An exclusive with Rick Tocchet: ‘I'm proud leaving here, knowing I coached my ass off’
Coyotes and fourth-year coach agreed to part ways on Sunday
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Rick Tocchet was hired in Arizona to great fanfare on July 11, 2017.
He had won his second straight Stanley Cup one month earlier as an assistant coach with the Pittsburgh Penguins. He brought a reputation as a master communicator, having helped unlock the enormous potential in Phil Kessel. He commanded league-wide respect because of the all-out manner in which he played over a 1,144-game, 952-point career. And he preached a fast, go-north style that played melodiously in Coyotes fans’ ears.
Despite a 1-11-1 start in his first month on the job, Tocchet forged a competitive team in his four seasons in Arizona. He missed the playoff by four points in his second season, the Coyotes qualified for the league’s expanded format last season, and then won the franchise’s first postseason series in eight years, and he had the team in contention late this season.
Ultimately, Tocchet fell prey to the same factors that have doomed past Coyotes coaches: unstable ownership, a lack of resources, a lack of top-end talent on his roster, and a lack of depth. The Coyotes and Tocchet mutually agreed to part ways on Sunday. Two days later, I sat down with Tocchet over breakfast in Old Town Scottsdale to discuss the past and the future.
When you met with GM Bill Armstrong at Gila River Arena on Sunday — the day after the season ended — how did the conversation proceed?
When I walked into that meeting when he called me Sunday morning, we both knew it would be a difficult situation to move forward from. In my four years here, I had two owner and two GMs. I have been in the league long enough to know from experience that new owners and new GMs like to bring in their own people. I knew I was in a tough spot and I knew the season would be difficult to move forward from. We both knew it, so that was why it was a mutual decision to part ways.
Can you provide any more insight into that conversation?
Bill was very complimentary. He said it was a hard decision for him. He said all the right things. It was a very short conversation. There was nothing else to be said at that point. It was basically good luck and you move on.
We didn’t talk about personnel or anything like that. The only thing I left Bill with was the support staff around me, the medical trainers, the equipment guys, the team service guys, people like that, please take care of these people. They deserve it. I hope they re-sign those guys.
Did you expect this fate?
When Bill was hired, I knew my work was cut out for me if I was going to stay because everything was going to be evaluated. Bill was just going to sit back and see what direction they were going to go. It was a great challenge for me. I loved it. I loved every minute. Yeah, it's stressful because you want to win but I think for the most part it was a learning experience this year and to me, it was just a coach-hard-every-game thing, a day-to-day thing.
When you look at this season, given the roster and injury challenges that you had, how do you evaluate it?
I called it a roller coaster but I’ll tell you what, we were four games over .500 (on the morning of April 7) and we were actually playing pretty good hockey. We had all talked about that monster road trip (nine games in 15 days) and then we lost that game in L.A. (blowing a 3-1, third-period lead) and I think that one really hurt us.
Obviously, the goaltending situation with (Darcy Kuemper) and (Antti Raanta) being injured really hurt us. There were some other injuries here and there but the thing that I saw was we weren't playing really good defensive hockey and I was a little nervous because of that. The PK (penalty kill) started to leak a little bit and we had a tough time scoring goals. I knew we were in trouble when it started going south on us because we just couldn't grab an oar; grab onto the ledge. As a coach, I took that personally. I kept asking, ‘What can I do?’ This is a results-oriented business and when you lose games, it’s on you.
This year’s team allowed 3.11 goals per game, which ranked 22nd in the league. That was a significant departure from the two previous seasons (2.68, 2.61). Why do you think that happened?
I think a little bit of a different roster impacted that (Tocchet noted the losses of strong defensive centers Derek Stepan and Brad Richardson). It hit us this year with how many new people came in, and then obviously the injuries to Kuemps and Rants took a toll.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know yet. One thing I will tell you is that I have been involved in the NHL fraternity for 30 years and there are great people in this league. It’s not a funeral, but so many people have reached out and have been so supportive that they have re-energized me. I’m going to sit back and see what’s out there. I don't know what’s going to happen.
Toward the end of this season, you looked tired to me. Did I read that right?
That’s why you get paid so well. There’s only 32 of these positions in the NHL. I don’t take this position for granted. Yeah, this is a tough franchise to coach but so are some other franchises. There are some franchises where it’s Stanley Cup or bust so there’s pressure from that, too.
