Q&A: Predators’ Coach Peter Laviolette on the Olympics, Pregame Speeches and His Dog Stanley
- Peter Laviolette coached the Nashville Predators the the Stanley Cup Final last season. He shared his keys to a good motivational speech, the story behind his family dog and why he's never had hot chicken.
More than a decade later, Peter Laviolette still remembers the major beef he had with Sports Illustrated. “Yeah,” he says, chuckling over the phone, “that was a good one.” In particular, Laviolette objected to the contents of page 80 in the Oct. 3, 2005 issue, where the Carolina Hurricanes were projected to finish 28th for the ‘05-06 season. Ordinarily, Laviolette avoids the whole bulletin-board-material business. “I’m not a poster,” he says. “I’ve posted probably three, four things in my life that pissed me off.” But the head coach was also trying motivate a young group upon returning from the lockout. And so up page 80 went in the locker room... and off Carolina went to hoist the Stanley Cup.
Which brings us to last April. As Laviolette and the Nashville Predators prepped for their first-round series against Chicago, the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, a team staffer emailed him a summary of predictions from various media outlets. “Fifty-nine out of 61 people, I believe, picked Chicago to win the first round,” Laviolette says, misremembering only a little -- the actual email said 65 out of 69. But unlike the Predators’ mascot, who celebrated Nashville’s sweep of the Blackhawks by putting ESPN on blast, Laviolette kept his gripes in-house for motivation. “If I didn’t post it,” he says, “we definitely talked about it."
Granted, it might be hard for Laviolette to find new material now. Aside from bidding farewell to captain Mike Fisher (retirement), sniper James Neal (expansion draft) and bottom-six forward Colin Wilson (trade), the Predators will roll back the bulk of the core that fell to Pittsburgh in six games. Less than a month before training camp opens, Laviolette hasn’t rewatched that series against the Penguins. Doesn’t really plan to, either. “Haven’t wanted to torture myself that much,” he says. “I know the ending.
“But I think it’s important to move on. It’s always good to remember how things happened and how you got there and why, but we’re going to need to turn the page. And this group’s going to need to take steps in the right direction. If you can get that buy-in from everybody, we’ll start to build this year and see where this journey takes us.”
As far as journeys go, Laviolette has personally carved a unique path. Over the course of two years he went from attending D-III Westfield State in Massachusetts to playing at the 1988 Winter Olympics and appearing in 12 games for the Rangers. He would hopscotch through six minor-league cities, captain Team USA to a seventh-place finish at the 1994 Olympics, and ultimately become just the fourth coach to lead three different teams to the Cup Final. In a recent conversation with SI.com, Laviolette shared some of his experiences and stories, plus a developing taste for country music—but not hot chicken.
(Some questions and answers were condensed for brevity.)
SI: When you were growing up in Massachusetts, was making the Olympics on the radar?
PL: Nothing really for me was on the radar as a kid. I wasn’t one of those fast-tracked players, one of the top 13- or 15-year-olds in Massachusetts. Our high school [Franklin] was good. We played for a state championship my senior year, lost to Falmouth in the finals. From there, everything just unfolded for me. Somebody now who’s getting a Division-I scholarship and drafted in the second round, there’s a plan in place for that player to think that someday he might play in the Olympics or in the NHL. But those weren’t really my thoughts when I was a kid.
When I graduated from Franklin, there wasn’t anything pressing that was bringing hockey my way. I got accepted to Westfield and ended up going there. That’s when things really turned around hockey-wise for me. I had a degree in business management, minor in psychology, wasn’t sure what I wanted to do.
I ended up playing in some summer leagues, came across a scout named Smokey Cerrone who really was an advocate of mine and got me a tryout with the Minnesota North Stars. I didn’t know what was going to come of it. I trained hard that summer, ended up signing an IHL contract for their second farm team. None of anything was planned. It just unfolded, and every day I feel fortunate to say I’m still in the game of hockey.
