A Crash Course in Coaching
Written by Pac Pobric • Illustrated by Keenan Wells
It was his silvery hair, weathered face, and slight slouch that gave him away: the 44 year-old goaltender looked every bit his age. Gripping his stick, staring skeptically into the camera, leaning to the side of the net, Lester Patrick—with his New York Rangers sweater, surrounded by well-worn ice—would have looked out of place to any observer who knew that this was, in fact, the team’s head coach, recruited as a makeshift skater only after an eye injury knocked starting goaltender Lorne Chabot out of this 1928 Stanley Cup Final game against the Montreal Maroons.
Like all Finals games, this one was crucial. Two days earlier, the Rangers—now in their second full season, and yet to win a Stanley Cup in their brief history—had lost 2–0 to the Maroons and needed to rebound to make it a real series. Chabot’s injury threatened to throw that out the window. But Patrick, at first, wasn’t so concerned. In those days, it was customary for the opposing team’s alternate goaltender to step in to fill the void. Yet Maroons coach Eddie Gerard refused the suggestion. Why give up his own player to maybe lose such an important game? Find someone on your own team, he said.
Patrick was steamed, but he had to make a decision. He could dress one of his skaters as the goaltender and be down a defenseman or forward. Or he—the six-time Stanley Cup champion who had sometimes dabbled as a goaltender in practice—could strap on the pads and play himself. His players encouraged the idea. “You've done everything in hockey, and you're still in pretty good shape,” star forward Frank Boucher told him. “You can go in there yourself. We won't let them get a good shot at you."
Anxiously, Patrick got dressed and skated into the Rangers defensive zone. The game was scoreless. And it was barely half over.
We shouldn't expect to see New York’s current head coach, David Quinn, in the goaltender role any time soon; those Old Time Hockey days are long gone in our hyper-professionalized environment. But like Patrick, Quinn is focused on the importance of fulfilling crucial responsibilities, which is a sensibility he is now tasked with imparting on this young Rangers team.
Quinn is big on practice, which is exactly what he was hired for: to instill fundamentals and hold individuals accountable. In November, following an embarrassing 7–5 loss to the New York Islanders—the 12th Rangers defeat by their cross-town rivals in 13 games—he cracked the whip with an intensive all-day practice at the team’s Madison Square Garden training facility. Quinn drilled his forwards and defensemen on rudimentary skills, like how to buzz past opponents in tight areas and how to lift opposing players’ sticks to prevent goals and passing. Communication was key. In a moment of confusion on the ice, he yelled out: “It’s too quiet! Let’s take out the uncertainty.” They won their next three games.
But practice doesn’t always make perfect. After another skid in December in which the Rangers lost three straight, Quinn again oversaw a hard-driving practice session—but this time it was followed by five losses in the next seven games. The coach isn’t naive; he understands he’s not always getting his point across. Asked last week if he felt that practice was translating productively into strong games, he bluntly said no. But what’s the alternative, to minimize training? “I think my job is to find out how hard they can do it,” Quinn told the New York Post. He doesn’t like that the NHL is becoming “a no-practice league.” It doesn’t sit well with his college-coaching pedigree. At Boston University, where he was head coach for five years, he was tasked with teaching above all. So even today, he emphasizes his commitment to hammering a sense of responsibility into his team, at practice and elsewhere.
Here’s another thing about Quinn: he’s not afraid to bench or scratch his best players. Lias Andersson, Brady Skjei, Kevin Shattenkirk—they have all, at one point or another, been set aside for poor play or a lack of engagement. The specific situations have varied. Skjei’s mind sometimes wanders and he can commit foolish defensive errors; Anderson, who’s 20, often plays too green, with too loose a grip on the game. As for Shattenkirk, when he was benched for the entire third period during a November game against the Ottawa Senators, coach Quinn said the reason was “between Kevin and I.’’
Quinn likes to emphasize that these are not punishments. They’re just meant to force a player to press pause and reflect for a moment. “I think Lias needs to take a step back and we need to help him become a better player.” Skjei’s “a really good player having a little bit of a struggle. He’s going to get right back in there and we’re going to get this right.” And Shattenkirk—whom Quinn coached at Boston University between 2008 and 2010—just needed a gentle reminder about his outsize importance to the team. “It’s water under the bridge,” Shattenkirk said afterwards.
That’s an important point: as demanding as Quinn can be, he works hard to imbue his players with a sense of confidence. He’s a far cry from Mike Keenan, the oppressive Rangers bench boss who practically bullied the 1994 team to a Stanley Cup. Quinn’s style is gentler, more supportive, more paternal, less about today than about tomorrow. His job is to nurture and guide, rather than to produce immediate results. And the surest way to grow this team is to inspire them to play as well as they can for one another. Are his expectations too high? He doesn’t think so. “My job is to push them as hard as I can,” he told Larry Brooks, “and find out how consistent they can be with their physical and mental effort.” That’s this coach’s role: to spark fire.
On that April day in 1928, Lester Patrick, our wizened goalie, faced 19 shots by Maroons players in a mostly scoreless game. That changed in the third period when Rangers right wing Bill Cook chipped a shot past the Maroons defense and made it a 1–0 game. But Montreal rallied. In the Rangers defensive zone, a slow-rolling puck pushed ahead by Nels Stewart sneaked between Patrick’s pads and into the net to tie the game and send it into sudden death overtime. New York held its breath for seven minutes until Frank Boucher found a way to fire a shot past Maroons goalie Clint Benedict for the 2–1 win. Now the series was tied at a game apiece.
We can imagine the quizzical celebration in the Rangers locker room afterwards. Here he was, Lester Patrick, nearing 45 years old and not only a winning coach, but a winning goaltender too. It was a perfect picture of leading by example, of encouraging dedication by showing precisely what it looks like. There’s a lot Quinn can draw from here, especially considering how sweetly the story ends: one week after Patrick’s heroics, the Rangers went back to the Montreal Forum and beat the Maroons to capture their first-ever Stanley Cup—this time with a dedicated backup goalie.