Canucks’ Rick Tocchet winning off the ice as well as on it
1 month ago
Vancouver isn’t the easiest hockey market at the best of times. It takes a certain type of person to really understand this market and excel in it, if we’re being honest with each other.
Remember Roberto Luongo when he first joined the team? Ripped out of the calm gentle womb of Florida, where a report on a ten game losing streak would be tucked right under the two for one falafel coupon in the middle of the paper? His eyes couldn’t have been more shell-shocked when he arrived at his first press conference, the entire weight of a city already on his shoulders. It wasn’t a matter of if the Canucks were going to win a Stanley Cup with him, it was a matter of when they were going to win it, at least according to the fan base (and Dave Nonis).
And you could see him trying to adjust to a market that demanded to know everything. When was the new contract coming? When was the team going to become elite? What was his favorite coffee hangout? He could barely mumble out his answers before another question was being fired his way.
He struggled handling media under the bright lights of Vancouver early on, he really did. It felt like it got downright combative at times, with Luongo coming off as guarded in many interviews. The culmination of this battle was at its height during the 2011 run where talk of pumping tires became almost bigger than the action on the ice.
Honestly, you wouldn’t have blamed him if he had just kept his head down and remained withdrawn the rest of his run here. I can think of few places that are harder to carve out a hockey career than Vancouver. You either die a hero here or live long enough to become a villain in most cases.
But somewhere along the way he figured this market out…by having his burner Twitter account exposed. Which to his credit, once it was out there and people loved it, he realized he could let loose and have fun with things, even at the darkest of times. Because if there is one thing this market appreciates more than anything, it’s trying to laugh through all the constant gloom and rain that seems to follow our city around.
And by doing so, he realized that honesty, humor and humility is the key to surviving the rough waters of Vancouver. That as much as this market can bring you down, if they embrace you, oh my goodness, you get the kind of hero worship that Aquaman is still looking for to this day.
Which brings us all the way back to Rick Tocchet.
If you can come up with a harder way to bring a coach into this market, I’d like to hear it. The only one that comes reasonably close was Mike Keenan’s arrival, but that was a very different vibe. That was as if Luke Skywalker decided to mentor under Darth Vader because The Empire had recently won a Stanley Cup against the rebel alliance, so surely they’d be the best person to learn under. “Luke, he’s not just your father, he’s your coach now!” doesn’t really bring up the most positive frames of mind.
No, Rick Tocchet truly was brought in to be Jim Rutherford and Patrik Allvin’s person, the coach that was going to help turn things around for the better. The only problem was Bruce Boudreau, the guy brought in when the old management was canned, caught fire with the city. He did this with, and say it with me now, honesty, humor and humility. For the wrestling fans out there picture a sledgehammer that doles out hugs instead of head shots, and you have the HHH strategy of how to run things in Vancouver.
It got to the point where if Allvin and Rutherford wanted to bring Rick aboard, he would be doing so at the cost of a coach who had become a lone bright spot amongst many years of misery. The Canucks were still going to miss the playoffs, but Boudreau was providing entertaining hockey and his personality was a breath of fresh air for a market that had endured Travis Green’s chess matches with engaging personality.
We all know how the story played out, but to quickly summarize it, the way Boudreau left town saw him as a hero being exiled, with the current management firmly playing the role of Sauron. National media couldn’t help but talk about a city defending “their guy” as he was pushed out of town, making the entrance for Rick Tocchet a bumpy one to say the least.
Hey Rick, want to replace a super popular coach and try to implement your system so you can hit the ground running next year, but by doing so, grind out wins in a season in which doing so pushes you further away from Connor Bedard? No problem, right? Sitting at that nice job with TNT would have been the far easier choice. But that’s what we’re finding out about Tocchet, the guy isn’t afraid to take anything straight on. The way he played on the ice certainly seems to mirror his approach off of it.
And fast forward a year and one thing has become crystal clear: Rick Tocchet has more than been up for the challenge. Hell, he’s excelling in it.