I don’t shy away from it but the mental part of coaching requires you to be very strong to handle it. But like I said, it’s a great place to coach and a great place to live. The fans are great and I feel for them. They want to win and they haven't had a lot of success in 25 years. I understand their frustration. I’m frustrated, too.
When you look back on your body of work for the past four years, what do you see?
I’m not an arrogant guy. I think a lot of people have done an unreal job around here, my support staff, and if it wasn't for them, we probably wouldn’t have done as well. But I think I have done a good job. I think I came to what was not the greatest situation and we were a competitive team.
It’s not for me to evaluate the roster and what I didn't have. That’s for the analysts, you guys. Wherever I coach and whoever I coach, I coach as hard as I can so for me personally, I'm proud leaving here, knowing that I coached my ass off. And I love the group that we have. They’re competitive guys,
It’s for other people to say whether we fell short of what the expectations were for this team. That’s not for me to decide. I want to win every game and after some games I was frustrated, but the next day I come to practice, I have to think of a way that we’re going to win the next game and that’s the approach I’ll always have.
What sort of challenge did this roster’s deficiencies present?
It’s a hard question as a coach because any time you get somebody on your roster, you try to look at the good in them. What can they bring? You don’t try to look at the negative although you have to recognize a guy’s limits. That's the way you have to approach it. If I go in saying, “This guy can't play” and “This guy’s not a good leader” then I am not doing service to the player.
Given the difficult situations that you were presented during your two stops as a head coach — Tampa and here — are you looking for something a little different in your next opportunity?
I have been a coach for five and a half years in some trying circumstances. I’m not going to take any job or the first job that comes up. There had better be stability. There had better be strong leadership. You’ve got to have a somewhat talented team and a commitment to winning. Those things have to be there for me to be involved.
I may not be able to find something. Maybe it might not happen. I don’t know. I’m not saying that I can just sit back and people are going to jump to get me, but they have to have those qualities for me to be involved. In five and a half years, it has been a tough go when it comes to that stuff but it has also been a great challenge and I have learned a lot.
How have you evolved as a coach?
I am way more decisive in the way I coach now than I used to be and I think that comes from experience. I wish I was in a better position sometimes to make personnel decisions. That’s not a cop-out to any general manager I have worked with because they have all been great so don’t get me wrong, but I’d like a little more control. That is something that would help.
I think there are better ways to coach nowadays. I think there are some new approaches and things I would change. There’s more out-of-the-box ways to coach today’s athlete and I want to dive into that more. I think sometimes coaches do too many team meetings and it’s gotta be more individual based. More than ever. I think you have to meet with a player almost every three days, whether it’s just spending 20 minutes or two minutes with him.
There’s not a lot of time in the day to deal with 25, 26 personalities but I don’t think you can go a week without sitting down with a player. I think there are better ways and I want to dive into that more. When I came into the league, the coach would say, “The puck is in the corner. Go get it,” and you did it. Now the players want to know why and if there is a better way. You have to be a partner with the player. If it’s not a partnership, you might not last in this league.
Did you ever get any pushback from your players on the style you wanted to play?
I think a majority of the guys knew we had to play a certain way to be competitive. I know some people wanted to see us open it up and be offensive. I’m all for that but if it’s a 3-on-3 through center ice, I'm not sure you can just start skating around everybody and go in on goal. It’s a tough league. Sometimes, you have to chip it by him.
If you have a 3-on-2 yeah, of course you don’t chip it in, but I know people have this narrative that we were a dump-and-chase team. You’ve got to coach to your personnel and your identity. We lost our identity this year. You can ask other coaches. Before, we were a tough defensive team to play against and we tried to stay in games. We tried to win 3-2. That’s who we were. We can't win 5-2, 6-2 games. We’re just not built that way and I’m not going to apologize for that and most of the guys were proud to play that way. They loved hearing, “These guys are tough to play against.” We lost that identity this year.
When people say you should play with the puck, OK, let’s watch video. Show me. Give me examples. I used to laugh, wondering where this is coming from that we always dump and chase. If you’ve got a chance to beat a guy, go beat a guy but if you can't beat a guy then don't lose the puck at the blue line, and we lost the puck at the blue line a lot this year. I kick myself because I think, well, maybe we should have dumped it in even more. We gave up a lot of odd-man rushes because we pushed the envelope this year.