SI: You were at the last Olympics without NHL players in 1994. Same situation next February in South Korea. Can you relate to what those who go for Team USA—minor-leaguers, European-based pros, maybe some college guys—will experience?
PL: The format is not going to be the same. It’s actually going to be more current to what we’re used to now, which is a bunch of players getting together, only they’re not players who are in the NHL currently. It would be more toward 2006 and 2014 when I was the head coach and assistant coach for the Olympic team, and the preparation that went on trying to get them ready in a short amount of time.
But anytime you get a chance to bring players together and have them compete against other countries, the level doesn’t matter. It’s just about the pride. That's what makes those tournaments so special. If you’ve bought into what you’re doing, then the only thing that matters is the end game. And so while the players have changed because the NHL players are staying [in the NHL], the only thing that will matter to these countries and the people representing them is the endgame, which is winning Olympic gold.
SI: Does a psychology minor come in handy as a coach?
PL: Yeah, sometimes. I wish I’d paid attention more. But I think there’s a lot that goes into that—how players are motivated, getting them to feel like they can break through a wall and they can do anything, that they can be invincible. As a coach, you can try to help in different ways.
This past year was really fun. We had such a good team, and great guys in the room. For me, this was an example of how a team really grew and developed. At the start, we were struggling a little bit. We became a team, and we became a team that could possibly win the Cup and moving forward could hopefully take strides.
SI: When we did a story during the Cup Final about your pregame speeches, Colton Sissons compared you to Vince Lombardi. Said he’d never heard anything more motivating. So what’s the key? Speak from the heart? Sense the moment?
PL: I think people in life, certainly players and teams, want to be motivated. They want to feel like they can go out and do great things and be successful. There’s a lot of responsibilities for a coach, and that’s certainly one of them. Most of it comes from the heart. There’s never a piece of paper on the board.
But in the end, when they leave that meeting—it could be two hours or eight hours before a game—the players are the ones that have to go out there and play under the big lights and they get that opportunity to shine. That’s where I thought our guys were really good in the playoffs. No matter who was injured, you try to find a way. That speaks to the players in the room, and they deserve the credit for a run like this.
Obviously it was disappointing at the end. You work hard to get to that point where you get a chance to play for the Cup, and when it doesn’t happen...Pekka Rinne wrote a terrific article in that Players’ Tribune. It was as raw as it gets, some of the ways he worded it. I loved how he said that, as it was going on, he felt like he could play all summer. However he worded it, however how strongly he felt, and when it was over and when we lost, he could not believe how tired he was. It was a great article. That was raw. It was awesome.
SI: The section about P.K. [Subban] was interesting too, that Pekka was most surprised by “how laid back he is.”
PL: I thought P.K. was terrific. He was incredible, especially through the playoffs. He was just a mountain of a man out there, with regard to the way he played defense and the way he got the puck out of our end. And Mattias Ekholm is one of the most underrated players in the National Hockey League. I think he’s a horse. Not only can he defend, but he can skate, pass and score, and he does that every single game. He and P.K., as a pair, I thought, were terrific.
SI: Ryan Johansen had a pretty good imitation of you going during the playoffs.
PL: What was it?
SI:The “POW!” celebration.
PL: Unless he’s BS’ing me, I believe it’s his own thing. Did he say it was me? Or are you just assuming that the POW was an imitation of me? Because I asked the same question. I said, “Are you trying to get me in trouble here with the fist pump?” And I believe he said, “No, it’s just something we do.” Although, it was a good one. I’ll give him props. He bent the knees and he got into it. I like it. We’re an excitable group.
SI: To that end, your locker room didn’t really feel like any other NHL locker room. You had bobbleheads on shelves and trading cards hanging from the ceiling and Super Mario painted on the wall. You had a cartoon blue dog mascot named Stanley. Was that by design?
