From the Ice to the Bench: Behind the Rapid Transition from NHL Player to Coach

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Wednesday September 6th, 2017

Midway through a pugnacious and loquacious playing career that ended five months ago, Steve Ott found a fresh notepad in his home office and began jotting down ideas. Some of the roughly 100 pages filled with tactical lingo, practice drills and set plays and systematic concepts that Ott found particularly effective. Others contained motivational tactics and teaching moments that resonated. He never knew exactly when those notes might come in handy, only certain that one day they would. “Man,” Ott kept telling himself, “I can’t wait to coach in this league.”

That moment finally arrived late this May, when Ott formally retired and took a job as an assistant coach with the St. Louis Blues, one of his five former teams. At first, the rugged forward planned to squeeze one final year from a body that over 15 seasons had undergone 15 surgeries (16 if you include the ruptured appendix, which he does not). But that was before several Canadian junior executives called, wondering what Ott’s future held. And before St. Louis GM Doug Armstrong did the same. Soon, the 35-year-old found himself sporting a crisp suit at Blues headquarters—“You always class it up”—for the first job interview of his adult life.

Such a move, while abrupt, actually isn’t altogether uncommon. Among the NHL’s 31 staffs, 12 coaches have hopped straight from the ice to the bench, wielding sticks one season and whistles the next. Some, like Arizona head coach Rick Tocchet and San Jose assistant Rob Zettler, came aboard as midseason replacements. (Others, like the Islanders' Scott Gomez and New Jersey's Ryane Clowe, took full years off before leaping into their new gigs.) The rest of their colleagues in this club didn't benefit from such buffers. Philadelphia's Gord Murphy, for instance, spent the ‘01-02 season as a defenseman with the Bruins’ organization before joining Columbus’s staff in ‘02-03. “It’s an exciting process,” Murphy says. “But there’s a lot to take in.”

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The sharpest candidates plan ahead. Seven years ago, roughly around the time that Ott started scribbling onto his pad, Ryan Craig independently did the same with a little black notebook. “It would be drills from training camp, or a quote that was written on the board that came out of a meeting that I liked,” says Craig, a journeyman forward who logged 198 career NHL games and captained the AHL’s Cleveland Monsters last season. “One day I knew that I would head in this direction, so I could use and fall back on them.”

When Craig recently moved to Las Vegas, joining the expansion Golden Knights as an assistant under Gerard Gallant for their inaugural season, the trusty notebook came along for the ride. But research can only carry transitioning coaches so far. “The best advice I’m going to use is, I have to be myself,” Craig says. “You can’t change who you are, or what you believe in, or how you live. Players see through that kind of stuff. It can only last for so long.”

In this way, recent retirees make ideal additions. Assistant coaches often serve as intermediaries between the locker room and the head coach, so why not hire someone who gets what current players are going through? “It’s easier when it’s coming from somebody who’s closer in age, someone they can relate to, someone they remember where they can make that instant connection,” Murphy says. “I think it helps with all the little nuances with making a player comfortable, helping him build his confidence and self-esteem.”

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As with any profession, hockey or otherwise, networking helps forge connections. When Murphy faced the end of his career, attempting a comeback amid a serious shoulder injury, he began attending coaching seminars and spreading the word that he was interested in joining their ranks. “You’ve got to prepare a ré​sumé,” he says. “I didn’t know that.” Still it often boils down to opportunities arriving at fortunate times. After suffering a career-ending concussion during the 2008 playoffs with the Stars, Stu Barnes merely moved behind the bench for the following season. “Just went in the door and started turning right instead of left,” Barnes says.

Indeed, the little things require some adjustments too. Sitting in the front of team buses and planes, for instance. Or wearing neckties instead of shoulder pads. “The fraternities that you have the locker room, that yukking it up, you miss it,” says Columbus’s Brad Shaw, who went from manning St. Louis’s blue line in ‘98–99 to assisting Tampa Bay in ‘99–00. “Very few coaching staffs have that much fun. All that banter, that’s just part of the rhythm of the game. You fall out of touch with that.”

Then there are the actual coaching duties. Shaw recalls the lengthy process of learning how to cut video clips. Barnes was eased into the process, charting scoring chances from the press box before earning the larger role of running the power play and scripting pre-scouts. “As a player, you’re in tune with the team, but you’re more self-absorbed,” Murphy says. “It’s about yourself, your preparation, your role, what you do. As a coach, it’s the bigger picture of the day-to-day, the 20 to 24 guys that are there on the roster, conversations and how to communicate, what makes them tick. It’s a big adjustment.”

And it happens fast. On April 22, Ott logged 8:42 of ice time for the Canadiens in Game 6 of the first round, a 3–1 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden that eliminated Montreal from the playoffs. Less than three weeks later, he was preparing for the interview in St. Louis by listing the pros and cons of himself as a candidate. “If I was [head coach] Mike Yeo or Doug Armstrong, what would I ask him?” Ott says. “What would my concerns be? I’ve been viewed as a different player, antagonistic to fans in certain scenarios...It’s hard, because as a hockey player you hate talking about yourself. To put yourself in that situation, there’s nothing worse.”

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A week or so later Ott received the official offer, which he promptly accepted. His baptism came prior to the late-June NHL draft in Chicago, where the Blues held their staff meetings and Ott began attending coaches’ clinics. Ever the trash-talker on the ice during his playing days, Ott suddenly found himself on the other side. “Some good stories in there about how I was pissing them off, saying something to them on their bench,” he says. “But to be honest with you, everyone was extremely welcoming. Given my role and how I was as a player, pushing the limits of teams or guys on the other side, there was no offsides for me, and that was including coaches. I’m sure I barked at many guys I’ll maybe be working with one day.”

Like Barnes did with Dallas, Ott says he will spend his first year working as the eye in the sky under Yeo. He’ll also assemble pre-scouts and lend an ear to a locker room in which much of the roster from ‘15–16—Ott’s last season skating in St. Louis—remains intact. And while being around so many friends might rekindle old memories of his playing days, Ott swears that, “There hasn’t been a day when I said, man, I wish I was playing. I think I’ve emptied my tank as a player, completely. That’s the truth.”

The biggest challenge, then?

“Not wanting to go down on the ice and hit somebody,” he laughs.

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