Most so-called experts picked the Arizona Coyotes to finish near the bottom of the pack this season, but a funny thing happened on the way to the Cup. Instead of being basement dwellers, Instead, Arizona is right in the thick of things.
The Coyotes are led by Rick Tocchet, and if you ask one of his former teammates, the Yotes have the right man for the job.
Jeremy Roenick played with Tocchet as members of the Phoenix Coyotes and the Philadelphia Flyers. Tocchet was a firecracker on the ice and now he brings that same passion and drive to coaching. His old pal has noticed.
“There can’t be a better guy to run that team than Rick Tocchet because that team needs to have discipline, they need to have grit, they need to have a system, and they need to be accountable,” Roenick told The Hockey Writers in an exclusive interview. “Rick Tocchet makes people accountable for how they play.”
Arizona has taken on Tocchet’s never-say-die attitude this season. The Cardiac Coyotes have thrilled fans with several comebacks, sometimes from huge deficits and other times with horn-beating shots. This club is exciting and their coach motivates them to be so. But, it is not easy.
“I know he’s got it tough,” Roenick said. “He doesn’t have any superstars. He has his work cut out for him. They have to win with work and they have to win with defense. ‘Toch’ is just one of those guys who does not accept mediocrity. He didn’t when he played and he doesn’t when he coaches.”
The Coyotes have responded. While talent-rich teams like the Vegas Golden Knights and St. Louis Blues are up to their winning ways, Tocchet’s crew is right there with them. With the season a third of the way gone already, there’s no reason to think Arizona can’t stay relevant all the way through.
Teaching New Pups Old Tricks
“The only problem is, it’s a different league now,” Roenick said. “It’s a different world. He’s coaching kids that if you raise your voice to them, they turn their back on you. If you raise your voice to kids today, they whine and cry and think you don’t like them, so they turn on you. They stop playing. They bitch and whine.”
That hasn’t been the case so far in the desert. Players seem to play for Tocchet and that’s saying something. The old-school coach is getting the best out of a roster filled with different personalities. Perhaps these Yotes appreciate his honesty and transparency.
“Toch is an in-your-face, honest guy who wants you to be accountable,” said Roenick. “He’s going to be honest with you. He’s going to have your back. But you better have his.” So far they have.
Just this week, the Coyotes overcame a three-goal deficit to shock the Anaheim Ducks. They enjoyed the dramatics so much, they did the same thing to the Ducks two nights later. Earlier this month, Arizona forced overtime in dramatic fashion with a goal that went in with less than a second to go against St. Louis. The Coyotes went on to top the Blues in a shootout. This team has been exciting. They’ve been vintage ‘Toch Guys’ even though this NHL is a lot different from when their coach played.
“I think there’s a lot of players that are ‘me, me, me’, I want my ice time or I want my cookies or you’re not treating me right or I’m tired,” said Roenick. “That’s not Rick Tocchet’s style.”
No it isn’t. His style, which earned him a Cup as a player and two more as an assistant coach, is all about winning and playing the right way. When players buy into that approach, a team can become dangerous. Right now, the Coyotes are exactly that.
Proving It on the Ice
“He got them to the playoffs last year and they won a series,” said Roenick. “If that doesn’t tell you that Rick Tocchet is a high-quality coach, I don’t know what does. I thought he should have been up for coach of the year last year.” If the Coyotes keep winning, Tocchet may just have a shot at the Jack Adams Award this season.
“They don’t come tougher,” Roenick said. “They don’t come more accountable than Rick Tocchet in my opinion.” That opinion is shared by many.
Tocchet has not only been masterful with on-ice decisions, seemingly pushing the right buttons at all times this year, but he’s been just as keen with his approach to individual players, an art form that is necessary in today’s sports world.
During press conferences, Tocchet is always professional and thoughtful, but he is is often also raw and brutally honest. He heaps the praise on his guys, but he also calls them out when need be. When speaking about Phil Kessel this season, Tocchet once quipped that he’s a good hockey player “when he wants to be”. A weak-minded man may go into a shell. Kessel seems to instead appreciate the feedback. Known for his quirkiness, Kessel seems to always have a hot streak following a Tocchet critique. This coach knows how to motivate.
In the past, we’ve witnessed great coaches in many sports use unique tactics to get their teams going. From Phil Jackson’s Zen in the NBA to Billy Martin’s outspokenness in the Bronx, we’ve seen our share of success from men unafraid to be themselves. Tough guys can win, too. Mike Ditka proved that. In hockey, Mike Keenan showed all of us that tough guys can finish first. These men, of course, all had very talented rosters when they reached the mountaintop. As Roenick mentioned, Tocchet doesn’t have the top roster in the league, but he seems to be getting top effort out of the players he does have.
There is plenty of reason for optimism in Arizona. Get in the playoffs, get a hot goalie going, and who knows how far you may go. After all, several No. 8 seeds have made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before. The Los Angeles Kings won it all in 2012 from that spot. So, go ahead Arizona. You know you want to ask that question. Why not us? It’s hard to argue with that mindset. The leader of this pack knows a thing or two about winning.