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Q&A: Islanders Coach Doug Weight on John Tavares, the Olympics and His Dislike for Morning Skates

Dough Weight found a new perspective when he was named head coach of the Islanders. It's helped him related to his players and strengthen their one-on-one relationships.

Doug Weight is a writer. “Not an author,” he clarifies, just someone who prefers pen and paper to computers. He kept a steady journal toward the end of his two decade-long playing career, jotting thoughts about training regimens and eating habits. Now he is always logging new observations, often between periods of Islanders games, in case they might become useful later. “The hardest part is finding where you wrote that last thing down,” he says, “because there’s six notebooks on your desk and you think it’s in every one of them.”

At several points last offseason, players received handwritten letters from Weight detailing expectations for his first training camp as head coach, describing what their identity would be, encouraging everyone to grind through the dog days of summer workouts. Some were scanned and emailed in the interest of convenience, but Weight nonetheless put a personal touch into each one. Later, the Islanders also received small, black leather notebooks, emblazoned with the team logo and personalized with individual numbers.

“I told them it’s theirs, I don’t need to see it, if they want to leave it on their coffee table and not open it, that’s fine, give it to their kids,” Weight says. “I always found it was good to keep a log of what you’re eating, how you’re feeling over the course of a season, what you’re doing to prepare, so you can look back on those times when you’re having a little trouble, maybe revisit—geez, when I was hot, I was doing this. Every bit of knowledge you write down, when things are going well or poorly, it can open your eyes.”

Since Weight was promoted from assistant to interim coach 11 months ago—the tag was promptly removed in April -- the Islanders’ performance has been, well, eye-opening. Including Tuesday’s 6-2 loss to Tampa Bay, they are 40-21-6 under Weight’s supervision and rank among the NHL’s top teams in even-strength goal differential. John Tavares (17-14—31), Josh Bailey (5-26—31) and Anders Lee (16-12—28) are all point-per-game players thus far, while rookie Matthew Barzal (7-19—26) is right behind, an early contender for the Calder Trophy.

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Last week, Weight spoke with about assuming his first head gig, Tavares’s upcoming unrestricted free agency, rooting for Detroit sports teams as a kid, a hatred for morning skates, and more. (The interview has been condensed for clarity and enjoyment.)

SI: Handwritten letters lend a personal touch. Why was establishing that kind of relationship so important to you?

DW: It’s important over the first half of the season, whether it’s watching the game in its entirety with a couple of the players who wanted to do it, or talking to the players one-on-one as much as I could, having that open-door policy where sometimes it’s going to be good meetings and sometimes it’s going to be a little uncomfortable and you’ve got to hit them between the eyes.

But it’s honesty. I think the important thing is that they know where they stand at all times. That’s really important. Being a player, if you lacked it, it affected you badly. That’s probably the hardest part of the job. Those accountability times where you have to have those meetings and they’re a bit uncomfortable but you want to be transparent and honest to the guys, let them know maybe how you feel, but you want to help these guys. It’s not always going to be a rosy scene. You’ve got 23 guys, not everyone’s going to be happy, but you have to make sure they know you respect them and you’re going to talk to them about everything.

SI: Did moving six feet down the bench give you a new perspective on the group you had? Did you look at things differently when you became the head coach?

For sure. It’s a much different challenge and a much different job. Really different in ways you probably don’t expect at times. I learned a lot about individuals. You have a different type of trust in certain areas. I think when you’re putting guys out there, in certain situations and you’re seeing results, trying to get the best out of them, those meetings are a lot more intense when you’re the head coach.

I think I’ve learned how I need to prepare for games. I’ve tried a couple different things. Certain times I was on the bench and didn’t feel completely comfortable with the preparation I had, because I was doing some other meeting. That’s been taken care of. I was able to bring in a couple guys I really trust and learned from myself, so I can delegate certain things and be prepared for games.

I went through a stretch where we were playing a lot on the road and I stopped watching the game we played and started on the next game. I didn’t like how I felt about it. So now I’m making sure I have time to do it after every game. Little things you learn as you go, whether it’s time of a period or situation of a game, how you’re going to play it, what you’re going to do. You think you coach three days a week, but there’s always something new that arises in a game—a new challenge, someone goes down injured, whatever it is. You’ve got to be ready for them.

SI: What was harder, going from being a player to an assistant coach, or assistant coach to the head coach?

DW: I think assistant to the head is much harder for me. Leaving the ice as a player is the worst thing. But I think the most difficult is this. It’s a lot of things to deal with, personalities, structure, how you want to prepare these guys for every single game. There are so many things you want to touch on but there’s not enough hours, so you have to measure the importance of things, get everything across that you need to get across without inundating these guys’ times and making them roll their eyes at another meeting.

SI: Let’s use Mathew Barzal as an example here. What have you learned about what makes him tick?