PL: The players like that, I think. They don’t always want to come in and read about forechecks and they don’t want to see X’s and O’s drawn on a rink with arrows and diagrams. But I think you can find purpose in that too. You could go in one day and say, “You’ve really got to play great,” and then hope that the game comes and they play great. Then you can go in the next day and say the same thing, and hope that, even though they heard that message yesterday, they somehow find a way to play great. Maybe by the third day, they’re going, “This is old.” So whether it’s posting something or saying something or having it go to them and letting them get involved, I think you can send the same message and have it have some meaning.
SI: Did you know that [Pittsburgh coach] Mike Sullivan’s dog is also named Stanley?
PL: I didn’t until I read it in an article. We had him back in 2006, and it was in the conference finals against Buffalo. We were at home for Game 1, and we lost. Anytime you lose Game 1, especially at home, all of a sudden there’s an urgency that goes through the room like nobody’s business. Each win is so big, and each loss is so devastating. There was this wave of, We’ve got to get our s--- together now. So we went into Game 2, a lot of preparation, a lot of work. There’s always a little bit of downtime for a coach, as the players are getting ready, right before they go to warmups. It was a later game. I want to say it was 8 o’clock.
And my wife is one of the best coaches’ wives in the world. She knows what I’m going through, she knows when to talk to me or not talk to me or when to straighten me out. One thing she’s never done, is she’s never called me that close to a game. Never. So it was 6:30. Players are getting ready for warmups. And my phone was ringing. And I looked at the number, and it was my wife. So I picked it up. And she said, “Hey, do you have a minute?” Oddly enough, I did. She said, “We’re just getting ready for the game, and the neighborhood kids walked into the bathroom, and they have a dog. He looks like a lab, he’s really tiny, all his brothers and sisters got killed in the intersection, he was the only one to make it. What do you want to do?"
I gave the best response I could give at the time, and it was quick too. I said, “Here’s the deal: I’ll pay for it, I’ll take care of it, I’ll take care of it, I’ll feed it, I’ll walk it, I’ll take care of it. But when this dog ruins everything we have and own, and you’re mad, this is your dog. Not my dog. Short of that, we can keep him.” So we ended up keeping him. We didn’t name him for a couple days. We did name him Stanley before we won the Cup. I think it was the start of the Final. If we didn’t win, we said we’d end up changing the name.
There’s a picture of him at the beginning of his life, as a real tiny puppy sitting in the Cup. He’s 11-and-a-half years old now. It would’ve been cool this year to get another picture with him.
SI: Would he have fit?
PL: No, he’s huge. When we got him, he was half the size of an egg carton. He was tiny. We had no idea what we were getting. It could’ve been a Chihuahua. He weighs 100 pounds now.
SI: You told Dan Patrick that you’ve never tried hot chicken. How is that possible?
PL: It doesn’t really sound appealing to me. That’s the only reason why. I like buffalo wings, but only if they’re medium to mild. I don’t want anything that’s real hot. So maybe hot chicken’s great. I don’t think there’s any rhyme or reason to it. Just doesn’t sound great to me.
SI: Have your music tastes changed since being there?
PL: I never listened to country before I got here. I never liked it at all. It wasn’t something I grew up with as a kid, never listened to it anywhere. I’m not a huge music guy anyway. But when I got here, right away, I came back from the world championships and I had signed to be the coach before we left, and it got announced while I was there. So when I got back, the press conference was right during the CMA Awards in early June. We were going to go to the show. My wife was really fired up, we were going to walk the carpet. We got good seats.
It’s been three years and now it’s the only thing I listen to. I love the country music. The artists around here are phenomenal. I think they do a great job.
SI: Did your driving route to the game ever take you by Broadway? Did you ever get to glimpse that crowd live?
PL: No, I saw it on TV. There were a lot of things that amazed me from a fan standpoint. The fans, the city of Nashville, everyone who helped put that together...it was spectacular. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen in sports, the way it packed downtown with gold jerseys and the arena, the level it went to, it’s something I’d never been a part of.
We just had a reception over at the mayor’s house. It was just a thank-you to the parties all involved, from public works to police officers to the fire department to the CMA. There were just a lot of things that had to go right for that to go on, and it did. It was an amazing time in Nashville. It was crazy.