Obviously winning sells in any market, so the Canucks hot start makes everything look better. But beyond the wins we are seeing a coach who is willing to be open and honest with his responses about his team. He isn’t giving cliché answers meant to keep up a veil of secrecy, he actually feels like he’s giving his actual insight into the game of hockey. Whether it was his training on TNT or its just a natural part of his personality, the way he fields questions feels like he’s got nothing to hide. Again, the worst thing you can do in this market is push back on the fan base, and try and put up a shield in front of you. There is almost a Vancouver thing to needle anyone who appears to be defensive, it’s just who we are. When the losses pile up and you’re pretending everything is aces, that’s when you’re going to find yourself swarmed in this city. It’s something the owner still hasn’t quite figured out, that if you’re open and honest about the issues at hand, people in this town are more than willing to cut you some slack.
A great example of this is the Canucks play in their early losses this season. Rather than give the old “a couple of bounces here or there and we have it” Tocchet looked openly disappointed in how the Canucks had played. He talked about being disappointed in the soft play he saw from his team.
Now, this is where I was truly surprised by Rick Tocchet. This is where the light bulb turned on in my head and I firmly jumped on board the Rick hype train. You see, being called “soft” in hockey can be a death sentence, especially to old school folks. Don Cherry spent a career making “soft” a word that could end a career. So when Rick called the team soft, it truly did bring a certain image to mind.
So what did Rick do that surprised me? A guy who has the most career Gordie Howe hat tricks of any other player in league history, a guy who has a resume that would easily give him the credibility to label what’s soft and what’s not…walked things back. He clarified things.
No, he doesn’t need his players to drop the gloves and throw huge hits. He doesn’t need them drinking beer during intermission, smoking cigarettes and planning how to run a player from behind without getting penalized. He simply needs players to skate hard, and be willing to battle for pucks. To out-work the other team. You don’t need to go full Raffi Torres on the ice, you just need to aspire to have the work ethic of a Sedin.
And it’s hard to argue that Rick Tocchet hasn’t brought a structure and work ethic to this team that it has been sorely lacking in years past. Say what you will about hot starts, but within these first eight games, the Canucks overall support of the puck all over the ice has never looked tighter. Almost like a playoff game, for those who enjoy tweets from the owner. For all the fun we had with Bruce Boudreau, it truly felt like your fun uncle was staying with you for a while, which meant there were no real house rules. The start to this season of hockey under Rick Tocchet truly feels different from anything we’ve seen in the last eight years, from the action on the ice to the coaching off of it.
And it’s not just how Tocchet handles the questions about hockey, it’s the tough conversations he’s able to have about stuff off the ice as well. The horrible tragedy of Adam Johnson’s passing is generating a lot of discussion about safety in hockey, and rightly so. You might think an old school guy like Tocchet might limit his conversation on topics such as a player passing away due to an injury sustained in a game that wasn’t even in the NHL. Instead, he leaned into the idea of making rule changes to protect players. About getting support when you’re sad. He even opened up and talked about how he doesn’t like to be alone when he’s grieving, smashing down that kind of antiquated myth of the macho energy of men having to soldier on without asking for help.
All in all, it was one of the most open and honest modern takes on life from an NHL coach I have ever seen. The easiest thing to do would be to see how Tocchet played the game of hockey and assume that’s how he would coach, but instead we’re seeing a coach perfectly positioned to lead men in the game of hockey in 2023.
We still have no idea how this season is going to play out. If the team loses every single game from here on out, Tocchet won’t get the accolades, and people will start theory crafting the next coach, and planning the next management regime.
But even if this team lost every game, you get the feeling Rich Tocchet won’t change his approach. He will stand in from of the media. He will field their questions. And he will answer honestly, and with a vulnerability not often showcased in hockey.
For a franchise looking for leaders and trying to find people to help lead them to better horizons, it truly feels like the Canucks couldn’t have chosen a better person than Rick Tocchet.
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