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Book review: Craig Custance’s Behind the Bench

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From a juicy afternoon with John Tortorella to a quiet morning with Mike Babcock, this is a rare glimpse into the lives of coaches who usually play reporters far too well.

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Tampa Bay Lightning v Washington Capitals Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

Coaches in the National Hockey League aren’t known for their outgoing personalities. Nor do they tend to like to talk about their successes and strategies. So a book sold on the idea of a writer talking to coaches, many of them still working in the NHL, could have been a disaster of boredom and cliches.

Luckily, Craig Custance’s first book, Behind the Bench: Inside the Minds of Hockey’s Greatest Coaches (2017, Triumph Books) was able to navigate the rote response minefield and provide a highly entertaining read.

Custance, former reporter for ESPN.com and current Editor in Chief of The Atlantic Detroit, could have picked up his phone or scheduled interviews with these coaches and gleaned enough information out of them to compile a hockey book.

It would have been fine, but most likely filled with the usual coach-speak about “working hard” and “taking care of the players”. Custance’s approach was different. Instead of just interviewing the coaches, he sat down with them and watched the games he deemed each coaches’ “crowning achievements, their signature games”, and had a conversation while the games played.

What resulted was not only a look into how these coaches think, but also into different aspects of their personalities. Whether it’s Mike Babcock jotting down notes to use for future teaching sessions, Joel Quenneville griping about officiating six years after it happened, or John Tortorella dropping more f-bombs than a Martin Scorsese movie, Custance was able to crack open the mind of the person behind the coach.

In case you were wondering, the ten coaches and ten games discussed are (in order):

  • Dan Bylsma - Game 7 2009 Stanley Cup Final
  • Ron Wilson - Gold Medal Game of the 2010 Olympics
  • Mike Babcock - also the Gold Medal Game of the 2010 Olympics
  • Bob Hartley - Game 7 2001 Stanley Cup Final
  • Todd McLellan - Gold Medal Game of the 2015 World Championships
  • Mike Sullivan - Game 6 of the 2016 Stanley Cup Final
  • John Tortorella - Game 7 of the 2004 Stanley Cup Final (no surprise)
  • Joel Quenneville - Game 6 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Final
  • Ken Hitchcock - Game 6 of the 1999 Stanley Cup Final
  • Claude Julien - Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final

The chapter that would interest Lightning fans the most is the one about Tortorella, a part of the book that he shares with long-time assistant and friend, Mike Sullivan.

It’s the only portion of the book that has Custance sitting down with two coaches at once. It was done at the suggestion of Tortorella, and it works. With his good friend Sullivan in the same room, the Tortorella that Custance talks to was way more open and thoughtful than the brusque, sometimes confrontational coach that is the star of hundreds of YouTube clips.

As they watched the game, the philosophy of John Tortorella slowly emerged, one curse word at a time. Most fans, especially Lightning fans, know that he was demanding of his players (there was a reason that training camp was known as “Camp Torture-ella” when he was in charge) but with Custance he went into why he pushed his players so ruthlessly and seemed so combative.

Custance wrote, “He [Tortorella] embraces the conflict. He sees issues as coaching opportunities. Conflict in a Tortorella dressing room is not only welcome, it’s necessary. If there is conflict, that means problems are being solved.”

One of the biggest conflicts came with Vincent Lecavalier. Lightning fans know that their franchise player and the head coach didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Yet, they might be surprised how high the tension between the two escalated.

Stanley Cup Finals: Lightning v Flames Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Custance also filled in details by speaking with players who were coached by Tortorella and the other gentlemen in the book. For the Lightning, Brad Richards and Ruslan Fedotenko shared their experiences about the fiery head coach and what they learned from him. As the author pointed out, for a coach that had supposedly had problems with his a players, a fair number of them went on to join him in New York.

Another personality trait that emerged during the discussion was Tortorella’s honesty, not only with those around him, but with himself. He admitted he deserved to be fired from Vancouver. He admitted that he pushed players too far and make mistakes. He is extremely embarrassed about the confrontation he had with the Flames while coaching the Canucks.

Tortorella knew that his desire to be truthful and “non-political” made his life harder: “Ninety percent of the time, the way things are handled, honestly it’s really good. But that 10 percent just takes over. It turns into a clusterf**k. It becomes about me. If you knew me, it is the last thing I want.”

Torts revealed that he is surprisingly open to analytics, much to the disgust of the fourth hockey person who is in the room with Custance, Sullivan and Tortorella. The reason Tortorella gave for not rejecting a newer look at hockey isn’t surprising. He just wants to win, and if the numbers help with that, then they are welcome.

It’s easy to think that the men interviewed have done nothing but enjoy success. After all, with the exception of Ron Wilson, the coaches are all reliving the highlights of their coaching career.

Yet Custance was careful to remind the readers that all ten of the men that he spoke with have had adversity in their life. They’ve all been fired from one job or another. They’ve all had to make tough decisions, whether it’s Ken Hitchcock deciding to leave the comforts of being a big name coach in a small town, or Bob Hartley leaving a full-time job at a factory for $250.00 and two new suits to take a job coaching a Junior A team in Hawkesbury.

Custance did a worthy job of showing that there wasn’t one way to be a leader in the NHL or in life. All ten of the coaches took different approaches to their success, whether it’s Quenneville's quiet support of his players, or Tortorella’s fire-and-brimstone approach. They all made it, one way or another. And they all really, really love players who worked much harder than their natural ability.

Custance included enough behind-the-scenes stories (let's face it everyone loves stories) that the casual hockey fan will thoroughly enjoy reading the book. Who doesn’t want to know which player Ron Wilson refers to as “impossible to talk to” (take a guess), or what Joel Quenneville did for Pavol Demitra that cost his owners a sizable chunk of money?

Not only was it a fantastic look into the minds of hockey coaches, Custance included personal moments that it’s clear a memoir devoted entirely to his experiences as an NHL writer would be entertaining as well. From last-minute downloads to forgotten digital recorders and temperamental RVs, he showed that life on the road wasn’t exactly as glamorous as readers might think.

Should a hockey fan buy this book? Yes. Undoubtedly. More important, should a Lightning fan buy this book? Yes.

Craig Custance will appear on Charged Up: A Raw Charge Podcast on Monday.