When the hockey community gathers in Las Vegas in late June for the 2019 NHL Awards, Rick Tocchet could very well be there as one of the three finalists for the Jack Adams Award. The Arizona Coyotes head coach has guided his team into a wild card spot in the Western Conference as they’ve dealt with ridiculous number of injuries this season.
HIs focus, however, is on the playoffs, not any trophy talk.
“I try not to even think of that stuff,” Tocchet told Pro Hockey Talk recently. “I’m very lucky that this organization and the staff we have with the assistant coaches, the trainers, the medical guys, we’re a very tight group here, and the players are tight as well. That really helps support me. I know when I come to the rink I’ve got great support. When you’ve got great support, you’re hopefully making good decisions, you’re not all over the map.
“Any time you’re mentioned in anything, it’s a feather in your cap, but I’ll be honest with you, it’s more we’re a day-to-day team. I don’t even think of that stuff. I try not to, at least.”
Entering Tuesday’s game against the St. Louis, the Coyotes are one point behind the Minnesota Wild for the second wild card spot in the Western Conference with a game in-hand. A run that’s seen them win 11 of their last 15 games as some previous challengers faded has put Tocchet’s team in a good spot. It hasn’t mattered they’re second in the NHL with over 330 man-games lost to injury, it’s the old next-man up mentality.
“I’ve been involved in the NHL 30-something years, never,” Tocchet said about the rash of injuries that have hit the Coyotes this season. “Never to this devastation. You get a bunch of guys with groin injuries or something, but not out for the year knee injuries. I’ve never seen more knee injuries in my life, five or six where guys are out for the year or for four months.”
What’s kept the Coyotes afloat as players were sidelined on a regular basis is that the morale of the team didn’t drop and their practice habits remained strong. Tocchet began to notice that the day after a game, especially a loss, his players were attentive and strong on details during the 30-45-minute skates.
Good practice habits were a key part of Tocchet’s makeup as a player and something he wanted to instill in his players when he became an NHL head coach. He credits using practice time advantageously to helping the Coyotes bounce back from a loss or maintain a winning streak.
“We don’t waste days here,” Tocchet said. “I think guys understand that we don’t have a team that can just turn it on or off, and that starts in practice.”
Before arriving behind the bench in Arizona, Tocchet’s coaching career surrounded him with superstar players. In Colorado he worked with Peter Forsberg, Joe Sakic, Rob Blake, Paul Kariya, Teemu Selanne, and Patrick Roy. In Tampa, there was Martin St. Louis, Vincent Lecavalier, and a young Steven Stamkos. He won two Stanley Cups as an assistant in Pittsburgh with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Phil Kessel. Seeing the practice habits of future Hall of Famers and NHL superstars showed him that that’s where the path to success begin.
Tocchet has evolved as a coach since his two years behind the bench in Tampa a decade ago. He learned to be more decisive working alongside Mike Sullivan in Pittsburgh. Seeing Sullivan take information from his staff and process it and then make a decision right away was something he added to his skillset.
“I don’t really listen to the outside noise like I used to,” Tocchet said. “And communication, I think I’ve always been a good communicator, but I think over the last four or five years that’s been my go-to thing, communicating with players.”
Aside from making his players better, the Coyotes have helped Tocchet during this wild season. It can’t be easy hearing on a regular basis that yet another player will be missing multiple weeks or months, but if you go back to those practices, that important time on the ice, the team has helped keep the head coach level.
“They’ve really kept me positive. Sometimes I can get emotional,” Tocchet said. “I’m not really a negative guy, but if we have a bad effort, I try not to be upset the next day because the team gets energy from the coaching staff.
“But they’ve given me energy, these guys. When they come in and they work hard after a terrible loss, it gives me energy. It gives me hope.”