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DW: Oh, he loves to score. He wants the puck and he wants a challenge. He wants to beat guys. He’ll always come up, 'I think they’re probably going to match up this guy against me and I can handle it.' He loves the challenge. He’s a confident kid, for sure. Not in a bad way. He’s come in this year with great humility, work ethic, wants to learn the whole game, wants to be great in all areas. He’s showed it to this point. I’ve learned a lot about the drive he’s had from the time he got sent down last year and watching his games in Seattle, seeing him grow as a player, I was really excited for this year coming for him.

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SI: You had John Tavares living with you at that age. What do you remember about you would’ve seen in him then?

DW: That he was remarkably more mature than I was at that age. It’s shown throughout his career. He’s obviously grown up into a great leader and a player. His drive to get better, when he left the rink at the end of the year, it was I’m going to get faster, I’m going to shoot this many pucks, I’m scoring 30 goals this year, I’ve got to shoot more, I’ve got to do this, here’s what I’m going to work on. His skating improved 20 percent that first year, then probably another 20 percent.

To me, his will to get better every time he gets on the ice reeks of his preparation and the way he approaches every single practice. From the time he was 18, 19, it was pretty incredible for me. I didn’t know those things. I think I developed and learned from some good pros and leaders. But to have that drive at that age, it astonished me. I was able to loosen him up a little bit, but he was tightly wound for the next time he could get on the ice. It was that kind of focus.

SI: Would that come out when you guys were just hanging out at home?

DW: Oh yeah. I wanted to sit there and watch a hockey game and he wants to stop and pause it because we play them next week and he wants to draw up plays. I’m like, John, let’s just watch the game. I’m tired. But that’s his personality. He loves the game. Every time he’s out there, he wants to get better. It’s a great example for people around him, that’s for sure.

SI: After Steven Stamkos decided to return to Tampa Bay, what stood out to me was his process. He was very meticulous—folders of notes, always asking questions, doing research. What do you know about John that informs how he approaches the next step with his contract?

DW: He’s detailed. Whether it’s buying a car or what he’s going to have for dinner or signing a contract, he’s going to investigate. He’s going to ask questions. He’s going to make sure he feels 100 percent like he’s doing the right thing. I wouldn’t expect anything else. I’m not overly concerned by it … He’s got integrity, so when he says he wants to stay and he wants to win here, I believe him. I know he’s being honest. But he also wants to make sure he’s making the right decision and asking all those questions. I’m sure he’s going to have the same notes as Stamkos did, the same things that he wants to go over as a checklist. That’s his right. We’re here to make it as easy as we can on everybody involved, make sure we’re focused on hockey as a group and being prepared for every single game.

SI: You [and Tavares] were friends first. Do you talk about those things, or stay away because you’re the coach now?

DW: We spoke in the summer. I’ll give him advice whenever he needs it. But all our meetings now are how he’s playing individually, what I expect from him, what he expects from me. We talk about a lot of preparation for our opponents, how the guys are doing. He’s the captain. We have to have those meetings on a regular basis. If he wants to talk about that, I’ll be there for him. Right now, I know he’s doing the right research and the right things. We don’t need to discuss any of that right now.

SI: Switching gears. What’s your favorite childhood Detroit sports memory?

DW: Oh, God. I loved all the teams. The ‘84 Tigers, and of course the Pistons before I left. I was always a Red Wings fan. Stevie Y came in and I became a big Yzerman fan. It’s been tough over the years. I played a lot in the west so I got my butt kicked by the Wings quite a bit. That love wore off. But I love the sports town. Still wearing my Lions hat. I don't know how long I can do that, but I still battle, still root for them too.

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SI: Who was your favorite Piston?

DW: Isaiah, come on.

SI: Thoughts on not going to the Olympics?

DW: League decision. I had the chance to go to three, so I know these guys want to go. I’d like them to have that option, but that’s above my paygrade. As a coach, you’re kind of like … you’re not sending a bunch of players to get beat up and come back a little tired or maybe even injured. It’s good for us. We get a little more practice time, things like that. If they want to go and it works for the league, it’s a great experience, that’s for sure.

SI: So at one point the Isles mic'd you up for a morning skate and you professed a deep distaste for the practice. Something about wanting to shoot whoever invented them. Where are you at on those now?

DW: They’re all optional. I urge the guys, we’ll get our work done, come in early, have some meetings, get some information out of the way if you need to stretch. Some guys are still old school and like to get out, but usually we have anywhere from 8-13 players out there. You’ve got to be ready at 7 o’clock, whether you’re 18 years old or 40. If I want you to go out, I’ll tell you. But if you’re in the lineup and you don't want to go out, don’t go out, be ready at night.

I feel like once I learned, you have to get over that hump where if you don’t go out, you feel a little rusty and maybe the first couple games you don’t feel right. Once you get used to it, it’s invaluable to me to save that energy 82 games, strapping your stuff on to skate around for 20 minutes. It’s my opinion, but also the doctors, and you meet with these guys over the summer about what you’re going to eat and where you’re going to stay and when you’re going to travel at night, it all adds up to wanting to be at your top energy level.

SI: Pretty different from when you were playing?

DW: We were out there for 50 minutes in the morning, skating around, doing drills, pretty much having a full practice.