The cameras were rolling and the mics were hot inside at PPG Paints Arena on May 29, as both coaches addressed their teams shortly before beginning the Stanley Cup finals. Standing in the home locker room, Mike Sullivan instructed the Penguins to “embrace this challenge,” because only now was when “the fun stuff starts.” Standard. Down the hall, a wireless transmitter clipped to his belt, Peter Laviolette delivered a similar -- albeit slightly more profane -- message to the visiting Predators: “Game 1 is up for grabs. It’s up to us to go f---ing take it.”
To the national audience, Laviolette’s segment was made memorable only because NBC broadcast it un-bleeped, an F-bomb dropped into living rooms around the county. (“Saw a little clip on Instagram,” Nashville forward Colton Sissons said later, smiling.) But this also wasn’t some sprawling speech in the fictional tradition of, say, Norman Dale or Danny O’Shea. The tone Laviolette employed here wasn’t fiery, or even forceful. In telling his players to “go take it,” he might as well have been reminding his children to lug the trash to the curb for pickup.
“You know what, that’s one of his strengths,” captain Mike Fisher says of Laviolette. “It’s something different all the time, just getting us in the right mindset, getting ready.”
Not every coach carries similar gifts for off-the-cuff gab. Hockey players can sniff BS like bloodhounds, so once they smell ham-handedness, the mental dials tune to alternate stations. “You think everyone is coming in there, like the movies, that’s not the case” says NBC Sports analyst Brian Boucher. “There are some coaches who are not really good at talking in front of a group, and Lavi’s really good at that. His passion is not fake. It’s real. He hits right to the core.”
Go ahead. Stroll through Nashville’s locker room, even earlier in the series as Pittsburgh leapt to a 2-0 lead, and ask around: No one, they all agree, gives pregame speeches like Laviolette.
“Man,” captain Mike FIsher says, “he can tell a good story.”
“Even when you’re not playing, you’re like, holy f---, I need to play this game,” center Vernon Fiddler says. “I’m going home all jacked up and I’m not even in the lineup tonight.”
“Win a game, lose a game, the next day’s off and we’re getting together for a meeting and everyone’s looking around after he’s done his speech going, ‘Geez, we wish we could play the next game right now,’” says forward Harry Zolnierczyk.
“He’s like Vince Lombardi, man,” Sissons says. “He fires us up like you wouldn’t believe.”
In truth, it’s not too hard to understand. To go by Sissons’ explanation, speeches from Laviolette are just boxes of chocolates filled with F-word nougat. “You just never know what you’re going to get,” says the 23-year-old, whose six goals are tied for second on Nashville entering Thursday’s Game 5. “He’s fired up, energetic, in your face, yelling and screaming sometimes. And other times he’s quiet and conservative and having a conversation with all the players.”
The evidence is readily available on YouTube. Consider the lead-up to the 2012 Winter Classic at Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia. Holding a folded sheet of notes and standing on the carpet inside the Phillies’ clubhouse, Laviolette calmly issued a 100-second, 360-word soliloquy. “There’s two things that I wish for this group right now,” he began. The first is that you stay loose and allow yourself, in this environment, to be great. If you think about it, there’s going to be. in two hours, two F-16 jets, you’ll be walking out to 45,000 people, and you’re going to look up and you’re either going to go, ‘Holy s---,’ or you’re going to say, ‘What an incredible day.’”
Other moments call for more aggressive measures. A few weeks prior in Colorado, HBO cameras captured Laviolette crushing his charges at intermission, following a lackluster frame in which Philadelphia got out-chanced 7-1. “I want to see people rip their heart out of their f---ing chest this period,” Laviolette said, voice rising, “and if you don’t, you’re probably not going to like your ice time." Or how about before the third period during defenseman P.K. Subban’s much-hyped return to Montreal this spring, as Nashville nursed a 1-0 lead: “The mindset has to be, we’re going to rip the door off the hinges and get onto the f---ing ice and take it to them.”
But Laviolette also seems to have a feel for ceding the floor. When the Predators visited the Sabres on Feb. 28, it was assistant trainer and Buffalo native Jeff Biddle who channeled his inner coach and said, punctuated by one of Laviolette’s patented fist-pumps, “Last year, when we were here, some of you know that my grandpa passed away. And he never got to see the Preds play. And he’s always been a Sabres fan, so he’s had a lot of losing, lots of Bills, lots of Sabres, so he never got to see a real winning team. So I say we f---ing win this game, and show him how the Preds play, and give it to the Sabres.” (They did, 5-4 in overtime.)
The common denominators? Elements of the game plan always make an appearance, but more often than not these are reminders from film sessions or meetings. Laviolette indeed loves the whole yank-the-door-from-its-frame imagery, and this season has brought an infusion of canine references, thanks to Nashville’s team-wide “dog on a bone” mantra.
“I think it’s finding the things that hold meaning, and deep meaning, within players -- things that ultimately, really, get you going,” says Zolnierczyk, who like the retired goalie Boucher also played for Laviolette in Philadelphia. “It’s easy to come out and say things and try to pump up a team, but he has a unique way of using different situations that we’re in to make the moment exciting. It’s just the delivery he has. I think it’s infectious.”
“I don't know how he comes up with it, if he has someone helping him that we don’t know, a ghostwriter or something," Sissons says. "But he’s so passionate. He’s just so committed to our group and what we have going on here. We all believe what he says.”
But by no means does this suggest that Laviolette’s counterpart in Pittsburgh lacks any sort of rhetorical firepower, either. Both he and Sullivan were born outside Boston, after all, and have thus been blessed with all the accompanying, appropriately accented verbal skills. And so it was before Game 6 against San Jose in the 2016 Stanley Cup finals that Sullivan dipped into his vault and withdrew a visual that'd make Laviolette proud.
“Alright,” Sullivan said, before the Penguins went out and clinched the series, “so here we are again, knocking on the door, right? Knocking on the door. We’ve got to bang it in.”