try to lift weights. It’s my best stress relief, and my best thinking time. I still haven’t done it today. I’m procrastinating after doing my video.
SI: Was the alternate plan to become a teacher?
GG: I am a teacher! I only taught one day. I got my teaching degree in 1997 out of the University of Saskatchewan and I subbed one day. It was a long day. I’m glad I’m coaching. I did Grade 8 and 9 phys-ed, five classes.
SI: What’d you make them do?
GG: We were swimming at the time, so wasn’t easy. Just had to kick a few kids out of the pool when they were acting up. You know how it is, when you’re subbing for a day, everyone thinks they have a day off.
SI: Was that what you wanted to teach, if you had gone that route?
GG: My dad was a calculus teacher. My degree is in phys-ed. Obviously I love sports and mathematics, so those were going to be my specialties. But I went into that hoping I’d never have to teach. I always wanted to coach. But I thought that doing an education degree would certainly help me in my coaching career. So I finished off that degree, and then was hoping to get into coaching the whole time.
SI: Going to leave this one open-ended. Your team has seen a massive uptick in penalties taken this season. [The Flames average 11:35 penalty minutes per game, most in the league; they ranked 19th in ’15-16 at with 9:11.] How do you explain that?
GG: It’s tough for me. Sometimes I take that blame on myself a little bit. I think some of it is a little bit of our youth. Usually young guys that are competitive, we’ve got some competitive, hard-nosed players trying to survive in the league. Survive isn’t the right word, but make a mark in the league. And they have to hum at their highest level to compete here, so sometimes they overextend themselves. But from a coaching standpoint, I’ve really asked this team to be engaged. Part of trying to get this team galvanized, we do certain things here that lend themselves to getting emotionally involved in the game. I think that’s a little bit different here. We have crossed the line a little bit too much. But I do like our emotion in games. I do like when our team is emotionally involved and aggressive. Lately our penalties have dropped off. Certainly in the beginning we were taken too many.
SI: It seems to be a topic of discussion lately, but in connection to what happened last year with [defenseman] Dennis [Wideman, who was suspended 20 games last season for striking linesmanDon Henderson].
GG: You know, I wasn’t there last year. A lot of people point out to the incident, and then obviously a marked increase in penalties thereafter. It’s a defined line to most people who are onto that theory. For me, I don’t really think of it. I really don’t think that Dennis himself is going to get any breaks. I don’t know if it’s caused an uptick in our team’s, but certainly there are some analytics that point that way, but I don’t pay much attention.
SI: But you feel you’ve identified reasons for the spike elsewhere.
GG: That are unrelated, yes.
SI: A couple quick-hitters. When you interviewed with Calgary, you climbed Grouse Mountain with [assistant GM] Craig Conroy. Who reached the top first?
GG: I got some good advice when I was interviewing for the job in Dallas, from my assistant coach Paul Jerrard. I went golfing with Joe Nieuwendyk, it was a working interview. Paul said, just make sure you let Nieuwy win. So when I got to the top of the mountain, we got close there, I let Connie go ahead of me and I followed him up. So Connie won.
SI: Did the interview process include any similarly fun interactions? Did you go tie shopping with Brian Burke?
GG: I should’ve. I really like the organization for one reason. I hate wearing ties. I don’t like anything hanging around my neck. The organization is really almost tie-optional at times. I really enjoy that about the Flames.
SI: You told Sportsnet that you promised your kids a dog if they had to move again, before you took the Flames job. Did you ever get it?
GG: I haven’t. I looked at a thousand dogs this year in my spare time. I watch hockey video, I spend time with my kids, and I look at dogs. That’s my year here. What we’ve decided is that we’re going to wait until the spring here. My kids have eye on two or three. Now everybody’s on board with what they want to get. We’re just waiting for the right time. But I get hounded constantly from the youngest to go see a few puppies.
SI: What kind of dog have they settled on?
GG: We’ve got three. I’m allergic to dogs, so dad’s sucking it up here. We need hypoallergenic, so we’re looking at the Labradoodle or the Golden Doodle or one of the doodles.
SI: So Torts can’t hook you up with a pit bull?
GG: No pits for me. That was a scary moment. We went to Torts one time for a barbecue, the kids all came. We drove out to his place at Point Roberts, in Washington. He’s got a fenced-off area and he had four or five pits there. And they’re big pits. So we pull up in the car and we get out and all of a sudden there are three huge pits running toward us. I have my kids, so I go, “Get behind me.” And they all come up, and they’re friendly as can be. I wasn’t a big dog guy. A little scary.