SIXTEEN COACHES made the playoffs in the NHL last season. Of those 16, only three had a longer tenure in the league than the Flyers' John Stevens. Ninety percent of the coaches in the NHL don't make it even for 5 years. Stevens was hired on Oct. 22, 2006, and fired yesterday. Historians of this absurd business will view it as a nice, long run.
With that, a new voice arrives, that of Peter Laviolette. Teams in the NHL search forever for the voice that the players will hear and act ruthlessly when they perceive the first hint of tone-deafness. The players get younger and younger, and the
financial pressures of missing the playoffs get greater and greater, and this constant tension just rips coaches apart.
"I just think there's an expectation to be successful, as there should be," Laviolette said. "I think you should expect to win the Stanley Cup. When you start a season, that should be your objective. It should be to win hockey games. It should be to make the playoffs and, when you're in the playoffs, it should be to win the Stanley Cup. There is an
expectation to do that. One team will get that far and 29 will fail. Some will fail worse than others.
"I understand the lifeline of a coach. I'm OK with that. I'm very excited to be here with this organization. I can't wait to go to work tomorrow and put in my first day and try to take those steps . . . Someday, will it end? Yeah, probably. But I'm not worried about that. What I'm worried about is tomorrow and taking that first step."
There is no need here to defend Stevens. He is a good coach and a good guy who chose to work in a lousy profession. He had a young core on his team, and he never was able to fully eliminate the inconsistency that is the hallmark of having a young core, and now he is getting paid not to come to work anymore. Seeing as how almost 25 percent of the coaches in the league were let go during last season - including Laviolette in Carolina - this simply makes Stevens one of the fellas.
"I also understand the life expectancy of this business," said general manager Paul Holmgren, who went out of his way to say that the decision to fire Stevens was his and not that of the historically
impatient team chairman, Ed Snider.
"It's a win-loss business," Holmgren said. "If you win, the chance of your job lasting a little longer is obviously better. We're all under the gun there. By doing this today, I certainly recognize that I'm putting my neck on the line, too."
Still, NHL coaches will continue to live the most precarious lives of all. We paint them as cartoon characters, oblivious to all human reality, but it is what we do. So in the neverending search for the voice with the perfect pitch, Ken Hitchcock was viewed as a taskmaster, and Stevens was viewed as more of a players' coach, and now Laviolette is viewed as more of a taskmaster again, the pendulum swinging back and forth, the pendulum that decapitates all of them in the end.
"I think that you have to be tough on players," Laviolette said. "I also believe in the human side of things. I think if you can get to the human side, then you can be tough - it's that simple.
"I want players playing hard. I want them running out the door to play the game hard in a system that attacks the puck in all three zones. If you can get a team that works hard, if you can get a team that's disciplined - not only from the penalty box but disciplined in their life, disciplined in the system that you put in on the ice - if you get a team that cares about each other, there's nothing that you can't do. I truly believe that."
Laviolette says he thinks the Flyers have a good team - and went out of his way to say that Stevens would deserve a share of the credit if this thing turns around from its current 13-11-1 stagnation. He talked about making incremental, not massive changes.
"It's not like we're going to drop a bomb on things tomorrow morning," Laviolette said. " . . . This is a very good hockey team. I don't think you need to come in and explode it. Paul said it earlier, just some changes in different areas and a different voice delivering that. That's what we'll do."
Again with the voice. One reason to listen to Laviolette is simple: He's won the Stanley Cup. And while he says you learn plenty by getting fired, as he has twice - by the Islanders and the Hurricanes - there are other lessons, too.
"I think, when you win it all, you learn how hard it is and how much work you have to put in," he said. "I think maybe guys will tell you that, that have won the Cup. It's almost like you separate from your family and your personal life, and your only purpose and your only objective is to win the Stanley Cup when you're in that playoff push and that playoff run. It's a lot of work.
"But when you hold the Cup at the end, you realize how very much worth it was to put in that work," Laviolette said.
It would be a good way to begin his speech to the team this morning. On the first day, Peter Laviolette will know they are listening. *
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