I’m sure a lot of other coaches hear the same complaints, and it’s kind of funny, but I think the smart fans understand.
Most of your assistant coaches are also on expiring contracts and Phil Housley has one year left on his. What are your emotions, leaving them behind?
That's the one thing as a head coach that really stings you. I really care and I want them to be successful. I want them to have jobs. Johnny Mac(Lean) was a really good guy and he lost his job. (Former video coach) Steve Peters lost his job.
This year, I really enjoyed working with Jay Varady. He’s a very talented and good coach. With Cory Stillman, I didn’t even know the guy and I really got to know him. I had two years with Howie (Housley), who is a really experienced guy and (Corey) Schwab, who is amazing. Lars (Hepso), Hunter (Cherni), same thing. You hope they can get a job or re-sign here because I’d hate for them to be out of jobs. It means a lot if they can somehow get a job. I feel responsible for them. Whatever you want to call it, my failure to re-sign here or stay here trickles down to them. Whether it’s fair or not, it’s my responsibility and I take it personally.
What are your summer plans?
I’m going to spend some time with my son (Trevor). I’ll take a couple trips because I’ve got to recharge and then I’ll dive into some stuff, read some stuff on the psychology part of athletes. I have a good network of friends and coaches with other teams and I like to pick their brains so there will be an opportunity to do that, too.
It was harder to do that this year with the uncertainty and COVID. Every coach would say the same thing. There were some challenges that were not the norm so I’d like to get back to the norm.
How will you approach the process of finding your next job?
I have some friends telling me, “You’ve got to get out there and start pounding the pavement.” I think teams know what they want. If I’m a guy they’d like to talk to, they know where I am. I don't think I have to pound the pavement or advertise. I’ll have to be ready if there are interviews but who knows if they’ll come? I could be sitting here on Sept. 1 with no calls and I’m prepared for that.
What will you do if there are no coaching opportunities?
I don’t know. Maybe do some TV. There’s some new networks out there (ESPN and Turner Sports will carry the NHL next season). I’m not afraid to say what I think and I know the game. That could be an avenue. I don’t know. We’ll see.
What are some of your favorite memories from your tenure here?
Obviously beating Nashville (in the playoff bubble last season). We were the underdogs. When we won, I loved how happy the guys were because we have been kicked in the teeth a lot around here, the franchise has. I know a week later we did get kicked in the teeth (by Colorado) but I thought that Nashville win was great for the guys.
I remember the road trip last year when we beat St. Louis after beating Washington on back-to-back nights. The way we played after some of the tough travel was impressive. This was a really close group and they dealt with a lot of stuff but they were very resilient. At the end of the day, they’ll be questioned on wins and losses, but they were really close.
Which was your favorite season?
The second year when we fell just short (of the playoffs). That was probably the most fun year. We had a lot of injuries but we played a certain style and we almost got in. Brad Richardson (and Alex Galchenyuk) was our leading goal scorer with 19 but we almost got in because we played hard. We played the way we had to play and who knows what would have happened if we got there.
That was the most disappointed that I have seen a team be, because they truly knew that they had played up to their expectations and they played the way we’ve got to play. We played a very competitive style.
You have been a Coyotes player, an assistant coach and a head coach. Is it hard to think that this may have been your last opportunity in this market?
I’m frustrated because I played here for a couple years and saw what was possible. Yeah, we had a lot of what-ifs when we couldn't get out of the first round. What if we had a little bit more money to get that right player because we had some great leaders and some characters, but those teams created a buzz.
I have been back in two stints (as a coach) and I haven't had that same feeling about this area since that time and I know it’s there. Hopefully, they can get back to that feeling. I don’t blame the fans. They need some reason for belief. They need to see, “Hey, we're in good hands and we’re going in the right direction.” I understand their frustration and I hope they get it. It’s not going to happen tomorrow but hopefully it’s going to happen for the fans. I feel bad for them. Even the people that don’t like me around here, I hope they get a winner. I really do.
What does this community mean to you?
I love this area. I’ve got a lot of friends, close friends that I have established away from hockey. I’m going to miss it because it is a fabulous place to play, but I’m not done with this community. I might move on to some other stuff, but who knows? Maybe I’ll retire here one day. It’s just the overall lifestyle and there are very friendly people in Arizona. This is definitely a place that when I talk to people, I tell them it's one of the best places to live in the United States.
Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter: @CraigSMorgan